The nations' three military academies have promoted themselves for decades as the schools that train the "future leaders of tomorrow," producing career officers equipped with an elite - and free - military education.
But recent budget cuts, low morale and the tightest labor market in 30 years have contributed to a growing number of departures from the military, not just of young officers, but of those whom military officials most counted on to stay: the academies' alumni.
Academy graduates have become among the most sought-after workers in the world, offering leadership experience, technical training and an almost guaranteed sense of personal responsibility.
Their increasing departure rate after five years of military service is raising questions about the schools' $1 billion-a-year price tag, which has been justified to Congress in the past by the academies' claim of producing career military officers.
In response, the three academies are beginning to change their message, pointing out that their graduates continue to serve the country well as civilians even if they leave the military after their required commitments. Because taxpayers pay for their $250,000 education, Naval Academy and Air Force Academy graduates must serve five years in the military. West Point graduates serve a minimum of four years.
Naval Academy officials note that 1,500 of the country's chief executive officers are Naval Academy graduates.
"This is the worst [retention rate] I've seen since the post-Vietnam years," said Harry G. Wilson, a Houston-based executive recruiter who specializes in recruiting military personnel. "The average junior military officer I see is ... angry and disappointed."
Ten years ago, fewer than 20 firms specialized in placing military officers in other jobs. Now, there are more than 400 companies and individuals vying for the officers' attention.
"Personally, it scares me," Wilson said, "because you do want a percentage of these kids to stay in the services, no matter what we can offer them. ... It makes me real nervous."
Statistics from the three academies show a declining rate of retention after five years for officers from the graduating classes of 1990 through 1994, who have finished their mandatory military service.
At West Point, the proportion of graduates choosing to stay in the military after four years has dropped from more than 80 percent for the classes graduating in the 1980s to 67 percent for the class of 1994. West Point expects the percentage to be even lower for the class of 1995.
At the Naval Academy, Capt. Glen Gottschalk, director of institutional research, said statistics showing retention rates after five years were not available, but he estimated that 80 percent stay beyond the minimum requirement.
"If there's any increase we're seeing, it's the number of graduates who are leaving after five years," Gottschalk said. "These things go in cycles with the economy and, additionally, when the military downsizes. It has a psychological effect."
At the Air Force Academy where the retention percentage for young officers traditionally hovers in the high 90s, the percentage fell to the high 80s for the graduating classes of 1993 and 1994. A little more than half of the graduating class of 1990 is still in the Air Force.
Academy graduates, while often grateful for their military experience, express many reasons for leaving the military, ranging from poor pay to disillusionment. The most commonly expressed reason is a weariness from back-to-back tours of duty caused by budget cuts. For Naval Academy graduates, frequent three-week deployments are often scheduled between six-month deployments.
Army troops have been deployed overseas 10 times from the Vietnam War to 1990. Since 1990, the Army has been deployed 33 times, with half the number of troops filling those overseas jobs.
Many graduates said they did not want their names used because they felt guilty for having left the military. Others, including 1995 West Point graduate Heidi Trush, who left last month to take a job as a transportation manager for a Midwestern health care company, said she enjoyed the Army but wanted more stability.
"I always thought I would be in longer," Trush said. "You always think about selfless service, about being a leader of character, serving the common defense ... but I got to the point where I looked at my life goals and I realized I can't even maintain a steady date without telling the guy I can't see you again for six weeks because I have to go back overseas."
Married West Point graduates Jeannie and John Koehler who met at the academy, left the Army this week even though they had expected to stay for many more years. They found jobs in Minnesota within two weeks of going to their first job fair.
"They say you'll never make as much money on the outside when you consider the Army's benefits, and that's just not true," said Jeannie Koehler, who graduated in 1995. "It seems to me that everybody has a different reason for leaving, but I never expected so many people would be. It has been really surprising."
Several graduates from the three schools said they decided to join the Reserve after leaving active duty so that they could still be a part of what they trained so long to do. Gottschalk said about 20 percent of Naval Academy graduates stay in the Reserve after leaving.
Matthew Arnold, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1993, signed up for the Reserve almost as soon as he left the Navy this year to take a job at a California biotechnology company.
"I really enjoyed my years in the Navy, and I wouldn't trade my academy or Navy experience for anything," he said. "But it's been really great to use those skills to do something new. Staying in the reserves means I can continue my association with the Navy at the same time."
Academy officials are hoping that more graduates leaving active duty will follow that lead. As recently as the mid-1990s, congressional leaders, pressured to find ways to cut the military after the Cold War, offered the academies up as an excessive expenditure.
Some suggested funding one academy for all three services, especially in light of the lower cost of the ROTC college program, which provides college scholarships for those willing to serve three to four years in the services.
Officials from the three academies used to point to statistics showing that ROTC officers left the services earlier than academy graduates did and noted that their graduates are selected during the admissions process as students most likely to want a long military career. But shrinking retention rates for academy graduates make it more difficult for academy officials to make that argument.
"We've been trying to address that at the congressional level for some time," said Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican who sits on the Naval Academy's Board of Visitors. "We need better pay, better quality of life, better services. Naval Academy graduates are outstanding people, and we want to keep them in the services."
Lt. Jon C. Duffy, a Naval Academy graduate, almost quit this year when he took a long look at a small paycheck in one hand and a recruitment letter in the other, and turned in his resignation. He wanted more time with his wife. And, like many who chose to leave, he wanted an employer promising growth instead of cutbacks.
A few months later, he asked for the letter back. "Most of the people I know are getting out," he said. "There are a lot of hardships associated with this profession these days. But I decided that my experience in the Navy has been super positive, that I was doing exactly what I signed up to do."
Lt. Matthew Arny, who considered leaving, said it's a sense of good morale that more than anything else makes people want to stay.
"The Navy's really losing, because a lot of really good people are leaving," Arny said. "You get tons of mail [from executive recruiters], and there are some days when you go home that you open it. But in the end you want to stay for the right reasons."