WEST POINT, N.Y. — When Megan McNulty, a 22-year-old cadet at the United States Military Academy here, graduates this spring, she won't be heading off to a conventional unit at an Army installation. Instead, she'll start her Army career spending a year in Dublin, Ireland, studying international development at University College. She's among a small minority of West Point students who are "breaking the routine," she said.

"We’re getting away from the classic trajectory of what an Army career looks like," she told Military Times said in a recent interview. "People like us are already pushing the envelope. You need some officers to do that." But McNulty is already cognizant that the non-traditional assignment may put her career at risk if she falls behind her peers in fulfilling the Army’s rigid requirements for advancement. "The Army will try to move some things around so I can still be with my year group. I’ll have less platoon leader time, but then at the career captains’ course mark, hopefully I'll be back with the class of 2016," she said, referring to the normal progression for the first five years of a junior officer’s career.

Under the military’s current "up-or-out" rules, an officer like McNulty gets only a brief window of time to be considered for promotion along with the rest of her "year group," which is the cadre of officers who are enter the officer corps in the same year. Promotion boards may reject her if she does not stack her resume with conventional assignments valued by the Army. And if she fails to be promoted two years in a row, federal laws will force her to leave the Army for good.

The military’s rigid career tracks are a top concern among many cadets here. And they are a top concern for Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who visited West Point recently to meet with students. It’s been one year since Carter vowed to fundamentally change the military’s "industrial era" personnel system, saying it is discouraging some of today's best and brightest young people from military careers. Carter touted that among his top priorities after taking over the Pentagon's top job last year. But the task of reforming how troops are paid, promoted and managed has turned out to be a difficult task, facing stiff ed institutional resistance, and it for now remains a work in progress.

Initially, Carter and other top Pentagon officials signaled a desire to change the up-or-out rules proscribed under the 1980 law known as the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act. Carter's also expressed concern about the military's joint billet requirements mandated under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which Congress passed in the wake of the Vietnam War in an effort to force the parochial services to coordinate more effectively on the battlefield. Many experts believe today's joint force functions well and that the law is outdated. The law requires mid-career officers to spend at least 36 months in a job assignment officially designated as "joint" before they can be eligible for promotion to general or flag officer.

Critics say that takes time away from developing technical expertise, which is especially important in the Navy and the Air Force. It may also discourage troops from pursuing non-traditional assignments like internships in the private sector or studying at graduate school.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter met with several cadets during a visit to West Point on Wednesday. He acknowledged that pushing through personnel reforms has proven to be a challenge.

Photo Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim D. Godbee/Navy

Yet the military is often instinctively resistant to change. Especially the senior-most leaders who, by definition, achieved success under the current rules. Carter's personnel office drew up a slate of ambitious reforms last summer. But that ran into stiff bureaucratic resistance. The Joint Chiefs of Staff recently debated the issue, but it at a meeting in the "tank," the Pentagon’s primary conference room for the four-star officers. But the matter remains unresolved.

After a meeting with cadets, Carter acknowledged that making such fundamental changes has proven to be a challenge."There is [a consensus in the Pentagon] about some parts of them but we’re still exploring others," Carter told a group of reporters during his visit to West Point on March 22. "People are still learning about these things. These things are complicated things when it comes to the management of people, so we really are careful to really think things through with all the services and the chiefs and look at our analysis and look at our surveys and make sure we have a basis for things," Carter told a group of reporters during his visit to West Point.

"It's important to act with resolve and not wait. But it is also important to do it thoughtfully," he said.

Carter's reform effort suffered a setback recently when his to personnel official, Brad Carson, who served as acting undersecretary for personnel and readiness, resigned. Carson will leave officially on April 8.

As Carson — the architect of the controversial "Force of the Future" initiative, Carson faced a — left after a disastrous confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in February. Senators accused him of presuming confirmation to his post and violating a once rarely enforced law that bars new appointees from serving in their high-level positions while awaiting the Senate’s formal approval.

LAnd lawmakers also criticized the personnel reform effort. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, called it "an outrageous waste of official time and resources."

Congress would have to approve any changes in federal law, making support from Capitol Hill essential for any far-reaching military personnel reform.

Carter has made changes to Defense Department policy on matters that do not require approval form Congress. For example, he expanded the forcewide maternity-leave policy to 12 weeks in an effort to make the military more family friendly and retain female service members. He's sought to expand internship programs that allow officers and senior enlisted troops to spend time working in the private sector. He's also promised to modernize the services' computer systems that maintain individuals' personnel files and match them to specific jobs.

But the secretary has not formally asked for any changes to the laws affecting the up-or-out rules, the joint billet requirements or the military's pay system, which he's said should be changed from one-size-fits-all pay charts to one that is is influenced by "the principles of talent management."

Carter says he's working on more proposals. But time may be running short. He'll likely be forced out of office when a new president takes over the White House in January, and election-year politics make Congress unlikely to vote on any controversial reforms this year.

Carter spent a lot of time hearing from cadets during his visit to West Point.

Photo Credit: MC1 Tim D. Godbees Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim D. Godbee/Navy

At West Point, Carter heard directly from cadets who are eager for change. Cadet Wyatt Frazier, who is a "cow" or the academy's equivalent of a college junior, spoke bluntly to Carter during the secretary's question-and-answer session with students.

"As a younger generation of millennials enters the work force, American corporations are shifting towards a less-hierarchical and more-flat-and-casual organizational structure," Frazier said. "What is the Department of Defense doing to stay competitive in this new work environment?" Frazier asked.

Carter liked the question. told the cadet it was a "good question."

"We're making a lot of changes in the way we promote people and how we give you opportunities along the way, so we're not so rigid about, say, you have to punch this ticket and then punch that ticket, and then punch that ticket. And you find that all you're doing is punching tickets," Carter said.

That made sense to Cadet Eugene "EJ" Coleman, a cadet who will graduate this year and has chosen an Army career in field artillery, but plans to attend graduate school rather than follow the traditional path for a second lieutenant. He will study business or economics but has not yet decided what school to attend.

"One of my majors here is economics and this is one thing that we talk about a lot, the way the Army is fundamentally set up as compared to the private sector. [In the Army] there is a timeline, you have to do so many years in service to get to this point and that point and that point," Coleman said.

"Is our system perfect for putting the right people in the right place? No system is perfect, but where can we look at that system and make it better?" Coleman said.

"This is an internal issue for the entire Department of Defense," he said. The private sector has changed significantly in recent years and "we'd be foolish to think the Army doesn't have to do the same," he said.

Retention and recruiting are important. But Coleman suggested that the most urgent reason to change the military personnel system is to prevent the military world from diverging too much from civilians' professional culture.

"It's about making sure the United States military is not disconnected from the United States citizen. It's important for us to revamp the way we do things."

Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.

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