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Over the four years, Pae's intentions shifted away from finance and toward a combat branch--in his case, armor. It's an indication of the strains on today's military that West Point has changed the rules surrounding branching. Starting with the class of '02, anyone who chose to specialize in back-office fields like finance would still be required to serve first in a combat unit. Not coincidentally, the number of finance officers graduating from West Point this year matches an all-time low: two. Cadets get to pick their branches in order of their class rank; once the most desirable fields, like aviation and Medical Service Corps, are filled, the other cadets are assigned to various combat branches, whether they like it or not. Ultimately, combat was a choice that Pae made gladly. Leading in a combat unit, he told his parents, was the best way to guarantee rapid advancement in an Army career.
To address the issue of cadets who are not quite so committed to a lifetime in uniform, the latest West Point innovation is Branch for Service, a program cadets took to calling Branch by eBay. It solves several complex problems with a simple trade. The Army's problem is that too many officers are leaving after their minimum five-year commitment. The cadets' problem is that if you don't have excellent grades, you often can't get the branch you want. The problems intersect because studies have shown that cadets who got their first choice were 10% more likely to stay beyond their minimum service. The simple proposal, beta-tested on the class of '05, was to have cadets bid on how much extra service--a minimum ante of 18 months--they would be willing to offer if they could get their first branch choice. After receiving all bids, West Point decided to award first choice to anyone who had offered two extra years or more of service. The program was a wild success: average students got into competitive branches like aviation, and West Point won the Army an additional 51.5 combined years of mandatory officer service.
A thriving black market in war knowledge exists for the cadets in e-mails from the front lines. When a member of the class of '05, Mark Erwin, led a platoon of new cadets at Beast Barracks last summer, he took a break from the drilling, cleaning and weapons assembly to tell his charges stories about what his brother Lieutenant Mike Erwin, West Point '02, was learning in Iraq. When Mark invited the new cadets to write Mike a letter, 35 of the 39 did just that. "If you ever doubt that you took the right path in life," Mike wrote his little brother, "just take out these letters and read them. These kids really looked up to you and respected you. One girl wrote how you made her cry but in time you made her a better leader." The long gray line, now 6,000 miles long, not only provided succor to a lonely lieutenant but also came back to give a first-time cadet leader a sense of his own potential.