Women leave military as Pentagon struggles to sign enough recruits; Attrition raises questions over opportunities; most departures occur in Army


WASHINGTON -- Sylvia Azriel joined the Army this fall with the kind of enthusiasm the brass loves to see in recruits: She thought the Army was a well-organized, supportive place that would help her "find some purpose in my life."

Before two months of basic training were up, however, the Pensacola, Fla., woman was out the door, acknowledging that she couldn't adjust to military life. "It was totally not what I expected," she said.

With recruiting in a deep slump, the Pentagon is pinning more and more of its hopes on young women such as Azriel -- without whom, top officials often say, today's military simply could not function.

Yet year after year, women leave the services at higher rates than men, driven out by injuries, family considerations, job opportunities and other causes, including a sense that the military just isn't right for them.

With the services' increasing dependence on women, the early departures signal trouble for the Pentagon. Women now account for 14 percent of active-duty personnel, up from 10 percent a decade ago, and they make up 20 percent of new recruits.

The exodus is particularly unsettling for the Army: 47 percent of its enlisted women are gone, either by choice or involuntarily, before the end of three years, despite having signed up for terms averaging four years. The comparable attrition rate for Army men is 28 percent.

Across all the services, 38 percent of women are out the door within three years, compared with about 33 percent of men.

These numbers raise questions about whether women are failing to find the kind of personal support or job opportunities they had hoped for.

That conclusion would be a bitter disappointment for the services. Smoothly integrating women has been one of their biggest challenges of the decade and the cause of a series of scandals and political controversies.

Democratic Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher of California, a member of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee, calls the departure rate a "dramatic rejection of the military" that the government urgently needs to understand. Navy Capt. Barbara Brehm, military representative to an influential Pentagon advisory committee on women, calls the attrition rates "simply unacceptable."

The problem has major financial ramifications. The Army, for example, pays about $35,000 to get each soldier through recruitment and the first stages of training; this month, after the worst recruiting year in two decades, the service allowed bonuses of as much as $65,000 just for signing up.

With these issues in mind, the Army this year began what is apparently the first focused study on the attrition of women, and officials expect the results may lead to recommendations to help decrease departures.

Officially, recruits aren't entitled to leave until the end of their enlistment periods, which are legal commitments. But as a practical matter, an unhappy soldier can often find a way out.

Soldiers are allowed to leave voluntarily because of pregnancy or parenthood, to attend school, to study to become officers, or in cases of personal hardship.

And if they can't get out any other way, many recruits are willing to take bad-performance discharges, experts say, because of a general perception that employers don't attach as much significance as they once did to "bad paper" on a resume.

In group interviews with enlisted women this year, a congressionally appointed study panel heard several complain that they felt isolated and excluded from some physically demanding and traditionally male jobs.

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