At Combat Outpost Aztec, the Company D (Dog Company) platoons of the Army's 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment spend eight hours a day patrolling the tough, rural roads of their palm grove-rich stretch of southeastern Baghdad. They search for militia thugs and keep an eye on the new civilian neighborhood watch patrols. Then, they have another eight hours a day of duty guarding the old meatpacking plant where they live. And in rare quiet hours, the soldiers have spent time literally counting sheep, in an effort to gauge local livestock health. Dog Company has been deployed for three of the past five years, with stints in Mosul and Germany, in addition to their time in Iraq. This kind of operational tempo, optempo in military parlance, has taken its toll throughout the armed forces. Capt. Doug Willig, the Dog Company commander, reports that of his six closest friends at West Point, five have left the military.
It's part of what commanders point to as a troubling loss of junior officers. By last year, for instance, 50 percent of the West Point class of 2001 had opted to leave the Army, up from 34 percent in 2006, when the class's five-year commitment was up, figures that were roughly similar for the class of 2000. In response, West Point offered the class of 2007 incentives such as graduate school and choice of post in exchange for extending service commitments by three years—35 percent have accepted.
As they grab lukewarm bottles of water from an overburdened cooler, some of the soldiers just back from patrol smoke and discuss whether they will get out of an Army that has lately gone to extraordinary lengths to fill its ranks, such as providing enlistment bonuses and waivers for past criminal behavior. Spc. Noel Gaulard II was the recipient of one of those waivers. "I'd had some prior police involvement, done some jail time, and I needed waivers to say that I would no longer do that, get all my fines paid, and sign a contract—it took about six months."...