Morale: Gaming The System


June 12,2008: The U.S. Army has begun a new program to make sure that everyone does their fair share of time in the combat zone. While some 94 percent of active duty troops have been to Iraq or Afghanistan, although many have only been "in the sand box" for a few months, or have not been back for three or more years. The troops have been bitching about this inequity for years, and someone has been listening.

The army leadership pays attention to what the troops think. That goes all the way back to World War II, when a bunch of polling and statistics experts were organized into a unit that went out and conducted opinion polls. The results were distributed among the officers and senior NCOs. But that process took months, today there is email, message boards and chat rooms. So the U.S. Army monitors a lot of that, and knows real quick when something is annoying the troops. Fixing those problems takes a lot longer, and the "fairness" of the overseas deployment system is one of those things that are not easy to fix.

The solution is to track every soldiers overseas service individually, which is possible because all the personnel records are computerized. New software works out possible solutions to the complex problem of getting the right people, with the right skills, into units headed for the combat zones, but without sending too many of the same people back again and again. Until recently, the computerized personnel system did not track deployments, or how many months troops were overseas. It was never an issue until now.

It's more than an issue. The army has known since World War II that, on average, a soldier can't psychologically handle more than 200 days of actual combat. Since the 1940s, the army has developed ways to make soldiers more tolerant to the stresses of combat, but not immune. After 300-400 days of fighting, it's usually best to give that trooper a non-combat job.

For a long time, some soldiers have "gamed the system" to avoid assignments they found distasteful. The new personnel software is designed to outgame the ganers. How well that works remains to be seen. But the brass will be monitoring the Internet traffic to get a sense of who's winning.




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