Garrison soldiers, field soldiers, and missing the point

Garrison vs. Field: An imaginary distinction.

“He’s good in the field, but he sucks in garrison.”

I saw this story last week, and it bummed me out. ‘82nd Airborne Paratroopers Unhappy with Iraq, Afghanistan Withdrawals.

Paratroopers like to fight. They like to go to war. But I was saddened by the tone in this report, suggesting that soldiers fear a return to a ‘garrison’ Army, one in which they won’t be doing real work, but instead, focused on things like area beautification and the ‘ol dog and pony show. It’s a strange fear, since, for most of these soldiers, they never really experienced a garrison Army.

One soldier reports that he wants to do his job and he can only do that while deployed.

That sentiment is echoed throughout the article, although, the younger soldiers seem to fear garrison life more than the older ones (who are on their umpteenth deployment and wouldn’t mind a little more family time).

The idea forwarded is that being deployed constitutes real work, while being back home does not. It is easy to understand where this attitude comes from. For those who join the Army looking for action and adventure, garrison life is a distraction and boring. I suppose time spent training in the field doesn’t count as strict garrison, and would qualify as a cut above pure garrison life (whatever that is), but still short of an operational deployment. But even time spent out in the field might be a downer. No one in the field is out there trying to shoot you.

Sadly, this eagerness to deploy to do ‘real work’ suggests that being back home isn’t taken as seriously. That is, true soldiering is something that happens only while deployed. Everything else is just nonsense. Not what I “signed up for.”

Well, Army leaders have nodded towards a coming realignment where discipline and old school garrison attitudes will soon be making a return. The drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the current budget crisis and a downsizing Army suggests a coming higher level of accountability from soldiers across the ranks.

The attitude expressed in the article reminded me of my first year in the Army. The ‘Global War on Terror’ had just started, but only affected a relatively small number of units and soldiers. There was a sense in the air that something big was looming on the horizon, but we were still a ‘garrison’ Army transitioning to a ‘wartime’ Army.

In the Army in days of yore, attentive soldiers with an eye on rapid advancement understood that a premium was placed on the wear and appearance of the uniform. A clean, freshly starched set of BDUs with razor angles and boots that shone like black glass attracted praise from tough NCOs. Standing tall and looking good was not done simply for its own sake, but was often done seeking reward. Preferential treatment, additional passes, and compliments rained down from superiors, who wished to foster an environment where all soldiers took pride in their uniform and appearance.

There were other soldiers, though, who were having none of this. So much attention paid to an immaculately kept uniform detracted from other, more important tasks. ‘Real’ soldiers were good at their ‘real’ jobs, and in the case of the infantry, that is closing with and destroying the enemy. Real soldiers were good at core tasks and were good in the field – PT, shooting combatives – whereas garrison soldiers were good in the rear – well-manicured uniform, competes in soldier of the month/year/millennium boards, takes correspondence courses, has the right things in the right pockets, knows unit history, etc.

Field soldiers and garrison soldiers.

A garrison soldier in the field.

Such a stark division couldn’t last. Handsomely dressed gentlemen wouldn’t survive in the field (there are bugs). And raw grunts would smell bad and break all the fine china in the chow hall.

This led to the inbetweeners. These are the soldiers who fancied themselves grunts but saw the value in keeping a good uniform and understood pragmatically that standing-tall-looking-good-ought-to-be-in-hollywood was good for their professional advancement. But they were torn, because it seemed as if only one path could be chosen – field soldier or garrison soldier. For an infantryman, the choice would be obvious. But to choose the field route meant forfeiting the benefits of the garrison route.

To address this, the inbetweeners decided to maintain a field uniform and a garrison uniform. The field uniform would be the standard issue BDU, but not specially kept. They would never be starched and they would be worn ‘as is’ – wrinkles and all. Field boots would be occasionaly slathered with a chunk of Kiwi quickly rubbed in with the sole intent of preserving the leather. There was little shine, only a matte, dull look that absorbed the sun.

The garrison uniform, on the other hand, would be kept clean and starched heavily. On Monday mornings, it would be carefully removed from its protective plastic wrapper. As arms and legs penetrated the pressed uniform, thin sheets of heavy starch might crack off and fall to the ground, shattering like tiny pieces of glass. Soldiers could look at themselves in the mirror-reflection of their black boots, which may have been shined by hand, or by the boot guy on Yadkin road.

Garrison soldiers could rarely ‘put their arms down.’

A 0900 Monday morning formation was always one filled with grumbles, as the field soldiers scoffed at the parade-ready garrison soldiers, who of course, insisted that they were simply wearing their garrison uniform – not their ‘real’ uniform. Field soldiers retorted that uniforms are uniforms and there should be no distinction, to which the garrison soldiers responded with accusations of laziness and jealousy.

That battle didn’t end until the introduction of the ACU and the tan boot, which requires no shoe polish. It’s hard to make the ACU look good, so no one bothered trying.

I recall seeing starched DCUs while deployed. Relevant? No. Silly? Probably.

The point in all this is to highlight the long-held distinctions soldiers have had on garrison life and field life (whether ‘field’ means a week out in the woods, a couple of weeks at NTC or JRTC, or a year-long deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan).

Wherever soldiers are and whatever they are doing, that’s their real job.

Going forward, the challenge for leaders will be to convince a transitioning wartime Army that these ‘old school,’ basic soldiering skills are no less important than core skills related to a particular job. Leading soldiers in combat is important, yes, but should not be taken more seriously than leading soldiers in the rear, where the threat of death and injury exists just as it does while deployed (but with a different enemy).

Soldiering is soldiering, whether it is in the field or in the rear.

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