Here it comes: the big drawdown

It seems that every day brings news about the future of the military, and today was certainly no exception.  The Army, according to a Thomas Ricks’ post in Foreign Policy, is about to start separating officers from the service.  (Click here to read it)

There has been a lot of howling about how sequestration is causing the downfall of the military, and that the danger of a hollow force is only a manpower cuts away, but in all practical reality the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make a smaller military inevitable.  It happens after every major conflict; the US Army numbered under 400,000 active and national guard troops in 1939, but by the end of the Second World War it had swollen to over 8,000,000. At the start of the Korean War some five years later the army was down to 630,000.

One of the principal reasons that the drawdown in the near future is different from those from prior wars is the composition of the force.  There are no draftees in today’s military.  Each and every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine volunteered to serve his or her country, and as a result more of them are likely to want to stay in the military than their predecessors.  At the end of the First and Second World Wars the armed forces (which were filled with draftees and wartime volunteers) shrunk naturally as people headed back to the lives they interrupted to go to war.  The same can be said for Korea and Vietnam to certain extent, as draftees were critical to expanding the armed forces to the size needed to fight those wars.

Today, though, we have no draftees.  Instead, we have a highly trained force of military professionals who have dedicated themselves to a career in the military.  Sure, the majority of first term enlistees serve one hitch and get out, but a significantly larger percentage want to stay.

Therein lies the rub.  As the military inevitably shrinks, the number of job slots that military folks can fill will decrease.  For the enlisted component of the armed forces, the length and terms of the enlistment contract can be used to decrease the size of the force; the military branches can make it more restrictive and difficult to reenlist. It is an effective manpower shaping tool.

For officers, however, the rules are very different.  Generally speaking, junior officers (ensigns and lieutenants) serve an initial contracted period (during which they are considered “reserve” officers), which is very similar to the enlisted side.  If they want to stay in, however, instead of reenlisting they compete for transition to from “reserve” to “regular” status.  Once an officer becomes a regular, his contract disappears and his term of service becomes “indefinite”.  This means that they are in until they 1) retire 2) quit 3) fail to get promoted or 4) die.  There is no enlistment contract to use as a force shaping tool.

During stable periods this is no big deal.  The services have staffing models that pretty accurately predict the size that the force needs to be, and they can manage the number of officers based on the number they are allowed to have by law, natural attrition, and accession of new officers.  During unstable times, though, like right now as we finish up a couple of wars, the models come apart like a trailer in a tornado.

The military had to significantly change its shape and size to fight the protracted counterinsurgent wars.  Many more boots on the ground were needed, which means that privates and second lieutenants were getting hired at the rapid rate (meaning much were donning the uniform than usual), and as time went on they got promoted to become sergeants and captains.  Enough time, in fact, that many of the officers became regulars.

Now that becomes a problem.

The enlisted side can be shaped using enlistment contracts, but the regular officers are immune from that shaping tool.  Instead, to reduce the number of officers (which is necessary to retain the proper shape of the force) the branches must figure out a way to get them to leave.  There are a lot of programs that are used to entice officers to leave (early retirement, “getting out” bonuses, etc), but when those do not get enough officers to leave the axe comes out.

In the Marine Corps the axe is the Selected Early Retirement Board (SERB).  Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels who fit a particular set of conditions are considered for retention or retirement.  Even though they can, by law, serve until their service limitations of 30 and 28 years respectively, the Marine Corps does not need them around for that long.  If they are selected for early retirement by the SERB, then they have about seven months to transition out to retirement.  The reason that such senior officers are targeted in the Marine Corps is that by lopping off people at the top it frees those below them to move up.

The Army is apparently about to do the same thing, except for a much junior set of folks: captains and majors. From Ricks’ blog post (a portion of letter sent from a senior officer to his or her juniors):

“You may already know, but there are going to be Officer Separation Boards (OSB) and Enhanced Selective Early Retirement Boards (E-SERBs) for Army Competitive Category Captains in Year Groups 2006-2008 and Majors in Year Groups 1999-2003 beginning in March 2014.

Initial word is that the OSBs and E-SERBs will select less than 10% of the considered majors and captains in year group 2008 and less than 20% of the captains considered in year groups 2006 and 2007.

I am meeting with the officers in the battalion affected that are physically at Ft. [DELETED] to discuss their Professional Development and future officer actions and will provide them an assessment of their potential for future service and potential risk of being selected for involuntary separation, and will help prepare their files for the boards. Additionally they are contacting their HRC Branch Representatives for an assessment. I recommend you find a trusted senior officer to do the same.”

The writing is on the wall.  Despite the promise of an exciting career in uniform, many officers are going to get the axe.  Is it good?  Is it bad?  I dunno.  In the mafia, they say that “it’s just business”.  The military needs to shrink, and it is not sequestration’s fault.  How the shrinking is done, however, says a lot about the moral contract between the institution of the military and those who serve within it.

Food for thought.


Orders to Nowhere: The Book!

Coming soon!  The launch date is expected by be no later than November 10th, but hopefully sooner. I’ll post a note as soon as it goes live.

Written over the two years of navigating the often frustrating and always confusing waters of military transition, Orders to Nowhere is finally available in print!

Orders to Nowhere is the essential insider’s guide to military transition.  Demystifying the uncertainty and ambiguity that surrounds getting out of the military, Orders to Nowhere is the comprehensive After Action Report of a career Marine’s transition from the tightly knit military world back to civilianhood.

Tens of thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen transition back into the civilian world each and every year. The change from life in uniform to life beyond the military is a significant emotional event for everyone who experiences it. Hanging up your uniform for the last time isn’t easy, and Orders to Nowhere was written to help explain the overwhelming process and make it easier for military members planning to get out, while they are in the midst of transition, or after they become veterans.

Mike Grice is an award winning writer, retired career Marine, and intrepid explorer of the military transition process.  Orders to Nowhere is the journal of his experiences , but it is also the story of every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman who takes off the cloth of the nation and goes back to civilian life.  Written during the author’s adventure through the trials and tribulations of transition, Orders to Nowhere eases the pain by giving an inside look at the widely varied aspects of military to civilian transformation.  Things like:

 -making the decision to hang up the uniform
– telling your boss that you are getting out
– the administration and logistics of moving on
– the emotional roller coaster of transition 
– effects on family
– transition decorum and ceremonies 
– the details of military retirement benefits
– transition assistance classes
– dealing with the Veterans Administration
– VA disability claims
– the Post 9/11 GI Bill
– finding a job
– how to dress like a professional
– writing a resume and cover letter
– networking
– interviewing for a job
– salary and benefits negotiation 
– adjusting to civilian life
– and much, much more

The book contains over 160 lessons learned and recommendations that can help anyone going through the military to civilian transition avoid making costly mistakes.  The path back to “normal” life is anything but normal, and Orders to Nowhere is the traveler’s guide that every member of the military and veteran needs to ease the pain of the journey.

A must for every man and woman in uniform to help make transition as smooth as possible!

Jobs for veterans: companies that are really stepping up

One of the most distressing parts of making the jump from wearing the cloth of the nation back to the civilian world is finding a new way to make a living.  Nobody in the military does it for the money (well, nobody I ever met) but money keeps all of us from living in a refrigerator box under an overpass and begging for spare change.  Transition is stressful, and with a down economy and the news filled with negative reports about high unemployment and low wages many veterans see unemployment and even poverty as real possibilities once they get out.

Fortunately, there are some really great companies in this nation of ours who have stepped up and pledged to bring veterans on to their rolls.  Whether it is from a sense of civic duty, recognition that military folks have skills that employers really want, or simply for the positive press that it generates doesn’t matter.  What matters is that firm after firm is opening their doors to veterans.

Good on them, I say.  And thank you!

Many of these companies have been in the news lately.  I won’t attempt to rewrite the stories that are already bouncing around the net, but here are links to a few that I found to be compelling about companies that are reaching out to veterans:


Wal-Mart Plans to Hire Any Veteran Who Wants a Job

Michelle Obama to Keynote Disney Event on Hiring of Military Veterans

Again, a huge thank you to those businesses that recognize the value of our veterans.  Countless veterans can breathe a little easier and avoid thinking about refrigerator boxes thanks to the prospect of a job on the other side of transition.

Warrior Wives Conference

Yesterday I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting around 50 women who share the distinction of being married to servicemen who have been, currently are, or will be deployed into one of the many hot spots around the world. I met them at the Warrior Wives Conference. which was hosted by Veterans 360 (a great non-profit organization that helps servicepeople and veterans who are dealing with the challenges that every military family faces).

The conference brought together people who were concerned with the changes that their warrior husbands exhibited after their return from combat.  It was a tremendous venue, with knowledgeable guest speakers, booths manned by over a half-dozen public and non-profic support organizations, a panel discussion, and refreshments. The morning could not have been better spent.

Having the opportunity to speak with such dedicated women was tremendous.  There is a lot of press out there that addresses the effects of PTSD and combat stress on those who suffer from it, but there is not nearly as much about its effect on families.  Every combat veteran struggles to reconcile their experiences in the fight with the realities of home, but those with spouses and children often have the added stress of trying to fit the mold of who they used to be in order to make things at home “normal” again.  Too often they find it impossible to go back to who they were before they went to war, and as a result they begin to resent who they have become.  It often becomes a vicious downward cycle that ends in alienation, acrimony, separation, and divorce.

Wives shared their frustrations with how their husbands were treated by their senior leaders and the mental health care system.  Several voiced disgust about seniors who refused to let their spouse seek care without retribution, and others shared how they were disrespectfully treated when they tried to become active in their spouse’s treatment; two of the participating wives were told that they were the problem.  I find it amazing that those who are battling to keep their families together must fight the very institution that officially promises to help them overcome the devastating challenges of combat stress and family reintegration.

It was a cathartic day.  Spouses who felt isolated and believed that they were alone in their pain found others who were rowing in the same boat.  A lot of tears were shed and new friendships were made. Every person who attended the conference left with a new group of friends and a greater set of resources that would help them with daily struggle to overcome the effects of combat stress, and I believe that each departed a little more hopeful for the future of their family.

Our wars are coming to an end.  Iraq is behind us and Afghanistan soon will be.  The effects of those wars on the families of those who fought them won’t end so readily, however.  In the last paragraph of his second inaugural address, the great president Abraham Lincoln made a promise to veterans and their families at the height of the Civil War:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Noble words then and as true today as they were the day he spoke them.  The nation owes a debt to all who suffer because of the wars it fights, and not to pay that debt is a breach of faith and dereliction of duty beyond measure. The inaugural Warrior Wives Conference initiated a grassroots dialog about how things are really going in the homes touched by combat stress.  I hope that the conversation grows.

Stepping up

Yesterday the government managed to pull itself out of the partisan swamp long enough to pass legislation to reopen the government for business and raise the debt ceiling.

What if they hadn’t?

Many veterans rely on the checks that they receive from the government just to survive.  One of the most at-risk groups consists of those who were wounded in the service of the nation and as a result are often limited in their access to jobs after they get out.  It is tough to get a job without an arm or a leg or with burn scars all over your body. If the shutdown and debt limit debacle had continued, such veterans would have been out of luck.

Fortunately, there continue to be great Americans and great organizations that are willing to step up when the bureaucratic machine grinds to a halt.  One such organization, the Wounded Warrior Project, expressed their outrage at the gridlock and its potential effect on veterans by committing $20 million to help vets who would be left high and dry.  They announced yesterday that they would send a check for $500 to vets if their expected government checks did not arrive in November.

It warms the heart to see our fellow Americans rise to the occasion.  Too bad the occasion has to be the disastrous ineffectiveness of the government that  sent them out to get wounded in the first place.

The phonebook’s here!! The phonebook’s here!!

Well, not actually the phonebook.  And it’s not actually here yet, but it will be soon.

So what is it?

It, my faithful readers, is the book Orders to Nowhere.  I am in the final throes of reviewing and editing the posts and articles that we have shared so far as well as incorporating as much up-to-date information as I can in order to create a book that will hopefully help others successfully make the jump from the uniformed side of the fence to the not-so regimented flip-flop wearing side.

There are a lot of you out there who have been following my journey, and I really appreciate your continued readership.  The blog will keep on going, but now that I have completed my VA claims process and all of my separations and retirement processes are done with it is time to compile them all together into one package that can help demystify transition for those who still have their EAS in front of them (as well as those in the middle of it all).

A way that you could help, should you be so inclined, would be to include any testimonials or comments that you have about Orders to Nowhere.  I would love to be able to put supportive testimonial comments on the back cover and on the website, so if you think Orders to Nowhere has been beneficial and would like to tell the world, please do — any and all comments are welcome.  You can contact me below, and thanks so much!!




Update: families of deceased servicemembers to receive benefits after all

After a lot of embarrassing press coverage about families of those who died in the service of the nation being denied death benefits, the government was able to put partisanship aside and pass a bill to ensure that the families would be taken care of.  The bill, H.J. Resolution 91, was signed into law yesterday by the President.

Too bad it took ten days and 26 dead servicemen and women to get the government to do the right thing.  Click here to read more about it.

The shutdown hits just keep on coming: Death Benefits for military families halted

It seems like every day brings another aspect of how the government shutdown has a real impact on real people. Today we learn that the loved ones of those killed in combat will not receive the money they desperately need to deal with the death of a service-man or -woman who is killed in action.

The political brinksmanship that created the current shutdown crisis has wrought considerable trauma on those who have sacrificed the most: the mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters of our uniformed dead.  Because the bill that kept military paychecks coming during the government’s partial closure did not include provisions for families, they cannot be paid the death gratuity that is provided by the Department of Defense.

To allow the families of our fallen to be so ill treated by a governmental stalemate is truly a break in the moral contract with those who send their sons and daughters to shed their blood in the defense of the nation.  At least in my humble opinion.

For more information, click here.

Furloughs hit the VA

As of today, the government shutdown has begun to impact the Veterans Administration in a real and tangible manner.  Over 7,000 VA employees are being furloughed from Veterans Benefit Administration regional offices.  For more information, go here.

The VA has also updated the effects of the furlough on their operations.  The VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs has released updated information sheets regarding the impact of the shutdown on various VA programs.  Click here to see their position on the shutdown, and also to read the most recent statements.

Hopefully the shutdown will not reverse the positive inertia that the VA was beginning to make in terms of the reduction in veteran benefit claims.  We’ll see…

So the government “partially” shuts down. What does that mean to veterans and those still in uniform?

Well, it is October 1st and as Halloween decorations are going up the government is shutting down.  Partially, anyhow.  But what does a “partial” government shutdown mean to those steely eyed killers walking on patrol in Afghanistan and the not-so-steely eyed veterans who are now reliant on the VA for healthcare, disability payments, and/or pensions?

Great question!  In an effort to help provide some clarity in the murky waters that surround the shutdown I have done some sleuthing around to find some answers.  So, in no particular order, here are the things that I discovered:

1.  If you are serving in the military, then you have little to fear.  The congress passed a bill, which the president signed, that guaranteed paychecks for active duty and reserve status military personnel (along with some government employees and contractors).  For more information go here.

2.  If you are retired and receiving a military pension, then you can rest easy.  Since pensions are considered an entitlement and are not funded by annual appropriations they are safe from the shutdown.  If, however, the government hits the debt ceiling then they may be affected.  For more information go here.

3.  VA health care, pension, and disability payments.  There is good news and bad news regarding the VA.  The good news is that they are lightly impacted by furloughs and medical services will be unaffected, but the bad news is that they will likely run out of funds to pay all of their pension and disability payments if the shutdown lasts more than a few weeks.  Other programs, such as the GI Bill and others, will also be hit if the shutdown is prolonged.  For information on what is and is not impacted at the VA go here.  For information on the testimony that the VA provided congress about the impact of the shutdown (and how it will affect future payments) go here.

I hope this helps you get the information you need to understand the effect of the shutdown on you and your family.  Let’s just hope that the government of the nation that we swore to support and defend can get its act together and start moving forward again.