How the military can retain its best & brightest.

Articles like this one, which recently appeared in Stars & Stripes, have been popping up frequently recently. The military is facing a MAJOR crisis: the best and brightest are choosing to leave the military, rather then making the military a career.

My husband and I know of only 4-5 friends who are staying in, which is a tiny number given that we have at least 40 friends who are eligible to get out or stay in right now. We are at the 10 year mark, so if people are staying in, it’s for life. If they are getting out, now is the time to do it. We haven’t accepted the department head bonus yet, either, because we are still talking it over.

While lots of people might scoff at the low retention rate, let me put it to you this way: almost all of our friends who are excellent leaders and would make excellent commanding officers ARE GETTING OUT. Those of us who are staying in are doing it for two reasons: 1. We are at a point where it would be a financial problem for their family if we got out –or– 2. We are staying due to a feeling of patriotic duty. Few of our friends like being in the military due to social issues inside the military, the deployment schedule, and the constant threat of our benefits and pensions being taken away. Most of our friends will earn two to three times more money in the airlines then they do in the military, so why stay? Plus, they look ahead to the hardship of command, and they see everything that the military is doing wrong. They don’t see a point in staying. I don’t blame them.

So, with all of that said, I have a few suggestions for improving the retention rate of the best and brightest military personnel. Not everyone is going to agree with me, but these are points that *I* think should be changed:

– reward top performers with more career options. My husband’s ONLY option for a job well done is to become a squadron commanding officer and progress to CAG, Admiral, etc. This is a long road, full of at least 8 – 10 more long deployments and a low quality of family life. The military uses a funnel system, where there is only one option at the end of the funnel for all the top performers. What if a top performer would LOVE to become a military attache? Or, would like to be the commanding officer of a non-deploying squadron, such as a training squadron (this only comes after one does a sea duty commanding officer position)? Or, what if a top jet pilot wants to change planes? If my husband were to take a job that is slightly off-track from the F-18 command track (any of the jobs that I just listed), the off-track job is considered a career-ender and he might have to get-out of the military before 20 years, regardless of his outstanding performance on the job. My point is this — the “best” jobs in the Navy have the poorest quality of family life. If you want the best people, you need to give the best people more options. If you give the best people more options, more people will stay and you are able to retain more of the best people. If you retain more of the best people, then it shouldn’t be a problem keeping a lot of top performers on the commanding officer track. If the Navy were to allow some of us to detour to different jobs in favor of a better quality of family life, more people would stay. MORE PEOPLE WOULD STAY. Shall I say it again?

– reward top performers by allowing them to retire from jobs that they enjoy. In many other countries (the UK and Australia, for example), top performers are allowed to become “lifer” O-3s and O-4s. They would progress as normal to those ranks, but they opt to stay at that rank until retirement. Their pension would be very small once they retired, but for single adults or people why simply LOVE doing what they do, it’s a wonderful opportunity. This sounds like it would create a sluggish situation, but I don’t think that would actually happen because it could be a competitive situation where the service member would have to, say, maintain in the top 20% on their fit reps in order to stay at that rank. I know that many foreign service members really like having that option. I also think that the military would benefit by maintaining people in those positions who are really, really good at their job.

– alter the deployment rhythm to shorter deployments (6mo perhaps), or space them further apart. Families shouldn’t face a 7mo deployment followed by another 8mo deployment, with only a month in between the two deployments. That happens in today’s military, and it’s a burden too great to bear. And, guess what … the ONLY way deployments can change is through an act of Congress! Congress would have to change their carrier and troop level mandates. The truth is that military top brass have their hands tied on this MAJOR issue.

– stop firing personnel for “moral” infractions or anything that makes old white men uncomfortable. If someone has an affair with someone in their chain of command, they deserve to be fired. But, people shouldn’t be fired for consensual sex with a civilian who has no link to the military/their chain of command. Period. Affairs are a family issue, and allow the families to sort it out without military involvement. People also shouldn’t be fired for swinging, being gay, or any other social infraction. Good people wonder what the military will deem inappropriate next, and they are getting out in fear of what might come. Top military brass probably don’t want to hear it, but it’s absolutely true.

– stop playing with our benefits. Service members and military families sacrifice so much over a 20 year career — more then an outsider understands. Many of us have never spent anniversaries or birthdays together, some service members have never been present for the births of their children, and we become accustomed to not sleeping in the same bed, not speaking everyday, and living mostly independent lives. We are in love, so we stay married … but what kind of marriage is this, really? It’s a hectic and confusing marriage that is full of struggles and disappointments. The small nugget of thanks that we receive are the lifetime health benefits and pension. Stop threatening to lower or eliminate our pensions. We are not paid enough to save adequately for retirement. That’s the truth. We give so much for so long, all for the greater good of all Americans, and we deserve that small nugget of thanks.

– stop firing top commanders for infractions by their lowest ranking personnel or for things that are outside their control. This is another thing that military top brass doesn’t want to hear, but I think that it needs to be said. Obviously the CO of the Blue Angels needed to go because he knew of this sexual harassment situation, just as any commander should be fired for things that they know about and do not take steps to remedy. But, sometimes people act independently and inappropriately, and it’s only the leader’s fault when they find out about the infractions and do not take steps to fix the wrong-doing. It’s BS that leaders are fired just because the military wants to blame someone. This is another reason that some of the best and brightest leave the military — they fear being in charge and loosing it all (their pension, benefits, everything) because some idiot did something stupid on his own.

– stop closing the commissaries and ensure that social services for the families are available. Service members are not paid a lot of money. As a matter of fact, when I was 26/27, I earned as much money as my husband, a 32yr old O-3 fighter pilot! Most service members’ spouses cannot work outside the home because of the military — yes, I’m blaming the military. Hear me out: employers don’t want to hire military spouses and invest any time or money into us because they know that we will move in a few years. So, many of us are forced into low-paying jobs. If we have children, we probably do not earn enough to cover the cost of childcare (this is a real thing!), so we do not work in order to have “free” childcare. We count on low-cost shopping alternatives in order to make ends-meet. We shop the commissary and the NEX every week in order to buy what we need with our breadwinner’s low wages. Closing or raising the prices at the commissaries and NEXes is an incredible burden on military families. More and more service members are going to choose to leave the service so that they can find a higher paying job in the civilian world, and to that their families no longer skirt the poverty line. This is a real thing, and I think that top brass forget what it’s like for most of our military families.

– take care of the families of the fallen. If the government is shut down, pay the families anyway (why is this even a question?). Beyond the payment, find a way to ensure that the children of the fallen are financially able to attend state colleges and universities. Show service members that their voluntary sacrifice would not be in vain and that their family WILL be taken care of.

These are a few of my suggestions, and I’m sure that many of you have other suggestions, too. I do not know if my husband will stay in the military … I put it at 60% likelihood, but that 40% has a strong pull. He likes being in the Navy and flying jets, and I love our military life, despite the deployments and other pitfalls. However, I wish that the decision makers at the Pentagon made better decisions that actually improved the lives of those that they want to retain. I wish that they gave us real incentives to stay by providing meaningful leadership and safeguarding our pensions and benefits. I wish they would stop firing good leaders for stupid things. Those of us who are looking up from below (especially us wives!) do not see this meaningful leadership, which is discouraging and giving us cause to leave the military behind.


  1. I read a really interesting article a while back about army captains being basically forced to leave over the next few years (note: this was specific to the army, not sure how it would impact naval aviation, as in my experience good aviators do everything they can to keep good aviators around). It was purely a numbers thing: we needed more officers, so we hired more, now they’re all captains and majors and we don’t have room for all of them with the impending budget cuts. It makes sense when you see the numbers on a page, but not when you think about the fact that these are people with families who have gone through multiple deployments and sacrificed quite a lot in the name of military service. I feel like this is one of many problems associated with having an all-volunteer force, but I’m not sure why the answer is.

    1. Answers are difficult, because I think, for the most part, the real answers would involve restructuring or making very tough decisions. I don’t have many answers either, and I doubt that anyone higher up would even listen to my suggestions (and the suggestions of anyone else!).

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