Soldier Sabbaticals

RAND sociologist (and my friend) Laura Miller argues in USA Today that the Army needs to embrace "sabbaticals" for its top performing officers. Year-long breaks would obviously give these officers a much-needed break from back-to-back-to-back deployment pace of the Army. But, more importantly, she writes that it would develop Army leaders with more depth and breadth, and possibly improve civil-military relations as well:

Immersion into a world of diverse civilians -- including current or future intellectual, financial, or political leaders of different nations -- would help prepare officers for future military interactions with coalition partners, relief workers and indigenous populations. These assignments could also promote a more seamless collaboration with American organizations in fields such as intelligence or law enforcement.

Although officers learn quite a bit "on the fly" in Iraq or Afghanistan, corporate or government sabbaticals could enhance skills required to stabilize and rebuild war-torn societies. They could gain expertise in areas such as law, banking, government, management, city planning, transportation, public policy, community policing and business administration.

Organizations with reputations for creativity and innovation would make ideal locations for officer assignments. After all, officers need to develop their cognitive muscles if we are to sustain a flexible, adaptive Army. Exposure to problem-solving frameworks, jargon and strategies of civilian leaders expands the officers' toolkit and counters Army "groupthink."

Civil-military relations could also benefit. Many of America's elite have little or no firsthand knowledge of today's military professional. At the same time, business leaders might appreciate sabbaticals as a means to offer tangible support for those who have served their nation.

It's a good idea. Like most good ideas, it has a cost: To make it work, the Army would have to expand the officer corps to create a manpower surplus. That would be expensive. And it would be difficult. It takes years to grow mid-ranking military officers, and the Army is already short on them.

The long-term return on investment would likely be significant, but also hard to quantify. We're talking about soft things like "a broader perspective" and "contacts in Washington."

That said, this is the kind of innovative thinking we need to strengthen the military officer corps, and I'd like to see something like this adopted. But with one friendly amendment -- we should broaden this to include senior sergeants and warrant officers as well.

By Phillip Carter |  May 7, 2008; 9:40 AM ET  | Category:  Army
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Bless their hearts ... I love the pluck shown by these analysts, but what planet are they living on WRT to our current officer personnel inventory?

We are in a manning crisis right now and they are proposing to pull more officers out of the over-stretched RA force with an incredibly shrinking Reserve Component to provide overwatch.

In principle, this is a GREAT idea - much the same as expanded graduate education for officers - I am 100% in favor ... but ... given these current shortfalls, we are at least 5+ years away from this fix even if the Army decided to bolster its officer corps tomorrow.

Again, for an pundits reading, the following facts pretty well torpedo this idea in the near/mid-term (that does not mean it lacks merit):

- 3,000+ RA officer shortfall

- We already have shown the need to compress promotion times to CPT and MAJ to surge what officers we have into thos key grades.

- Systemic shortfalls in certain individual branches (48% fill in transportation MAJs and 73% fill in MI)

- An active Reserve at 52% strength on CPTs and growing critical shortages at MAJ/LTC.

- A strategic reserve (IRR) that was squandered/chased away by the misguided 2004 IRR Recall.

- The Army's admitted inability to staff RA OCS, ROTC, ITB Primary Staff, CGSC, BOLC II and BOLCIII/OBC instructor billets from within its active duty ranks.

If we can's afford RA officers to serve as OCS TAC officers at Benning or to teach CGSC, "sabbaticals" are a long way off.

I'm waiting with baited breath to see how the Army will be able to deliver on its promise of funded graduate school for all the CPTs who stayed on for that option given a worsening personnel situation.

Civil-Military relations are vital. I believe that the shortest way to "get there" an improve them is to try to approximate the officer and enlisted recruiting pool/footprint we drew from even 20 years ago. I'm not sure how much outreach can be expected from a CPT returning from tour #3, doing 12 months Training with industry and trying to reacquaint with his/her family.

Posted by: IRR Soldier... | May 7, 2008 10:49 AM

Why limit it to officers?

Posted by: Andy | May 7, 2008 10:49 AM

First, you have to ask what the objective is. Do we want a nation-building force or a fighting force? Are we trying to develop renaissance men, or warriors?

Seems to me the capabilities you'd grow with these programs are those of a foreign service officer, not a soldier. Our soldiers are doing great as diplomats within the context of fighting this counterinsurgency. That's good, but that doesn't mean we actually need to USE them as the country's diplomats.

They're being great all-around counterinsurgents today, but for future wars, I worry more about technical proficiency, aggressiveness, speed, gut-level strength, and firm, decisive leadership.

This is supposed to be a military fighting force. And it's not incumbent upon the military members to improve civil-military relations -- in our society, civilians determine those things, and they can take the bull by the horns there.

Our soldiers have enough problems winning hearts and minds abroad, now they have to do it with their own fellow citizens?

Finally, her piece seems to assume the military is an isolated, neanderthal-filled group with no other communication or interaction with the outside world, as if they are from another planet and must be eased into civilization to get to know other life forms.

But it's certainly a very feel-good, touchy, non-warfighting way of looking at the world.

Posted by: rj | May 7, 2008 12:28 PM

rj: "First, you have to ask what the objective is. Do we want a nation-building force or a fighting force? Are we trying to develop renaissance men, or warriors?"

How about *soldiers*. We don't need warriors. And one of the things which soldiers find themselves doing, after the 'kill people and break things' period, is 'help people and build things'. Especially as the budget situation for the past couple of decades has been 'trillions for DoD, jack sh*t for capabilities elsewhere'.

Posted by: Barry | May 7, 2008 12:51 PM

"This is supposed to be a military fighting force. And it's not incumbent upon the military members to improve civil-military relations -- in our society, civilians determine those things, and they can take the bull by the horns there."


Your thoughts are a tired echo of the past ... and the kind of sclerotic thinking that got us "where we are."

It was the advocates of this leaner, meaner, combat-focused Army officer corps that gutted advanced civil schooling for officers in the late '80s/early '90s; eliminated language ability as an officer "skill" outside of the FAO and SF community and drastically scaled back Training With Industry. For good measure, they privatized many positions that brought our officer corps into regular interaction with the public - going so far as contracting out things like ROTC instruction.

I could go on but would waste my breath. The military has been the half of the equation straining "civil-military" relations over the last 20 years ... Vietnam ended a loong time ago. To be strong, ready and relevant the people's Army needs to connect with the people that raise and support it.

Your concern over needing "warriors" reveals just how far this cancerous thinking has spread.

Posted by: IRR Soldier ... | May 7, 2008 1:06 PM

Don't these programs already exist in some fashion? As I recall we had a Training With Industry program when I was on active duty. It focused mainly on people working in acquisition and the folks I knew that participated in it learned a lot and were probably better Program Managers later in their careers because of it.

I also believe that we've also sent some folks to Harvard and other leadership programs for 6 months or a year.

Posted by: RM | May 7, 2008 1:13 PM


Yes, we've had Training With Industry for decades right alongside Advanced Civil Schooling. The problem is that the allocation of slots has been slashed heavily since the mid-1980's. It's now a very rare program and a shadow of its former self. For example, my AOC 70H/B, will have no TWI starts next FY for its officers. This is unfortunate as the past TWI positions at the American Red Cross and WHO were value adds for our officers.

From what I recall hearing, Advanced Civil Schooling "starts" in 2005 for RA officers were about 1/4 of what they were in 1985 ... the very program that got GEN Odierno his Masters from NC State (one example of many).

As I alluded before, this belt-tightening and narrowing focus of what an officer "should" be exacerbated a trend where you created a climate that made folks feel that anything outside of a "muddy boots" assignment was not valuable for the Army.

Posted by: IRR Soldier ... | May 7, 2008 2:21 PM

IRR got it exactly right. The belief that the Army is only for ¨fighting and winning the nations wars¨ is part of the reason it tok us four years plus to figure out what we are doing in Iraq. And the thought that we will not be forced to deal with situations like Iraq in the future ignores historical trends. While the Army may not want to conduct COIN or other stability type operations, but unfortunately we have to play the cards we are dealt. The skills learned in a program like this are invaluable in dealing with the political and economic aspects of these types of operations. I would hope that such a program could be implemented as soon as practicable, and yes, it should be open to NCOs and WOs as well.

And to RJ, since Vietnam, the military has looked down its nose at the civilian world and as a result, has isolated itself culturally from the rest of the society. Such are the pitfalls of having a professional military. Such a cultural divide is dangerous and in this case is mostly the fault of the military itself. For the good of the country, that needs to change.

Posted by: DM Inf | May 7, 2008 5:43 PM

I think it would help retain good officers.

One of the strengths of the old British Empire for many years was the all round nature of their officers.

My Grandfather and Great-Grandfather were both Navel officers, but could also do advanced math, land surveying, good quality landscape paintings (intelligence gathering), were excellent seamen but also very good hunters on land, both with and without dogs or mounts.

My G-Grandfather was good enough to be assigned to take the future king hunting, in China, for a month.

My Grandfather spoke 6 languages fluently, including Mandarin Chinese. He ran a land based undercover naval mission at the opening of WWII on the border between France and Germany, and spoke the languages so well the Germans thought he was a French local.

My Grandfather was also an expert in munitions, and headed the British WWII mines and torpedo program.

They commanded squadrens and visited dignitaries and kings all over the world. They had the sort of contacts and understandings you can't just magic up after the fighting has started.

Ships calling in far of countries stayed longer than today. During the stay the officers invited locals on board to dine, and in exchange went ashore a lot and dined with locals of all stripes. This sort of continuous contact all over the world is what made the old RN a diplomatic force par none.

Also, the Navy's top officers were often on shore (on 1/2 pay) for months or years between commands. While some stayed home others spent that time abroad. This was a sort of sabbatical system by another name.

It is better to take some time out and get an education in another life roll, formal or informal, than to spend ones entire live inside the wire.

We need officers with depth and a wide range of skills and understandings. Having a sabbatical program would improve the current situation, especially if the secondary activity was a useful pursuit, not just sitting at home with the family or playing on the internet.

Not only would it help to retain some of the better brains in the officer core, but it would possibly encourage some of the better brains to consider becoming officers.

My own father, a product of the post WWII officer training in the UK, while still constrained by the limitations of serving in the army in post war Britten, still ended up looking after the game reserves of Kenya, teaching snow warfare in Norway, and yet had the time time to seriously pursue climbing, (he has a route or two named after him), sailing, (he as a cup or two named after him) and a family.

But my father got out at the age of 36, because the opportunity to advance in peace time was slow, and his brain and talents could be more productively used in private business. After leaving the service he taut him self another new skill set.

A sabbatical program would have probably kept him, with his brains and his talents, in the service.

I think a good sabbatical program should encourage or reward the participant for learning languages and useful real world skills.

Posted by: JamesM | May 7, 2008 6:59 PM

What we seem to be missing in this discussion is that we don't need senior officers trained in interaction with civilian industry. That only brings us a better relation with the MIC. What is needed are officers (1LT-MAJ)/Senior NCOs who are trained in the arts of governance from city to state level. We have many metrics to judge the rebuilding of a country after we break it, but no leaders or staff who properly understand how to employ assets and work with people to achieve those metrics. There is nothing in the Army's OBC, CCC, NCOES system that properly trains and prepares leaders at the brigade and below level to execute the rebulding tasks. Recurring, building block yearlong tours spent in civil government would expose and train the officers and NCOs who must execute the critical task of building and helping run a viable, trusted government that the populace has the confidence in that it will be fair and impartial in it's service to it's citizens. Before you poo-poo me on this, I've watched it for the past two years as a BN level O/C at one of the Army's dirt CTCs so I would think I can speak with some authority on this. This is not something we cannot afford to ignore or simply continue to believe that CA can handle this. To close with a quote from Dag Hammerskjold, second UN Secretary General that captures the whole paradox and only amplifies the need for leaders trained in civil governance... "peacekeeping is not a job for soldiers, but only soldiers can do it."


Posted by: M | May 7, 2008 9:05 PM


We already do this, at least in the CS/CSS realm. Training with industry and advanced schooling (grad school) are available. Now I will grant you that the opportunities are not nearly as widespread as they should be, and I would absolutely support their expansion into a program that was standardized and more a part the normal career progression. But the examples are there.


Posted by: IvyLeagueGrunt | May 7, 2008 11:39 PM

The programs may be existing on paper, but availability is scarce due to more important assignments. I had to leave the Army after 12 years to go to graduate school. I could spend the next 8 years rotating in and out of theater and have a little paycheck at the end, or I can get a degree and some useful experience now. An 18 month break is exactly what I need and there's no way for me to get it in the current system.

Posted by: jwin | May 8, 2008 11:57 AM

There is so little good strategic think at the highest levels of government that it makes me ill. The Army should be investing in Arabic linguists in a major way. The government should be investing in people to do Arab studies programs. There are only a handful of schools offering graduate studies in Arabic studies. UCLA, U of Texas, Cal Berkeley, U of Washington, U of Arizona, U of Utah, Washington (St. Louis), U of Miami, NYU, U of Michigan, Brandeis, Georgetown, Yale, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, U of Virginia, U of Chicago, Penn and Indiana. These are all top flight schools, how many graduates can they turn out in a year? 50? How many do we need? 5000?

Posted by: dan robinson | May 11, 2008 11:06 AM

Academics need to take sabbaticals to do their writing. Some of us can write, work and be multi tasked. Military officers can accept CONUS-based assignments like teaching at the academies, ROTC, train flight students, or other non-deploying tours. Want to be intellectually challenged? Apply for a White House Fellowship. A military major would not add much to a global corporation or a start up in terms of value anyway. The Marine Corps would not look at a "sabbatical" as career enhancing...even though it does assign a fast-tracking LtCol to RAND in Santa Monica every year. I happen to know three of the last five who happen to be CH46 helo pilots.

Posted by: QuangXPham | May 12, 2008 3:44 PM

Hey, Phil. Thanks for sharing part of the article.

The notion was to keep so many junior officers from leaving by offering them some guaranteed time stateside, expanding their skills, in exchange for some additional commitment. Better to lose them for just a year than to lose them forever. TWI (which I mention in the full op ed) has only 51 officers in it right now.

Although plenty of current soldiers like to think that the Army's history is nothing more than "fighting and winning wars," from day one there has always been a significant portion of time devoted other tasks.

Even within the basic "fighting and winning wars" mode, there is plenty to be learned, as in any organization or profession, by exchanges of ideas, strategies, leadership styles, new technologies, approaches to problem-solving, etc. It's certainly not an insult to suggest that someone try on a different hat for a while to gain insights into how they might do things better.

I agree wholeheartedly that these programs would benefit the NCO corps and warrant officers as well. TWI does include them, although at even smaller numbers than for officers. I just aimed this piece at junior officers because of the current difficulties retaining them.

As civilians play a considerable role in deciding the policy and budget and military missions, I would think soldiers would want to help create a realistic picture of the military and not just leave that impression up to the media to shape.

Any service that uses sabbaticals should make sure that they are challenging, skill developing assignments that ultimately are career-enhancing, and not just a waste of time or money.

Just a few thoughts. I enjoyed reading all the comments. Laura

Posted by: | May 12, 2008 5:00 PM

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