Flag Line 4
Retention: Creating Choice Through Dissonance

     A military does not exist without people. However, today’s all-volunteer force is experiencing a decline in service member retention, which directly impacts the military’s ability to do its job. Retention is defined as the number of people in the military eligible to reenlist, who choose to remain on active duty (Pang, 1998). This paper will discuss the retention problem for the military and the reasons service members leave or stay. The impact of this problem has a broad national scope that includes national security, force readiness, and military quality of life. Using military service retention levels as the measured dependent variable, this study will manipulate the independent variable, which is the amount of information and choices available to military service members.


     The military has generally been able to meet retention goals with slight fluctuations. The lowest retention occurred in the early 1970s (from the downsizing resulting from the end of the Vietnam War), and was consistent from 1993 through 1996. A noticeable drop in retention levels occurred in 1997, and there is a continuing downward trend, according to DoD statistics (Cohen, 1998). 
     Army retention rates for Fiscal Years 1993 through 1996 remained consistent at slightly more than 80 percent. The Navy retention rate rose to 85 from 1993 through 1996. The Marine Corps retention rate remained fairly consistent at 83 percent for FYs 1995 and 1996. The Air Force retained 89 percent of eligible personnel in FY 1996 (up 3 percentage points from FY 1995) (Cohen, 1998). Additionally, lack of retention is also expensive. “Based on a General Accounting Office estimate, it costs taxpayers more than $20,000 to replace each individual who leaves the military service prematurely” (Pang, 1997).
     By relating relevant communication theory to the problem of retention, this study 
provides an alternative solution to limit the exodus of military service members. A theoretical framework is proposed through which retention issues will be addressed. Specifically, the frame offers a public affairs approach to inform military members, eligible to leave the service, of career choices difficult to refuse, and to consider the military as a viable alternative. 
     A literature review was conducted of relevant material regarding military retention, using the theories of organizational assimilation theory, cognitive dissonance in persuasion, and mass communication media richness theory, to form a two-stage approach toward answering our research questions and providing methods to implement, test and evaluate possible solutions. We will also discuss projected results and the implications for public affairs and future theory building.

Statement of the Problem
     The U.S. military faces a retention crisis resulting from extensive change. The changes include downsizing or reengineering, loss of benefits and rewards, and the impact of a strong economy and low unemployment. Retaining first term and second term service members is a continuing challenge, as well as retaining the expertise and corporate knowledge of careerists.  
     Only 69 percent of second-term enlisted members are choosing to reenlist, according to Secretary of the Air Force, F. Whitten Peters (Air Force News, 1998). The Air Force has set its goal at 75 percent to sustain appropriate experience levels. Peters said that although some believe a strong economy is the reason why people are getting out of the service, he feels retention is directly related to deployment rates.
     The key underlying issue related to retention is PERSTEMPO, defined as the time service members spend away from the home station. Increased time away from home, be it deployed or working longer hours, places stress on the members deployed, the members left behind who shoulder the increased workload, and their families. The services work to balance the needs for training, exercises, and peacetime operations, with the individual needs of the service members for a "stable and predictable tempo level." Service members want to serve their country, but they also want a predictable tempo level and are obviously exiting the service when their complaints are not heard (Cohen, 1998).  
     The Navy is currently exceeding budgeted deployed ship OPTEMPO (Operations Tempo or number of operations conducted) of 51 days per quarter due to operations and the heightened threat condition in ports in the Arabian Gulf, forcing ships to stay at sea. The current COMFIFTHFLT OPTEMPO is at 78 days per quarter. “Sailors don’t mind working hard at the front lines to support U.S. vital interests, but when they see us continually robbing the rest of the force to do it, they wonder where the health of their Navy is heading,” stated Admiral Archie Clemins, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet (1999).
     Air Force Secretary Peters (1998) said the severity of the problem hit home during a recent visit to Moody AFB, Georgia, in August 1998. “They have 40 people coming up for a reenlistment in their security forces unit. Out of those, only 2 plan to reenlist.” Peters stated that most of the service members had been deployed more than 120 days, many for more than 160 days. He stated that when you reach that kind of OPSTEMPO, no matter how much you like your job, the impact on family and other goals is just too difficult. 
     This trend is being repeated across all the services according to Department of Defense statistics. It affects not only deployed personnel, but those members left behind as well. This trend is precipitated by a lack of attractive alternatives at the critical point when service members are deciding whether to stay in the military, or to leave. One military member, an Air Force staff sergeant, said that constant deployments are not only hard for those deployed, but for those left behind. During the deployments, the extended 12-hour days take their toll. 
     Military public affairs staffs can help provide service members with accurate updates on military benefits and the efforts being made to reestablish previously existing benefits. Public Affairs Officers can inform the internal community of training programs to improve retention. Public affairs can be a critical tool in improving retention, if used at the strategic planning stages of the program. In order to do so, relevant communication theories will be reviewed and applied to the retention problem.