Crushing deployment tempo takes toll on troops, families
By David Larter
The Navy chief trudged home to his wife with bad news — and he knew it would not go over well.
After four deployments in five years, he was making one more.
The chief had been on four deployments with his last two commands, which included the heavily deployed aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. Now he was assigned for a year to a cruiser out of San Diego, a short tour that his detailer and the boat’s top enlisted leader had assured him would not include another deployment. Then things changed. Maintenance problems, budget cuts and manning shortfalls have played hell with Navy schedules. Ships have been forced to make often unplanned and ever-longer deployments as the service tries to catch up. One ship wasn’t ready, so the chief’s ship got the call.
“I came home, my wife came back from work and the first thing I said was, ‘Honey, I want to sit down and talk about something,’ ” said the chief, who asked that his name not be used. “And she knew immediately: ‘You’re going, aren’t you?’ ” He had told his wife what he’d been told — that he wasn’t making anymore deployments, that the billet he signed up for was short-term. Coming up on the 20-year retirement mark, he had assured her that his days of deploying were over.
“She was kind of left holding the ‘Well, I thought’ bag,” he said. “And that bag gets heavy real quick. That’s when things get bad … angry tears; spiteful words. She’ll say, ‘You said this and you said that,’ and what am I supposed to say? That’s the way it was supposed to be, and now it’s not.”
Thirteen years of high-intensity ground wars comes to a close in December. But many troops across the force are still grinding like it’s 2009. Individuals are seeing little, if any, decline in the overall operational tempo. And with budgets and force size shrinking, many service members say they are doing the same amount of work with fewer people and less money.
Op tempo trending up
Despite the postwar drawdowns, about half the force says unit operational tempo has increased over the past five years. According to a Military Times survey of almost 2,300 active-duty troops, 49 percent say their unit’s op tempo is up “significantly” or “somewhat.”
About 38 percent say it’s unchanged and about 14 percent say they feel less busy compared with five years ago, when deployments for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan peaked.
No single overseas operation consumes today’s force — yet new and disparate missions continue worldwide. The newly named Operation Inherent Resolve that is drawing the U.S. military back into Iraq is only the latest example.
Thousands of soldiers are deploying to West Africa to help fight Ebola. And thousands more are operating in and around Eastern Europe in an effort to deter Russian military aggression.
Supporting the relatively small number of boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to require massive support operations from troops in other parts of the U.S. Central Command region. And the Pentagon brass are not giving up on their 2012 plans to “pivot” the national security strategy to the Asia-Pacific region, where all four services are doing more low-intensity operations that keep the U.S. force present and training with allies in the region.
For the Navy chief, and tens of thousands of service members like him, the end of the war in Iraq and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan have offered no respite from difficult conversations at the kitchen table about yet another deployment.
Providing ‘unique capabilities’
Faced with a growing array of disparate assignments, many troops feel a sense of forcewide mission creep that creates a sometimes tenuous link between their traditional training and the missions the military is undertaking.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directly addressed that on a recent trip to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when he spoke to soldiers getting ready to deploy to West Africa in support of the mission to help contain the Ebola virus.
“I know the question is obvious: What is our military doing involved in a mission like Ebola? And it’s a legitimate question,”Hagelsaidon Nov. 17 in a town hall setting before any soldier had raised the issue.
“But you all understand the perils, the threats, the challenges that face our country. … The challenges and threats that face our country in the world today are not just from Islamic fundamentalists or from terrorists. Yes, that’s a real threat. That’s a threat we are dealing with,” Hagel said. “But pandemic health diseases and pandemic health threats threaten the world. Ebola is part of that overall scope of threats.”
Spec ops running hard
The end of the major combat operations and a shift to nontraditional missions are placing new and unique pressure on the special operations community. While the Pentagon’s planners are studiously avoiding large-scale deployments of ground troops, the small teams of highly skilled men, including Army Special Forces, Navy SEALS and others, are working harder than ever.
“We’re very exhausted from a very high ops tempo,” said an Air Force lieutenant colonel, who now serves as a doctor with the special operations forces.
He fears that 13 years of breakneck pace has worn down the nation’s elite forces. “Special operations is for limited scope, limited time, high-threat, high-risk activities, but not repeated deployments over and over. And that’s how we’re being used,” he said.
Today, special operations troops make up a large percentage of the dwindling number of U.S personnel on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are also deployed in dozens of other countries, many in operations that are classified.
The doctor worries that if special operations forces are ground down and decide to leave the service, it’s going to be incredibly tough to replace those highly trained troops.
More work, fewer people
The end of the wars, combined with mounting pressure on the Pentagon’s budget, is forcing the military to make steep reductions in the size of the force. The Air Force is cutting 20,000 airmen this year. The Marines are whittling an end strength north of 200,000 down to 174,000 by 2017. The Army has shed more than 60,000 soldiers since it began a drawdown in 2010 and as many as in recent years and faces the possibility of losing 80,000 more by the end of the decade.
As one Air Force captain in the security forces put it: “The overall mission doesn’t change, but the resources you have to accomplish thatmissionjustkeepsshrinking.”
An Air Force tech sergeant told Military Times that cuts have cut his unit from 10 airmen to eight, with two more deploying this year. That means his airmen pull 60hour work weeks to catch up, which has eaten into morale.
For the Army and Marine Corps, the force structure that expanded during wartime is now contracting, leaving plenty or work for those who remain.
And while large-scale deployments have slowed, many soldiers feel just as busy as they support smaller missions and catch up on training that was delayed at the peak of the wars.
Specific communities are seeing demand for their skills continue to soar. For example, aircraft mechanics have been especially hard hit. Commanders’ need for deployed aircraft has changed very little as new missions continue to require mobility and a steady flow of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.
Faced with an aging fleet, thousands of men and women from all four services who are tasked with maintaining aircraft are working overtime to keep planes and helicopters in the air. Today’s force is more highly specialized than ever, and those specialty skills are in near-continuous demand. The force’s corps of explosive ordinance disposal units are often tapped to train allied militaries. Intelligence professionals struggle to keep up with the new data that flows in every day.
In October, the Army summoned hundreds of combat engineers to deploy to West Africa to fight Ebola. And senior leaders feared that the active component might not be able to handle the first-of-its kind mission, prompting President Obama to authorize mobilization of the National Guard and reserves if needed.
Many service members watch with alarm as the new mission in Iraq is expanding incrementally, most recently on Nov. 7 when Obama doubled the number of troops authorized to deploy there to a total of 3,000.
“Wearesotired,”saidanaviation machinist mate from California. “It’s kind of a punch in the gut. I’m going back to sea duty and it’s really disappointing that we are going back to Iraq and Syria. I foresee a lot of time away from my family.” N
Staff writers Andrew Tilghman, Stephen Losey, Michelle Tan and Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this story.