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Military Introduces Promotion Changes In Attempt To Attract And Keep Better Officers


There are nearly a quarter million commissioned officers in active duty in the U.S. military. Getting promoted to a higher rank has been indispensable for staying in uniform. Either you move up or out. Until now, the only way to get a higher rank was to start at the bottom. But in the biggest change to promotion policy in almost 40 years, the Pentagon will now allow senior officials to waive those rules. NPR's David Welna reports it's all about trying to attract and keep talent.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: At the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., every student is either a full colonel or a lieutenant colonel. These officers are just shy of becoming generals or not. After 20 years of working their way up, they're near the top of a human pyramid with a wide base of officers in lower ranks and fewer in each rank as they move up or out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, I just wanted to hand these off.

WELNA: In professor Ed Filiberti's classroom, his colonels are writing papers about officer promotion policy. Filiberti says in many cases the military's up or out policy has squandered both training and talent.

ED FILIBERTI: We end up throwing out people who are very competent at the level that they're operating on because they didn't get promoted, didn't demonstrate the traits or characteristics needed at the higher levels.

WELNA: I sit down with a few of the War College's student officers. They're taking a break from studying Thucydides' "History Of The Peloponnesian War."

Do all of you plan to serve to the end of whatever your eligibility is in the service?


WELNA: One of them gives a reason for the nervous laughter.

COL JEFFREY LUCAS: All of our careers are going to end in a non-selection.

WELNA: That's Colonel Jeffrey Lucas.

LUCAS: For some of us, that occurs a lot sooner than we think. For some of us, it occurs at our own choosing. And for some of us, it occurs because the organization no longer chose us, right? Just about every officer has a career that ends in a non-selection.

WELNA: In the past, officers like Colonel Lucas were recruited with pitches like this one produced by the Army four years ago.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Officers in the U.S. Army are leaders who can rise to any challenge.

WELNA: But earlier this year, it was plain at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that a military increasingly reliant on highly skilled officers is having trouble finding them. Here's Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren.


ELIZABETH WARREN: I worry that the Pentagon is just not set up either to be able to help guide careers or to be able to attract people.

WELNA: Vice Admiral Robert Burke, who's the Navy's chief of personnel, confirmed Warren's worries.


VICE ADM ROBERT BURKE: The trends are clear. We are in a war for talent. The propensity to serve is declining amidst an improving economy, and it's adversely impacting both recruiting and retention.

WELNA: North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis, who chairs the panel's personnel subcommittee, says a big problem is the way military officers are either promoted or discharged.

THOM TILLIS: The provisions haven't really changed since leisure suits were popular.

WELNA: Tillis got a slew of promotion revisions into this year's big annual defense policy bill, including changes to the up or out policy.

TILLIS: What it really attempts to do is retain talent that doesn't necessarily want to move up. And if the only alternative is out, that doesn't make sense.

WELNA: Under the new rules, an officer may be allowed to pass up being considered for promotion and avoid possibly being forced into retirement. Back at the War College, Colonel Gage Bryson welcomes that change.

COL GAGE BRYSON: If you do get to a point where you are no longer promotable, however, your job is very rewarding, you're able to stay and do that job, serve your country, there wouldn't be a reason for you to leave the service.

WELNA: There's another important rule change. The armed forces will now be allowed to appoint civilians with needed expertise up to the rank of colonel. Retired Colonel Leonard Wong does research on military culture at the War College. He sees this attracting needed talent to the officer corps.

LEONARD WONG: Coming into the military, we're saying you don't have to start at the very bottom. Perhaps you could start someplace higher based on your experience, based on your expertise that you bring.

WELNA: How such appointments will go down with officers who've had to work their way up is still unknown. Wong says it's been a hallmark of the military ever since the end of World War II to give every junior officer the chance to move up.

WONG: The military and the Army especially has a very egalitarian culture. We like that everyone gets treated the same. It is funny how the organization that promotes capitalism is very - we're very socialistic. We're always watching out for the person, make sure everyone gets a chance. And that's that up or out system. Everyone gets a chance.

WELNA: The changes in that system may be adopted by some service branches faster than others. Mike Barron is a retired Army colonel who lobbies Congress for the Military Officers Association of America.

MIKE BARRON: There'll be some - a little bit of a challenge there I think initially culturally, but not something that the services can't get beyond.

WELNA: The greater challenge may be getting mid-career professionals just to consider joining the military. David Welna, NPR News, Carlisle, Pa.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAT JON'S "SOUNDGIRL PERSONAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.