The war is over son, time for you to go back home

The size of the military increases in war, and shrinks rapidly after the war. Service members cost money, and while you want your wartime soldiers to be a bit young, independent thinking, pissed off, and effective generally the establishment wants the peacetime soldiers to be presentable, disciplined, and obedient. It is a unique individual who fits into both situations with equal aplomb, and every time the military downsizes people lament that we are losing experienced lions to bring in virgin sheep.

Let me share with you a memory from a Soldier who served in Vietnam that illustrates this for that generations:

John D Edwards was not anybody’s idea of ‘SuperTroop’. From red dirt NE Mississippi, slow talking, not overly ambitious, JayDee was the Army’s answer to Gomer Pyle. Never particularly clean or neat, he mostly resembled a stack of limbs awaiting burning. Edwards drove the Five ton wrecker, at the tail end of our convoys up and down Highway 101 in Vietnam. We called it that in honor of the Caliifornia highway so many of us knew and loved. It was a job he was born to do. Watching him recover a dead vehicle was, in its way, a performance of the Bolshoi. Every move calculated, no wasted motion, the whole event should have had a score and a suitable orchestral pit.

We’ve all had or heard of Ambush Drills, Immediate action response, etc, etc. We’ve all done those in our sleep, “Close”; “Far” “L-ambush” etc. So this one day we get hit by the VC at a spot where the narrow single track trail has a canal on one side and some decent vegetation on the other. ‘Boom!’, the lead truck staggers to a stop missing a front wheel. Bang, Bang RATATATATATTATTTTTATATTTTT! The Ambush is sprung!

No sooner than that, one hears a great ROAR as if a T-Rex came awake. And sure enough, that Five Ton Wrecker has left the road and is tearing through the shrubbery demolishing Charles’ well laid plans. Festooned with branches and limbs, uprooted trees and splotches of wet black rags JayDee plowed those boys under, turned ’em over and made new rows . . . the stout steel bumper and winch assembly and running gear needed a power wash, rather badly. JD triumphantly hooked on the broken truck and led the convoy back to Fort Fumble, our home away from home. He got a Bronze Star w/’V’ for that, and made SP4. You just never know who your heroes are gonna be!

Now I don’t know if John D Edwards was drafted or a volunteer but that doesn’t really matter since the last Vietnam draftee only recently left Army service, a crusty old Chief Warrant Officer. By the time the Gulf War rolled around, there were scant Vietnam veterans in the ranks. Ten years after a war ends, the force will have turned over so much through normal attrition anyways.

Here is another story:

Frank repeatedly exposed himself to heavy enemy fire with no regard for his personal well-being during a decisive point in the battle to effectively neutralize and destroy twenty one enemy combatants. He continued to engage and destroy enemy targets as our platoon surged forward in a vicious counter attack that drove the Taliban from the battlefield after inflicting over a hundred casualties on the enemy. He was later awarded the Silver Star for the exceptional heroism he displayed in this battle.

What a great story right?  Here is the punch line.  While most of you are probably wondering when this exceptional Marine will become Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, you may be surprised to find out that he is being forced out of uniform. Frank has reached service limitations because he has been on active duty over ten years and the Marine Corps will not promote Frank to Staff Sergeant. Does that make any sense to anyone else? I certainly can’t make any sense of it.  I forgot to mention a small detail. Frank used to have a bit of a drinking problem.

The guys the nation wants fighting its wars are not always the same guys that the nation wants guarding its gates.

It may sound callous to point this out, but the military isn’t welfare and just because the guys who aren’t “Frank” or “John D. Williams” are either getting out or being forced out doesn’t mean that the next generation of volunteers will be any less effective on the field of battle.

After all, before 2001 the combat experience in the military was largely limited to the remaining Gulf War veterans and some SOCOM guys. The bulk of the Army had a slick right sleeve, the and the 80% turnover rate every three years in the USMC meant that they weren’t a combat hardened force by any stretch of the imagination. So how did those forces fight? They fought well. The Soldiers and Marines who volunteered in peacetime, the “virgin sheep” were often led by Captains, Lieutenants, and Sergeants who had never deployed into the two way live fire range but had spent considerable amount of time studying the theory and doctrine of war.

They weren’t a “ragged around the edges” force. They were a force that did it’s best to stay sharp in peacetime with limited budgets. They were a force that valued a disciplined Soldier or Marine because that individual wasn’t a training distraction.

There is one big difference between the Vietnam generation and the current situation, and that is that the idea of a military career is much more common. The military personnel policies require that you can’t stay at one rank for too long or you will be eliminated, and if there is something in your past that prevents you from getting promoted even valor on the field of battle isn’t going to change the cold calculus of a military that when it is shrinking has way more qualified personnel than places to put them.

So the guys like Frank get passed over, the guys like JayDee are encouraged to go back to Red Dirt, Mississippi. Uncle Sam says, “Thank you for your service, the war is over for you, time to go home.”

And yes it sucks that for some the Army or the USMC is “home” if there is such a thing. However, if you were the Human Resources department and you had a junior leader who was approaching retirement, and another junior leader who had 13 or 15 years left with the company before retirement, which would you keep and which would you let go? The sad part is that you HAVE to keep the one who has a longer time until retirement or you will lose BOTH by kicking out the new guy and then have the old guy retire. So they have to take longevity into account or hurt hard for missing personnel later.

This is why the Army cuts mustangs before cutting ROTC and West Point Officers:

It isn’t “fair” it is just what it is. Some are kicked out because they aren’t promoted, some are selected to retire, others still are simply given a pink slip. The military as it downsizes can’t take into account the “Franks” of their world, the business of shrinking a two million man military and reorganizing the remnants into a fighting force that is ready for the next time the President and Congress want to play “Cowboy and Muslim” is a tough job.

So I sympathize with the others who are getting put on notice. I know good Soldiers who were forced out to be replaced with less effective Soldiers. I know people who just skate by and dedicated people who are passed over. The system isn’t perfect but I think we all knew that going into it.

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