BAGHDAD—At Combat Outpost Aztec, the Company D (Dog Company) platoons of the Army's 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment spend eight hours a day patrolling the tough, rural roads of their palm grove-rich stretch of southeastern Baghdad. They search for militia thugs and keep an eye on the new civilian neighborhood watch patrols. Then, they have another eight hours a day of duty guarding the old meatpacking plant where they live. And in rare quiet hours, the soldiers have spent time literally counting sheep, in an effort to gauge local livestock health.
Dog Company has been deployed for three of the past five years, with stints in Mosul and Germany, in addition to their time in Iraq. This kind of operational tempo, optempo in military parlance, has taken its toll throughout the armed forces. Capt. Doug Willig, the Dog Company commander, reports that of his six closest friends at West Point, five have left the military.
It's part of what commanders point to as a troubling loss of junior officers. By last year, for instance, 50 percent of the West Point class of 2001 had opted to leave the Army, up from 34 percent in 2006, when the class's five-year commitment was up, figures that were roughly similar for the class of 2000. In response, West Point offered the class of 2007 incentives such as graduate school and choice of post in exchange for extending service commitments by three years—35 percent have accepted.
As they grab lukewarm bottles of water from an overburdened cooler, some of the soldiers just back from patrol smoke and discuss whether they will get out of an Army that has lately gone to extraordinary lengths to fill its ranks, such as providing enlistment bonuses and waivers for past criminal behavior. Spc. Noel Gaulard II was the recipient of one of those waivers. "I'd had some prior police involvement, done some jail time, and I needed waivers to say that I would no longer do that, get all my fines paid, and sign a contract—it took about six months."
It has not always been easy since he joined. For starters, he was shot by a sniper while out on patrol just weeks after his unit arrived in Iraq. "It wasn't even half serious," he says, showing off the tattooed shoulder, still bandaged, where the bullet struck him. He is standing up eating breakfast in the room that now serves as the makeshift mess hall. There aren't enough chairs for all the soldiers to sit, and he laughs off suggestions that someone might stand up so that he, being injured, could sit down. "They're the ones who have to go out on patrol," he says. While he is recouping, he uses his good arm to hammer together some shelves for the small room he shares with two other soldiers.
Gaulard has a 2-year-old son, born while he was in basic training. Between that and deployments, he says, he has been able to spend only about two months with him. He sends $1,500 a month to his girlfriend, which has allowed her to quit the two jobs she was working to care for their child and study for her registered nursing degree full time. He anticipates re-enlisting and using the bonus money for a wedding—and for the honeymoon he plans during his rare downtime. "There was a small article about me in our hometown paper. They all know what I'm doing," he says. "I just feel really proud of myself for moving from where I was and what I was doing to this."