As the overall personnel strength dwindled down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bindings of a “garrison army” were felt across the entire force. The complaints started to be heard at the beginning of the last decade, but the kick in the gut was really felt when “sequestration” went into effect in January of 2013. Not only were pilots not in the air, where they belonged, but they were getting discharged and sent packing; just like everyone else in the army. Not only did sequestration gut the existing force, but it hindered recruitment as well. Often minuscule medical issues, which had not been a disqualifier prior to 2013, were preventing new recruits from signing up, and in some cases, they were being kicked out of flight school altogether when they had already been cleared. The impact was devastating, especially to a branch that takes years to produce competent, experienced personnel.
I’m not sure when and where the leadership of aviation became so disconnected with the force. Senior aviators remember the leadership of General Cody, whereas current leadership is accustomed to the antics of tyrants like COL Baugh. It makes me think we bring the good leadership forward during a crisis, but when the embers of war fade, we let anyone with a pulse take charge, because who cares. The former Aviation CWOB stated (and I’m paraphrasing here), “you’re soldiers first; the army will continue to be the army without pilots.” A comment like that is not only disastrous to a constrained branch of the army, but it’s symbolic of a deeper issue; a plague of thought regarding purpose and direction for the very element you lead.
It wasn’t just sequestration that gutted the force. There was an embittered feeling within the ranks, and I’ll adamantly state that it still exists. That feeling was felt from senior aviators who had been in long enough and knew the direction branch SHOULD be taking, yet senior leadership wouldn’t lend an ear to hear what they had to say. If you weren’t a career politician licking boots to rise up the ranks, you weren’t needed. Aviators were also spending the majority of their time doing jobs that every other unit in the army assigned specialists to do. Would you go work for a company as a financial consultant if your primary responsibility was cleaning toilets? No. Yet pilots were grounded doing additional duties that consumed their days and were struggling to get flight time just to stay current. This is still an issue I might add. This all resulted in a lot of folks leaving on their own accord and either seeking jobs in the private sector, or doing something else entirely and kissing flying goodbye. A lot of pilots found the good life in the national guard. (That’s a hidden gem, btw. Don’t share that around.)
All of these things led us to where we are now. After much discussion, the army decided to implement a 10 year active duty service obligation (ADSO) upon completion of flight training. Holy Shit….I can’t even comprehend the fallout this will have on the force. 10 years? Retired pilots in their 50s and 60s will say, “it’s still a great deal; millions of dollars in training, FAA license…” You old guys might have the benefit of hindsight to your advantage, but when you’re trying to recruit a 25 year old, 10 years is damn near half their life. That’s a huge commitment. What does that do for a SSG who’s already been in for 10-12 years? Does he want to stay in past a 20 year retirement? I’m being told no from a lot of people right now. Instead of giving bonus money (which wouldn’t fix the problem), or increasing the MTOE to allow for support personnel to fill the jobs they were TRAINED to do vs. having pilots do them instead (which is the correct answer and would definitely work), the army has decided to lock people down for 10 years. I can’t predict what will happen with certainty. My gut says this will tank recruitment. Maybe there are externalities I’m not considering. I’m always open for discussion, and I’d love to have my mind changed on this. All I can see right now is a branch desperate to change course, bad leadership that screams, “the beatings will continue until morale improves,” and a bad public image that is pushing potential recruits away at warp speeds. Only time will tell if this is the right decision. For the sake of the entire force, I hope it is.