In academia and, increasingly, corporate America, sabbaticals are a time-honored way to step aside from the daily grind and intellectually reboot. The U.S. Army should embrace something similar.
The Army is expanding its force size to better meet demands of current operations and reduce stress on soldiers and families. Because the Army cannot simply hire a large pool of mid-level officers, it strives for an unprecedented low rate of officer attrition. The Army recently bolstered retention incentives, including cash bonuses, expanded graduate education opportunities, and choice of assignment or post — all tied to additional service commitments.
How can the Army complement such efforts? Year-long sabbaticals in business or government that would offer officers a break from a brutal deployment cycle and develop capabilities for future deployments and higher-level assignments. In fact, sabbaticals would remove officers from operational assignments for a relatively shorter term than graduate school and offer enrichment for those who excel in "hands-on" learning.
The Army's Training With Industry program, though not tied to retention, could serve as the basis for this effort. Launched in the 1970s, TWI focuses on maintaining state-of-the-art skills in acquisition and logistics, but it also addresses other fields such as marketing and artificial intelligence. Currently, 51 commissioned officers are in this program, typically in 6- to 12-month assignments. The Army should dramatically expand this program.
The best officers
The new program should then select from the cream of the officer crop those who have proved their mettle during deployments, who would make the most of new organizational challenges, who have a future in Army leadership and whom the Army would hate to lose.
Partners for the program should be chosen with equal care: multinational corporations, select government agencies, and development organizations with operations worldwide.
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.
The heavy demands for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan could lead one to conclude that the Army cannot afford to send its junior officers to sabbaticals or graduate school during wartime. But the Army recognizes that it needs to retain and develop its brightest young leaders. A sabbatical program would meet both the officer's needs, for personal development and time home with family, and the military's need, for a professional force with diverse, cutting-edge skills.
Laura Miller is a military sociologist at the RAND Corp., a non-profit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in USA Today on May 7, 2008.