Why Is Getting Out of the U.S. Army So Tough?

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Ryan Kristiansen with a Warrior recovery vehicle

Awhile back, there was a post here on Battleland featuring U.S. Army Private Daniel Houten, who was contrasting his service in the Israeli Defense Forces with that of the U.S. Army. Private Houten stated that he feels the U.S. Army is the best in the world. Largest, perhaps, but best? That is a judgment call, and having served in the U.S. Army Reserve, the Royal Naval Reserve, and now — as a commissioned army officer in the United Kingdom — I would beg to differ with Private Houten’s assessment.

My relationship with the U.S. Army was brief, profoundly disappointing and frustrating. What I witnessed is an Army that, instead of welcoming new soldiers and developing a true esprit de corps, treats new recruits harshly, almost like prisoners. In fact, I was informed by one member of my company who had served time that prison was actually more welcoming than the U.S. Army.

I quickly resolved that I wanted out, and informed my drill sergeant that I would like a separation. His response was that I should begin purposely “messing up” so that they could kick me out. This situation was bizarre in the extreme – both parties knew that the other was not a good fit, but legally there was no mechanism in place for the Army or myself to annul the enlistment contract.

Men and women of the U.S. armed forces sign an enlistment contract that binds them to service, generally for eight years. Unlike your average job contract however, this one gives the employer significantly more control over your working life. This contract, binding the service member to the armed forces under threat of imprisonment, is understood as necessary in order to ensure that military can reliably count on the majority of its members being deployable in the event of a national emergency:

Imagine a situation where it is expected to encounter an enemy force numbering 50,000. The army looks at its available divisions, and decides to deploy 100,000 members to counter this force. The only problem is, once the troops receive their orders a number of them decide that fighting for an obscure foreign-policy reason isn’t sufficiently motivating, and decide to sit this one out. Thus, on the day the troops are to deploy, only 65,000 are ready, forcing the previous tactical considerations out the window.

If there was no threat of repercussions then a great number of individuals would choose desertion if called upon to deploy into a combat zone.

But how binding should this contract be?

Is it reasonable to expect that all 17-year-olds who enlist in the Delayed Entry Program will be equally enthralled with military life after they have had a taste of it? Remember, until they begin their Initial Military Training, their main contact with the military has been via their recruiter, individuals who are trained by the military to sell their product, which is the military lifestyle.

Like their civilian HR counterparts, they sell the positive and exciting side of the job, and downplay the negative. The prospective recruit is likely to have come to the recruiter’s office after having watched a number of war films, in which the exploits of the soldier or seaman have been glorified and made heroic. Some of the selling work has already been done for the recruiter, thanks to Hollywood. The recruit’s expectations are high, and people outside of the military are often unaware of what the working environment is actually like in the service.

I already had several years of experience working with the U.K. military due to my involvement in the Army Cadet Force before I arrived at Fort Sill, Okla., to begin training, and I was still surprised at how different the U.S. military environment was. The average recruit straight out of high school has never had another job in his life. He has grown up in a relatively quiet neighbourhood, and enjoyed a loving, stable family life. What he is about to encounter may or may not be to his liking.

Firstly, I was surprised to find out that despite the fact that I had volunteered to join the Army, I was treated like a common criminal who was there only because the court had offered it as an alternative to going to jail. Secondly, I was surprised to learn that some of my battle buddies were, in fact, there because the alternative was jail.

Our platoon drill sergeant informed us shortly after arriving that “You were stupid enough to join, and now you will pay for it.” I was really beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Why would the experienced soldier that the Army has ordered to instil the service ethos and pride into us fresh recruits start off by informing us that we had all made a mistake?

As the weeks went by, a series of tasks was carried out, which were so clearly disconnected that it was obvious that the battery commander and his staff were running through a tick-sheet and checking off each task as it has been completed. Lessons in basic field-craft, such as cam and concealment, moving on foot, section battle drills and sleeping outdoors were absent. Tasks not carried out to the drill sergeant’s liking caused him to burst out that we recruits were stupid, and that we were all going to die in Afghanistan.

Along with several of my comrades, I began questioning whether or not we had made the right choice in joining the service. Not because I didn’t want to serve, but because the environment I was in lacked any sort of pride and was held together by fear and punishment. It didn’t help to ponder my decision, as there wasn’t a way out. The only option left was to continue to serve, bitter that my hands were tied and bitter at the Army.

A person in this situation is no longer concerned about his personal welfare. An accident may be welcomed, because it might mean he can escape the oppression that surrounds him. His attitude is now not just a threat to himself, but also to his battle buddies – if he is unconcerned about his own safety it can jeopardize the safety of others as well.

How many of us have been hired for a job that turned out to be very different from how we imagined? It’s usually not a problem, as  you can start looking for a new job right away. Or, if it is really not to your liking and you have sufficient funds, you can quit immediately and then start looking. But this option isn’t available to our young citizens who find that serving in the U.S. armed forces isn’t for them.

The time has come for the U.S. military to have a more flexible contract for our young soldiers. Society has changed radically since the terms of service in the armed forces were established. The British and Canadian armed forces show how the U.S. armed forces can adapt to make service life more of a lifestyle choice, and less a form of indentured servitude.

In Britain, a recruit may opt to be released within two weeks of beginning basic training. If he decides to continue with his service, he is then committed to serving for at least a year, after which he may submit a Notice to Terminate. If his request is accepted, they will normally be discharged within a year.

This program ensures that only those individuals who are motivated and desire to serve remain within the armed forces. Individuals who have lost that drive and pride and are bound to the service only by virtue of their contract cannot be expected to work to the best of their ability. They help contribute to a deterioration of the esprit de corps within their unit.

In the Canadian forces, individuals can choose which level of commitment they desire. they can choose only to drill, to be available for deployment across Canada, or chose to be available for deployment overseas. In both the British and Canadian examples, all service members are still required to report to duty if subject to call out, and face imprisonment if they fail to report for duty. In this way, the British and Canadians assist those individuals who want to leave by ensuring they have an opportunity to get out, while leaving motivated and proud soldiers surrounded by colleagues who embrace the same ethos.

When a soldier is forced to remain in service, unacceptable behaviour — such as drug and alcohol abuse — may be viewed as a way out. While usually successful in getting the soldier discharged, such behaviour invariably negatively impacts the soldier’s personal health and well-being, as well as the military’s preparation for war fighting.

The U.S. military should examine the possibility of allowing its service members an opportunity to terminate their contracts early. Such a change in policy would benefit the forces as a whole by keeping only those individuals who are motivated and contribute to the mission in a positive manner, while screening out those whose hearts are no longer in the mission.

Captain Ryan Kristiansen, MSc. is a native of Seattle who moved to the United Kingdom in 2004, returning briefly to the U.S. to undergo combat medic training in the U.S. Army Reserve in 2008. He is now a reserve officer in the British Army and, as a civilian, works as a hydrographic surveyor in the North Sea. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the British Army.