Attrition: Sailors Serving Soldiers in the Sandbox

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November 13, 2007: About three percent of the U.S. Navy is working for the U.S. Army. This small army of 10,000 sailor "augmentees" are assigned to army units in Central Command (Iraq and Afghanistan, but mostly Iraq and the Persian Gulf), otherwise known as "the sandbox.". In the last six years, over 50,000 U.S. Navy sailors have served as "IAs," (individual augmentees), to assist the U.S. Army. At any time, 8-9,000 sailors are doing IA work, on six, or, more usually, twelve month assignments. Most of the IAs are volunteers, and possess skills similar to those performed by soldiers. The IAs get 17 days of training at an army base, to familiarize them with army procedures, weapons, and the specific dangers they will encounter. Most of the sailors never get out into combat, but concentrate on support tasks in well protected bases. This ranges from maintenance to handling logistics. Many navy EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) technicians serve in the danger zones, taking care of roadside bombs, and other dangerous devices. But mostly, the sailors free up army personnel for things like base security. The IAs also help army morale, as they make it possible to not send key technical people overseas so much. The sailors volunteer because they want to get involved. As the old saying goes, "it's the only war we've got," and this one does not involve a lot of naval action.

The navy has been constantly tweaking the IA program, to make it less disruptive to a sailors career. This includes awarding a lot of Combat Action Ribbons. This is an award established in the 1960s, but not seen much, at least for ground combat, since the Vietnam war ended. Now, with so many sailors seeing ground combat (usually as EOD technicians clearing roadside bombs, or working convoy escort duty), the blue-yellow-red-white ribbon has now appeared on the uniforms of thousands of sailors.

The navy personnel procedures have also been adjusted several times to accommodate IAs. The latest wrinkle is to select sailors for IA duty at the end of a tour of duty (on a ashore or on a ship), so that they have more time to arrange their next regular assignment. By the time the fighting dies down in the sandbox, 15-20 percent of sailors will have had the experience of serving with the army. No telling what long term effects that will have.

 


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