WEST POINT, N.Y. — Col. Jeff Lieb, the deputy commandant of the U.S. Military Academy and a veteran of the war in Iraq, paced before a group of cadets standing in formation and shouted at them about their lives after graduation.
“I took a thousand kids to war, and I brought a thousand back,” Lieb told the eager, soon-to-be second lieutenants on a recent day. “Every time I deployed, I got out there and talked to my soldiers about safety. You’re going to have to do the same thing.”
Except these cadets probably will not — or at least not anytime soon.
For the first time in 13 years, the best and the brightest of West Point’s graduating class will leave this peaceful Hudson River campus bound for what are likely to be equally peaceful tours of duty in the U.S. Army.
“It started to hit home last year, when we started considering what we really wanted to do, and realized that there’s a much more limited opportunity to deploy,” said Charles Yu, who is majoring in U.S. politics and Chinese.
Yu, who will graduate this spring, is going into military intelligence in South Korea, where he hopes to get experience helping to manage the long-running conflict between North and South Korea. He will work at Camp Red Cloud near the demilitarized zone, or, as he put it, “as close as you can get to the DMZ.”
For Yu and the rest of the class of about 1,100 cadets, there may be few, if any, coveted combat patches on their uniforms to show that they have gone to war. Many of them may not get the opportunity to one day recall stories of heroism in battle, or even the ordinary daily sacrifices — bad food, loneliness, fear — that bind soldiers together in shared combat experience.
The end of the war in Iraq and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan mean that the graduates of the West Point class of 2014 will have a more difficult time advancing in a military in which combat experience, particularly since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been crucial to promotion. They are also very likely to find themselves in the awkward position of leading men and women who have been to war — more than 2 million U.S. men and women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan — when they themselves have not.
That reality is causing anxiety and unease at West Point.
“We’ll be the youngest officers in the Army,” said Louis Tobergte, mulling the prospect of graduating from West Point as a second lieutenant who will have to lead men and women with multiple tours in two wars. “We’ll have to learn how to help soldiers make that transition to civilian life.”
Tobergte, a chemical engineering major who is headed to an assignment with an engineering branch of the Army, said he was also thinking about trying to get into an elite special operations commando unit.
Special operations units, which are expected to remain in Afghanistan after most conventional U.S. forces withdraw by the end of this year, are among the most sought-after, and selective, options for cadets who want to see combat. Special operations units are also now in Libya, Somalia, Niger and Djibouti.
“I showed up here thinking I would go the infantry route,” said Mills Olsen, a comparative politics major. Now, just two months before graduation, Olsen said his goal was to end up in special operations, which include the Army’s Special Forces, Rangers and Special Operations Airborne Regiment.
“Special Ops will 100 percent still be involved in combat,” he said.
But as the military ranks have swelled with officers who have seen two, three or four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, even those recent graduates who go into special operations may find limited chances for advancement.
“If you joined the military in the last decade, you joined because you were willing to go to war,” said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University who specializes in national security and defense. Now, he added, “that door is shutting. And those with combat experience have a leg up over those that don’t.”
For as much as military commanders will publicly say differently, men and women with combat experience are bound to be taken more seriously in today’s military than those without it, defense experts say.
The last time this happened was after a different war, Vietnam, and in an Army different from today’s volunteer and more career-oriented force. But even after Vietnam, the return to peace came with unexpected anxieties.
“As Vietnam was winding down, young officers were begging to go there so they could get the coveted combat infantry badge,” said Col. Robert Killebrew, a defense expert at the Center for a New American Security in Washington and a Vietnam veteran. “It’s not so much a thirst for glory as a professional impulse. When you’re a soldier, if the game is going to be played, you want to be there.”
Still, few in the armed forces believe that the next decade will see a complete absence of military involvement for the U.S., particularly as counterterrorism continues.
In Afghanistan, the Pentagon has drawn up proposals to leave a residual force of 8,000-12,000 U.S. troops after 2014. Marines most likely will be called on for quick deployments, particularly in restive African countries where Americans may need to be evacuated. The Navy will deploy aircraft carriers to the Pacific when messages need to be sent to China, and carrier battle groups will continue to ply the Persian Gulf.
But it will be different for the Army, which is brimming over with officers and enlisted men and women who bore the brunt of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past 12 years, the longest period of combat in the U.S. military’s history.
‘Nobody wanted to miss this war’
Among the young lieutenants who were commissioned in time for deployments to Afghanistan, there is a sense that the combat service patches they now wear on their sleeves will set them apart from their classmates who, because of fate and timing, are starting their careers with little chance for a command assignment in a conflict zone.
One 2010 West Point grad, 1st Lt. Andrew Mayville, is a case in point. He commanded an artillery unit of 20 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division out of the small Forward Operating Base Boris in eastern Afghanistan. His unit took insurgent fire several times daily, and returned more than 1,500 howitzer rounds in its first five months of deployment.
“It was a real leadership challenge, a real learning experience,” Mayville said. “Being so decentralized from our higher headquarters, my platoon was dependent on me for information, motivation, day-to-day planning.”
Now back home at Fort Drum, N.Y., he wants a military career with more deployments, and so is applying to the Special Forces, the Green Berets, who are sent to hot spots and train militaries overseas.
And 1st Lt. Marc Giullari, who joined the Army from the Reserve Officers Training Corps program at Niagara University and is also back at Fort Drum after a tour in Afghanistan, said this class of lieutenants all realized they were at “the back end of the drawdown, and nobody wanted to miss this war.” He said a lot of his peers “simply won’t get the opportunity to command in Afghanistan.”
At West Point, the cadets graduating this spring strategize about where in the Army, away from the battlefield, they might see action. Maybe they will be inserted into a local population in a village in West Africa, where the proxy war against al-Qaida is being fought, one of them suggested.
“There might not be full combat operations,” added Christer Horstman, a civil engineering major. “But you could get to do smaller things.”
His tone was wistful.