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The Officer Separation Board and the Junior Officer Exodus

“Also, how I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn upon half-sheets of note paper.”
The Waves

The line above is from the play-poem The Waves by Virginia Woolf. It is one from among many great lines, but that one reminded me of something I had written about before, which is the dismal realization that a successful military career fits neatly on a single sheet of paper or PowerPoint slide. That is to say, a military career places you on a rail cart that has very few deviations along the way. One can predict with reasonable certainty, the next twenty years. In order to stay on that rail cart, you simply have to outperform most of your peers and make zero mistakes.

For twenty years.

The fallout from this summer’s Officer Separation Board is pretty much over, as far as I can tell. A few articles were written about it, the most prominent, I think, the back and forth that occurred on The Best Defense in, uh, defense of or against MAJ Slider.

And it looks like there will likely be more “force shaping” events, like Officer Separation Boards, in the future.

It creates an additional consideration for junior officers whose initial service commitments usually expire within 4-to-6 years of joining. Part of the equation of whether to “get out” or “stay in” will likely be where they think they’ll stack up in a potential, possibly fictional, future Officer Separation Board – something I’m sure the group that just went through it didn’t think they’d ever have to face – especially not during wartime. Not only will the junior officer have to weigh things like job satisfaction, benefits, and service when considering whether to get out or stay in, but how he or she thinks they stand when lotty-dotty-errbody is considered for separation and someone has to go.

A majority of those who were cut had something derogatory in their file, as seems to be the case with MAJ Slider. Getting promoted and moving along the rail cart is no promise of suddenly having that rail cart kicked over by Uncle Sam if the need to reduce numbers comes along.

Future OSBs may not have the luxury of cutting the low-hanging fruit (derogatory marks on file). Cuts might need to be made much deeper, especially if the force reductions become more severe.

Back to the pondering junior officer, the calculus that goes into whether to stay in or get out not only considers if you’ve messed up, but includes a calculation as to whether you can maintain zero-defects and glowing reviews indefinitely. Otherwise, the axe may be inching nearer.

Among military circles, the military “brain drain” or junior officer exodus has been a recurring topic of discussion. To a junior officer trying to determine if it makes sense to stay in for a full career, the prospect of future OSBs will surely factor into that decision making practice, likely tipping the decision towards getting out.

I’m of the mind that military service is just that – service – and there should be no hard and fast expectations of what one is “owed” in terms of future employment. That said, it would be foolish to ignore the things going on in the background and making the best decision possible given all of the relevant facts, with a little bit of voodoo and reading the tea leaves when appropriate.

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The last letter war

Don:

One of my first posts, wondering what it would be like to deploy in the digital age. Well, my suspicions have thus far been confirmed.

Originally posted on Carrying the Gun:

Soldiers reading letters at As Samawah, 2003.

One of my happiest deployment memories is receiving mail at a train station in As Samawah, Iraq in 2003. Our unit had been in Iraq for about a week, and we had just experienced combat for the first time – a liminal event, if there ever was one. Lounging at As Samawah, we were resting before moving on towards Baghdad. We were covered in dirt, exhausted and exhilarated. Shortly before moving out, the company XO appeared, zig-zagging in-between sleeping bodies along the train platform, dragging OD green bags of mail. Santa Claus in DCUs and body armor.

Unless you didn’t get any, or the news was bad, the appearance of mail always lifted morale. Mail was distributed with a hint of bitter anger. Senior NCOs called out last names, then irritably handed over that short respite from reality. Soldiers that received “too much mail” were met with jealousy covered…

View original 609 more words

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Army Culture: The M9 as Vanity Weapon

Military Generals TalkingOne of the enduring legends of the 82nd Airborne Division concerns Generals Ridgway and Gavin. Both were highly regarded, and one of the stories that continues to circulate about them is how they both insisted on carrying soldier’s weapons in combat. General Ridgway was always seen with hand grenades clipped to his gear (see left), while General Gavin carried a rifle instead of the more convenient Colt M1911.

The weapons that they carried has become a part of their legacy.

Today, the M9 Beretta has replaced the M1911 Colt as the Army’s service pistol. I am not the first to describe the M9 as a vanity weapon, one that denotes status more than anything else. Commanders, staff officers, and anyone wily enough to finagle one from the Arms Room can be seen on this or that FOB with an M9, which mind you, is much more easy to lug around a sprawling base than a rifle or machine gun.

Back on my first deployment, those who had the M9 kept it in a drop leg holster during the war, and then everyone seemed to acquire very slick looking leather shoulder holsters once things settled down and we moved to larger bases. The higher the rank, the nicer the holster.

What weapon a soldier carries becomes a source of gossip for other soldiers, especially if it seems incongruent with that soldier’s duties. I’ve been in some units where the Commander and First Sergeant are the only soldiers to carry a specialized optic that would probably be more useful some someone near the gunfire. A soldier that carried an M9 around would often get quizzed by more grizzled NCOs on whether or not they had actually qualified with the M9. Those who didn’t have an assigned M9 generally derided those who did – unless of course, they suddenly had the opportunity to sign for one themselves.

At the end of the day, going to the chow hall with an M9 is so much easier than with an M4.

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Why Deployment Experience Really Matters

End of War

It’s been interesting reading the reactions to the blog post by soon-to-be-forced-out Major Slider on The Best Defense. Major Slider is one of the hundreds of Majors who was selected to be cut from the Army as a result of the recent Officer Separation Board (OSB). The OSB saga and some of the defense of Major Slider, much of which revolved around valorous combat experience – coupled with the fact that I’m currently deployed – started me thinking about the actual value of combat experience.

When I was coming through OCS and IBOLC, I remember having lots of conversations with young Second Lieutenants who were wary about potentially missing their opportunity to deploy, since it was clear we were teetering on the tail end of the long war. Much of that angst – I think – stemmed from wanting “the stuff” that comes from a combat deployment; the combat patch, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the bucket of end-of-tour awards. For good or for ill, the Army fosters a culture of “badge envy” and the immediate value of a soldier, especially in combat arms, is first assessed by the things sewn, pinned, and velcro’d on the uniform.

Back then, in my infinite mustang wisdom, I tried my best to explain that it isn’t really going to matter if you deploy or not, that the Army moves on and will value and appreciate skill and leadership above whether or not you deployed – more a function of chance and when you were born than any actionable trait. More bluntly, having not deployed would not be held against you in an Army transitioning out of war. I believed that then, and I still do now.

What has changed – and this is partly a function of being currently deployed – is that I think I may have undervalued wartime service. While it’s true that every deployment is different, what remains unchanged is that whatever your job is – infantry, admin, medical, etc. – when you are deployed, you are doing that job more frequently and more real than when you were back home. Weekends don’t exist the same way they do while deployed than when you are home. You are accountable for your equipment twenty-four hours a day, not just until you turn it back into the arms room or the supply cage. There is a constant rotation of duties that is usually measured in hours between the next guard shift, not days – or weeks – between your next staff duty.

Combat operations occur at a frequency greater than the intensity of field training. You may run multiple missions a day, or operations that take place over twenty-four hours at a time, requiring planning and preparation days before the event starts. Each mission is analyzed and assessed through an after-action review process, which if done well, fine tunes the unit’s techniques, tactics, and procedures, making the unit more efficient and effective.

In all this, you are working in close proximity with the same people for hours a day and days that bleed into weeks and months. Conflicts arise and good leaders find ways to stay effective. Personnel management and more importantly – personality and ego management – becomes key to getting anything done. Knowing who to grease and who to avoid becomes critical to the deployed soldier navigating an unrivaled bureaucracy that involves multiple military services, countries, and languages.

All this is done in an adverse environment where someone is actively trying to kill you. At the end, the soldier that emerges is one that has done his or her job in a focused way for a prolonged period of time. Skills are learned and experience gets buried deep into the reservoir of the soldier, ready to be brought out in the future if called upon.

Put simply, the deployed soldier has done his job harder, faster, and longer than his counterpart who hasn’t deployed. That experience is valuable.

All that said, deployment experience does not necessarily create experts in anything other than that experience. One cannot simply say “I’ve been deployed” and hand wave necessary training or assume that anything done once is done forever. Rather, deployment experience is simply an indicator that  a soldier has done his or her job in a focused way for a sustained amount of time – which is more valuable than I once gave credit.

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The Hobbit on Yadkin Road: Jewel of Fayetteville

Maps

Three maps done by The Hobbit: NTC, Afghanistan (folded), Fort Hood.

The best things you learn in the Army you learn by word of mouth from good NCOs and officers (mostly NCOs). When I was a brand new Private in the 82nd Airborne Division, my first squad leader told me to go down to The Hobbit on Yadkin Road and get a proper cut and laminated map before I went out on my first field problem. I was new and impressionable and didn’t want to disappoint, so I did as he said, without question.

The Hobbit, mind you, is a hobby store very close to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It’s a nerd’s paradise full of Warhammer stuff, models, and role playing clubs on weekends (and I’m not judging, readers of this blog know my interests). When I opened the door in my green BDUs with rolled sleeves and a high and tight, meekly looking around as I stepped inside, the guy behind the counter, a large man with a Game of Thrones-esque beard quickly said “Map?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Right there in the box behind you. It’s fifteen bucks.”

I turned around and saw that indeed there was a box full of cut and laminated maps of Fort Bragg.

The Hobbit has made a small business out of cutting and laminating maps that are foldable and can be placed neatly in the cargo pocket of a soldier’s trousers. Since awkwardly walking into the hobby store back in 2001, I’ve sent every map I’ve been issued there to be cut and laminated and sent back to me.

I have no idea how long they have been providing the service. They don’t have a website or even a legit Facebook page. I’ve always just mailed them my maps with a hand written note of what I want and a phone number to call me to finalize the deal. It’s relatively inexpensive, fast, and the end product is a map, beautifully cut and laminated.

So, what I’m saying is, if you want your maps expertly cut and laminated, send them to The Hobbit. While there may be someone else that does it locally here at Fort Hood or other posts, I don’t know them. I know The Hobbit. They’re a known quantity and they’re good.

The Hobbit
6111 Yadkin Road, A
Fayetteville, NC 28303
(910) 864-3155

I’m a bit remiss to do this post, because I feel like I might be letting the cat out of the bag. But I like the service so much that I felt it would be helpful to spread the word.

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Can a soldier wear a GoPro on deployment?

Military GoPro videos, like the one above, have become pretty popular recently. Sites like “Funker350” share the videos which get passed around rapidly in the military community online. The GoPro, for those who don’t know, is a company popular for selling small cameras that can be attached to things, like a soldier’s helmet, to capture human experiences as they happen from the virtual point of view of the person. They’re really popular in extreme sports, and the jump to the military isn’t surprising.

Watching the video above, it looks like a first person shooter video game, only it’s completely real.

This trend isn’t all that surprising. Cameras have gotten smaller, lighter, better, and cheaper over the years and social media thrives on pictures and videos of “extreme” things.

I have a hard time deciding soldiers wearing GoPros would be a good thing or a bad thing. In the “good” category, you would have a fairly accurate log of what occurs on a combat patrol because it’s live video. There would be no questions as to what happened afterwards because you could simply “roll the videotape.” Conversely, the same is true. What happens on patrol would not stay on patrol. There are things that may happen outside the wire that, if nothing else, might be pretty embarrassing.

Those two things together, the GoPro seems to be a positive addition, if for nothing else, to serve as a forcing function of good behavior. But, also conversely true, soldier behavior may be affected when they know the GoPro is watching them in a different way. Everyone knows about the “spotlight Ranger” who only performs when the leadership is there to see it. There is also a concern of a guy looking to get an “epic video” of him doing something that he might not even consider doing if it wouldn’t be caught on video. GoPro’s motto is “Be a HERO” after all.

Boiling that argument down, the pro of wearing the GoPro is “everything will be recorded” while the con of wearing the GoPro is “everything will be recorded.”

What are the rules on this, though, as it pertains to soldiers in combat?

While I wasn’t able to find any policies specifically banning the GoPro, General Order Number 1C (GO-1C), which governs troop behavior in the CENTCOM area of responsibility says:

 h. Photography and Videotaping.

          (1) Except as authorized for official use and purposes described below, this Order prohibits the taking, making possession, reproduction, or transfer (to include uploading) of photographs, videos, depictions, and audio-visual recordings of the following:

               (a) detainees or former detainees; detention facilities; active combat operations (e.g., firefights); flight-line operations or equipment, subject to written, local exceptions…

The order specifically prohibits firefights from being photographed or videotaped. If you read through the rest of the order, pretty much anything cool is banned with the exception of photography relevant to the mission – tactical site exploitation, for example.

My sense of things, as trends go, is wearing the GoPro or something like it, while spooky to senior leaders now, will eventually become mandatory in the near future. Surveillance and recording is not on a down-sloping trend. It would probably do us more good to embrace it now and get good at working with it sooner rather than let a populace armed with smartphones tell our story for us.

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Command Performance

There is a strange phenomenon you’ll notice when junior soldiers are around their leaders, especially in the first days and weeks that the leader shows up. It happens mostly when soldiers are in groups, lounging around, bullshitting. One of the junior soldiers might casually drop in a borderline inappropriate comment, or say something insubordinate. Usually tame at first, but often in increasing intensity. The whole purpose is to test out the new leader, to see how he is going to respond. The entire group is likely aware of the mild transgression – every one knows the rules and regulations.

This isn’t to say that this is a phenomenon that occurs at strictly the junior level. It happens at all levels. Junior soldiers (whether this be Privates to Sergeants or Captains to Lieutenant Colonels) test the limits of what their superiors will deal with by dropping lines and waiting for a reaction. I know I’ve been guilty of this with my bosses, both when I was enlisted and now. A firm statement to stop would be incredibly awkward and might make the superior appear “lame.” Ignoring the transgression, though, might breed a toxic culture.

Stranger, is I don’t think this “command performance” is done consciously. I don’t think someone says “Okay, now I’m going to go test the new guy, see where his left and right limits are.” I think it just happens spontaneously. Part of it is probably just trying to get noticed by your boss, and the quickest way to do that is to be outrageous or offensive.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed the ‘command performances’ that happen around me a lot more keenly. There is a purpose to it. A statement said in your presence that isn’t directly challenged might be construed as tacit permission. For example, a soldier that casually says “I really don’t like these side plates, I’ll probably just take them out” in the presence of a leader and it goes unchallenged might say later when he is scolded for not wearing his side plates that he had said he was going to do it in front of this or that leader and nothing was said then.

The ‘command performance’ is something to look out for. While it could be nothing, it could also be the very first sign in a long process that leads to a catastrophe. Once you recognize it exists, it’s a lot easier to spot. I don’t think the answer is to angrily reject any wild thing that is said as part of it, as that’s the fast track to isolation as a leader, but to tactfully steer the conversation back on track and demonstrate where you stand on the issue – clearly – without being a dick.

*Command Performance was a radio program that ran during World War II for deployed troops. Here’s a link to Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ on one of the shows.

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The strange fashion choices of off-duty soldiers

War is SchlepOne of the things deep in my blog ‘to-write’ list is something on the strange fashion choices of soldiers. LT Schlep at War is Schlep (who hasn’t updated since October) drew the above comic depicting some of the typical fashion choices of Lieutenants. Chillingly accurate, I’m afraid.

I always liked seeing guys heading to downtown Fayetteville to get dinner after getting released. Guys with giant cowboy hats, tight jeans and boots hanging with guys wearing do-rags and pants hanging off their butts. All 11Bs, though.

The other interesting thing is that once guys join the Army, their fashion sense is frozen in time. If they joined in 1998, they will wear whatever was in style then, and they are unlikely to update.

Weekends around a military town, at the local mall, or Best Buy is probably the best place to see this in action. It’s a sight to behold, for sure.