The Army is facing big budget cuts and questions about its future role in a Pentagon strategy that emphasizes air and naval power over ground forces.
WASHINGTON — For much of this year, Sgt. Maj. Raymond Chandler, the Army’s top enlisted soldier, has traveled to bases around the world with a simple message: “We’ve allowed ourselves to get out of control.”
His solution has been a raft of new regulations governing tattoos, the length of soldiers’ sideburns and the color of the backpacks they are allowed to carry while in uniform. The tighter rules are intended to improve discipline in a force that is recovering from a decade of war.
But some fellow troops viewed the new regulations as one piece of a larger, more worrisome trend in the Army. Instead of embracing change, some officers worry that the service is reverting to a more comfortable, rigid and predictable past.
“We are at a crossroads right now and I don’t get the sense that we know what we are doing,” said Maj. Fernando Lujan, a Special Forces soldier who has served multiple combat tours. “I am worried about the Army.”
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These are tough times for the Army. The service is facing big budget cuts and questions about its future role in a Pentagon strategy that emphasizes air and naval power over ground forces. It also is still fighting a messy war in Afghanistan and dealing with the mental wounds of combat. Ten months into 2012, the number of suspected suicides of active-duty soldiers had exceeded last year’s total of 165.
This month, the service suffered another psychological blow when retired Gen. David Petraeus, the most lauded Army officer of the post-Vietnam War era, was forced to step down as director of the CIA after admitting to an extramarital affair with his biographer.
“We’ve always come down in numbers after conflicts and our budget has always gone down, too,” said Lt. Gen. John Campbell, a top Army general at the Pentagon. “The difference is that we are doing this while we are still continuing to fight.”
Officials, however, said the Army is not facing the crippling problems with discipline and drug abuse that followed the Vietnam War. Although multiple combat tours have strained marriages and contributed to the increasing suicide rate, the Army has retained its combat-tested junior leaders.
“Our young leaders learned to run cities in Iraq,” Campbell said. “They are so … adaptable and flexible.”
One big struggle for the Army will be to keep these junior officers and sergeants interested in a stateside service in which fewer resources are available for tough, realistic training and a greater focus on minutiae such as drill and ceremony.
One midlevel sergeant at Fort Bragg, N.C., recently complained that he watched several junior soldiers get yelled at for donning Army-issued fleece hats on a cold morning when they were supposed to be wearing baseball-style patrol caps. “It’s cold. They are cold. Let them wear what they want,” the sergeant said.
As the Afghan war draws to a close, more senior officers worry that the Army has not been able to articulate a clear mission that will enable it to hold on to its shrinking share of the Pentagon budget.
“I want an Army that is capable of many missions at many speeds, many sizes, under many different conditions,” Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, said this month.
In recent months, the Army has announced a new plan to focus individual combat brigades and divisions on specific regions, such as Asia, Africa or Europe. Soldiers in these units will receive special cultural and language training and could be sent on training missions to work with developing armies.
Some Army officers, however, worry that the regional plans are too vague. “What bugs me is being stuck in an institution that doesn’t know where it is going,” said one senior Army officer at the Pentagon.