War Stories

Fill in the Numbers

How the Pentagon sowed confusion with an incomplete recruitment report.

On Oct. 16, I wrote a column about the fishy numbers in a recent Pentagon report on military recruitment. The report claimed that recruitment was up, but the numbers seemed to indicate the opposite. What was going on? This is the story of how I got that story—and how I learned, through a jumble of phone briefings afterward, how I got it both right and wrong.

The tale begins on Oct. 15, when I read a Pentagon report boasting that military recruitment this year—especially in the Army—had exceeded its goals. The Army’s goal for fiscal year 2009 was to recruit 65,000 new soldiers; the actual number of recruits was 70,049.

News stories inferred from these numbers that more young men and women were joining the Army, despite the near-certainty that they would soon be shipped off to war. But looking at the Pentagon’s reports from the previous two years, I discovered that this was an illusion. Recruitment hadn’t gone up; rather, the recruitment goal had gone down. In fiscal years 2007 and 2008, the goal was to recruit 80,000 new soldiers. And the Army met the goal each year (though only by lowering standards of quality). This year, the Army didn’t have to lower standards, but the number of actual recruits dipped by nearly 10,000.

Before writing all this up, I called the Army public affairs office to make sure I was comparing numbers that were truly commensurate. One official explained that the Army lowered its recruitment goal because retention went up. The Pentagon report didn’t include numbers for retention, so the official sent me the data. It turned out that the Army had set a goal of getting 55,000 soldiers to re-enlist but in fact got 68,000. This seemed to explain the lowering of recruitment targets: No need to enlist new soldiers if experienced soldiers were re-enlisting at higher rates.

But then I looked at retention reports from previous years, and it was the same story: The retention goal, too, had been lowered. Last year’s goal was 65,000, and in fact 72,000 soldiers had re-enlisted.

So this was the picture I was looking at, a picture based on the Army’s own numbers: Recruitment was down 10,000, and retention was down 4,000. It seemed clear that the Army was shrinking, not expanding. And that’s what I wrote in my column.

The next day, I got a call from one of the same Army public affairs officials who had talked with me the previous two days. He wanted me to sit down with some officers from G1, the Army’s personnel directorate, to straighten out my misconceptions.

So on the afternoon Oct. 20, I spent a half-hour on the phone with a roundtable of officers, led by a colonel who is chief of the Army’s enlisted careers systems division. Before the call, they’d e-mailed me a chart more detailed than the one in the Pentagon’s report.

This new chart displayed the same numbers I’d gathered for my column for recruitment and retention. But it also noted that the Army’s “end-strength”—the total number of active-duty soldiers—had risen from 543,645 in at the end of fiscal year 2008 to 553,044 at the end of FY 2009. (The Pentagon report that I’d written about did not include end-strength numbers.)

I told the officers that this new chart made me even more confused. How could it be that recruitment and retention had gone down by about 16,000, but end-strength had gone up by more than 9,000?

One of the officers explained that many soldiers re-enlist a year or two before their terms are up and that they are not counted in the totals for retention. This seemed plausible. I asked if someone could send me the data on how many soldiers re-enlisted early in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Sure thing, no problem. Thank you very much. End of conversation.

But the next day, one of the officers who had been listening to the phone conversation told me that I’d been given incorrect information. Soldiers who re-enlist early are, in fact, included in the totals for retention. So I was back to square one. The numbers still didn’t add up.

Finally, just today, I got a phone call from a lieutenant colonel who works with the raw numbers every day. (He phoned me at the request of his higher-ups; this was not a hush-hush leak.) He told me that I had good reason to be confused by the numbers in the Pentagon’s original report and in the chart I was sent later. Those numbers, he said, oversimplify the situation; they don’t really tell what’s going on.

For instance, the numbers in the Pentagon’s report and the officers’ chart indicate that the Army recruited 70,049 new soldiers in FY 2009. That’s right, as far as it goes. But this figure, he said, accounts only for enlisted personnel. It does not include 11,003 soldiers who entered active duty as officers. Nor does it include 2,212 enlisted soldiers who either entered active duty through the Army National Guard or returned to the military after a brief absence (usually for disciplinary reasons).

If you include these categories (and a few others of this sort), you find that 98,877 people joined the Army in FY 2009, while 89,478 people left. Do the math, and you find that the Army grew by 9,399 soldiers.

He made sense, but I was leery. This was the third set of numbers I’d received in as many days, each purporting to unravel the contradictions that I’d spotted in the Pentagon’s report. So I checked out these new numbers with a former Army personnel officer who now analyzes military issues at the Congressional Research Service. (He asked that I not mention his name.) He had gone through these numbers with the proverbial fine-toothed comb long ago, and he said that this last explanation was right.

And so, it seems, the Army is getting bigger, just as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has ordered and as the Army claims. More young people are joining up and staying in. The CRS analyst offered three explanations for this fact—which reverses the trends of recent years—and they all have to do with money.

First is the economy. There has always been a direct correlation between unemployment and recruitment; the former is up, so it’s no surprise that the latter is up as well.

Second, and intensifying the effects of the first, is the new G.I. Bill, which went into effect just this year. Under its provisions, new recruits, after serving four years on active duty, receive free college tuition (up to the cost of the highest-priced public university in their state), plus a stipend for books and fees, plus a living expenses ranging from $750 to $2,700 per month, depending on where they live).

Finally, if soldiers re-enlist while they’re deployed in a theater of war (such as Iraq or Afghanistan), they get their re-enlistment bonus tax-free. This explains why so many soldiers are re-enlisting before their terms are up.

And so: Mystery solved, contradictions reconciled, loose ends tied up. I have just one request for the Pentagon’s public affairs office: Next time you release some numbers, make sure they’re the ones that matter.