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.

The tragic loss of a great friend to all veterans: A Goodbye to James Gandolfini

Yesterday, in Rome, a great friend and supporter of the military and of veterans passed away.  James Gandolfini, the iconic actor who redefined the mafioso in cinema and popular culture, died of an apparent heart attack while visiting Italy.

Gandolfini, whose acting performances brought him into the top tier of the industry, was so much more than “just” a brilliantly talented actor.  He was also a compassionate and driven man who cared deeply for the members of the armed services who were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the veterans who rejoined society after hanging up their body armor and combat boots.

His contributions to the military are too numerous to recount here, but there are two of his passionate endeavors that have resonated with me personally.

As an actor, he has been at the top of his game for over a decade.  The roles that he has played and the movies that he has made took a level of dedication and passion and professionalism that would have left a lesser man unable to look past his own career.  Fortunately for me and for all who have served, however, he leveraged the professional capital that he had earned and selflessly gave back to those who were wearing the cloth of the nation.

He used his talents to produce two incredibly powerful documentaries, both of which I found to be moving and staggeringly relevant in a time of seemingly ceaseless war.

In 2007 he produced the documentary “Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq” in which he told the story of soldiers and Marines who were severely wounded and disabled during their tours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  It was not a feel good driveby piece of pseudo-journalism, but instead a heartfelt and heartwrending journey with veterans who had come within an Angel’s breath of dying, yet survived the traumatic violence that robbed them of limbs and, for many of them, hope.  Gandolfini took everyone brave enough to watch inside the lives of those who paid the price of freedom with their arms and legs, and will continue to pay it for the rest of their days.  He pulled back the curtain and showed the tragic realities of war in such impactfully human terms that it brought the cost of war home in an undeniably compelling and emotional way.

Later, in 2010, he produced another powerful documentary about the unseen wounds that affect those who fight in war.  “Wartorn: 1861-2010” drew back the curtain on a different and equally debilitating price that veterans face: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Gandolfini provided a glimpse into the psychological damage that is wrought by war on those who fight it from the Civil War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As with “Alive Day”, the documentary makes the audience not just view the subject, but to feel it in a way that is unforgettable.

Yesterday, June 19th, 2013 was a day like any other except that on that day a great friend to anyone who has ever sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States was taken from the surly bonds of earth.  Although he is no longer with us in body, his spirit joins the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and other giants of entertainment who embraced the military even though they didn’t have to.

He will certainly join the likes of Hope and Crosby on the other side of the Pearly Gates, for as anyone who has ever heard the words to The Marines Hymn knows the gates of heaven are guarded by the United States Marines.

And they always open the way for one of their own.

Semper Fidelis James Gandolfini.  You will be missed.

Leadership and Transition

I am in the middle of writing a series of articles and a book about transition, and about a month ago I created a survey about the military transition process to help gather information on the subject (and if you have not taken it, please do!  I can never get enough data points:  Military Transition Survey).  The survey revealed some very interesting data points, and one struck me as being particularly revealing about how those undergoing transition are viewed and treated by their organizations as they leave the service.

The question was: “How involved was your unit and/or unit leadership in your transition process?”

The answers ranged from “Very Low” to “Very High”.  See if you can guess where the bulk of respondents fell on the scale…

Well, a startlingly low percentage felt that their units were involved in their transition.  Only 8% felt that their unit and their leaders were highly or very highly involved.  For an institution that prides itself on being the gold standard of leadership that is a pretty dismal level of effort.

What is shocking is how poor the involvement was.  15% of respondents selected “Neither High nor Low” (which was the middle of the scale), but a whopping 76% stated that the involvement of their units and leadership was “Low” or “Very Low”.  Ouch!

Upon reading the results I had to think back to my personal experience with transition.  As a leader myself, I had always thought that I had taken care of those in my charge, including those who chose to hang up their uniforms.  After reflecting for a bit I realized that although I was very supportive of their efforts I certainly could have done a whole lot more.

I would sit down and talk with every Marine and Sailor who left my command.  The conversation that we would have varied depending on what was next for them as they departed the unit; if they were transferring to another duty station we would talk about what was in store for them and how it could impact their career and family, and if they were getting out we would have a discussion of where their lives were headed.  I would try to guide and mentor them towards pursuing an education by taking advantage of the GI Bill, and in cases where he had no interest in further education I would try to get them to at least formulate a plan for the way ahead.  After we spoke and shook hands we parted ways.

That was all well and good.  But I could, and should, have have been much more engaged.  As I learned during my transition there was a lot to do after I checked out of my unit, and I was pretty much completely on my own to get it done.  As a leader I should have gone the extra mile and actually followed their progress as they navigated the path of transition, but I didn’t.  I should have gone to the transition assistance classes to see what was being taught and how my Marines and Sailors were being treated, but I didn’t.  Shame on me.

As I discovered out during my own outprocessing there are a lot of bumps in the offramp from military service.  As I transitioned I found the process to be both difficult and annoying, and I was a senior officer with nearly three decades of experience.  If it was hard for me, how tough was it for a young man or woman who served only one tour?

The answer to that question is that it was a lot harder for them than it was for me.  Part of the reason that it was harder is because they were just cast upon the waters of transition without the guidance and oversight that they had experienced during their time in the military.

From the day that they met their recruiter to the day that they decided to leave the military each and every servicemember was under the guidance and tutelage of a concerned leader.  Recruiters prepared them for bootcamp, and their drill instructors molded them into Marines (or Sailors, or Soldiers, or Airmen).  They were trained by professional instructors in their military trades, and became valued parts of units and teams in the operating forces.  They became leaders in their own rights as they progressed up the ranks, and they were always under the wing of those who had been around longer than they had.

Unfortunately, when they decided to get out the concerned leadership of their units disappeared.  They (and I) were no longer valued members of the team, but instead guys and gals who were getting out.  To be fair, there certainly is a lot going on in the military these days with things like combat deployments, training exercises, and everything else that is part of the military experience.  That said, as leaders we failed to be there for the final chapter of military service for 76% of those who transitioned out of the military.

That is truly a shame, and something that should be addressed.  In my humble opinion, the most significant portion of the problem is how the TAP/TAMP and transition process is performed.  Those on the way out are centrally trained for transition, and the centralization of training removes the onus of oversight from the units that they came from.  They are out of sight and out of mind, and as such quickly become forgotten in the churn of daily military life.  The close bonds that they formed with their peers, subordinates, and seniors quickly fade during the time when they need them most: the incredibly stressful and uncertain transition from the all encompassing world that they knew to an ambiguous future in a world that they left years before.

Another telling statistic from the survey is how well the respondents felt that their transition process prepared them for re-entry into civilian life.  Sadly, on 12% felt that they were fully prepared for the jump.  That number should be much higher, and perhaps it would be if leaders were more involved in their people who are transitioning.

How many would have felt more prepared if their leaders had stayed as engaged with them during their last days in uniform as they were in the beginning?

What do you miss about being in uniform?

When I hung up my uniform for the last time I realized that a huge and fundamental part of my life had changed.  What I did not appreciate at the time, however, was how much the people that I had served with during my career were in that change.

The military is, in many ways, a closed society.  We go to work on bases that are segregated from the civilian population, and we spend days, weeks, and months on end training and preparing to defend the nation from its enemies.  We deploy away from our homes on ships and airplanes with people just like us in the berthing spaces and seats next to us.  Being in the military is an intense and all encompassing immersive experience.

It begins with the shock of meeting your Drill Instructor or Drill Sergeant or whatever your service calls the steely eyed killer who breaks you of all of your nasty civilian habits and transforms you into a Marine, Sailor, Soldier, or Airman.  It continues as you go through training to learn your military craft, and the bonds between you and your compatriots is cemented when you show up to your first operational unit.

It continues as long as you wear the uniform.  Whether you stay in for three years or thirty, you experience a shift in your soul by wearing the cloth of the nation.  You become a critical part of a team, and live your life with people who would willingly die or kill for you — and you would willingly do the same for them.  It is an incredibly powerful experience that suddenly comes to a shocking end when you get out.

One of the questions that I ask in the military transition survey (if you have not taken it yet, please follow this link and help me gather more data: Military Transition Survey) is what you miss the most about serving in the military.

What do you think the most common answers are?  Cool training?  Seeing new and exciting things?  The pay and benefits?

Nope.

The two most common answers by a wide margin are these:

Feeling of camaraderie with my fellow servicemembers

and

The people you served with

After spending a lot of time personally reflecting about my service, the people that I have met, the places I have gone, and the things that I have done, the thing that I personally miss the most about my time in uniform is the same.  I miss the people that I served with.  All of them.  Even the ones that I didn’t like very much, because at the end of the day they were still on my team and ready to fight by my side.

Relationships are powerful, and they are probably the one thing that you can take with you when you leave the service.  So if you are on the way out, make sure to get some email addresses and phone numbers of those you want to keep in touch with.  Find a veterans organization that you like and spend some time there.  Departing the military will drill a hole into your soul, and it is a hole that only those who have served can really help fill.  So don’t wait until it is too late, and reach out to your friends before it is too late and, like your last day in uniform, they are behind you.

Some preliminary results

Thanks to all of you who have read my posts about the transition survey that I using to conduct some research into the military transition process.   A lot of you have helped me out, and I truly appreciate your time in taking the survey and for sharing it with others who can help.

That said, I can never get enough data.  If you are a veteran or a military person going through transition, please take my survey here: Military Transition Survey .  Thanks!

So far the data are showing some interesting trends.  The Marine Corps is the best represented so far, so for those of you in other branches here is your chance to catch up and beat the Marines….

About half of the respondents are combat veterans, and veterans from every conflict since the Korean War have taken the survey.  My first look at the data shows that there are many more programs available today than were out there for earlier generations of veterans, with many of our Vietnam, Korean, and Cold War veterans responding that they had no formal outprocessing resources.

More recent veterans report that there are a lot of different programs currently available, and that they produce a wide disparity in results.  Some are reported to be great, and others are reported to be useless.  I am looking forward to diving more deeply into the data to learn more.

The split between veterans who did and did not serve in active combat is about even, as is the ratio between enlisted and commissioned respondents.  Very few warrant officers have weighed in, though — so if you are a warrant officer, please jump in!

I will start analyzing the information in greater depth next week, and I’ll keep you posted.  Till then, keep sharing the link and get as many of your peers and friends as you can to take the survey.

Thanks!

 

A chance to improve the military to civilian transition process

As those who follow my writings about military transition know, the process is often contrary, capricious, confusing, and supremely frustrating.  I have been writing about my experiences for nearly two years now, and over that time I have been disappointed to see that the process has not really improved.  Transition is still just as consternating as ever, despite millions of dollars spent on the process by both the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration.

I am currently writing a book about my transitional journey, and that is where you come into the picture.  I have created a survey in which I am humbly asking every veteran and every military person who is going through transition or has completed transition to participate.  I have my own observations and opinions, but as author Eric Herzel once said: “One’s opinion should only be as strong as one’s knowledge on the matter.”

Since I am planning to write much more about transition, I really need to incorporate the collective knowledge of as many of you who have experienced transition in order to make my opinions as fact-based as possible.  Will you help?

Without further ado, here is:

Military Transition  Survey

Thank you in advance — and I will be posting the insights and results soon!

The sound of no phones ringing as my VA saga continues

In my most recent post I lamented about the languishing status of my service connected disability claim.  It had been partially settled, but half of the conditions under review still required action and that action was very long in coming.  It is month seven and counting since I was informed that “I would be contacted” by a VA representative to continue the work on my claim.

At month five or so I called to see what was up.  After many failed attempts, I got up extra early and called when the call center opened, and after being on hold for a half hour I was able to speak to a representative.  Long story short, he initiated an official inquiry which included the promise that I would receive a telephone call from the regional office that was working my claim.  In ten working days or less.

Well, ten days came and went, so this morning I again got up extra early (well, not that extra early because I get up before 0500 anyhow) and I called the VA.  After navigating the automated menus I was informed that I would be on hold for 22 minutes, so I waited.  45 minutes later a voice broke the elevator-esque hold music monotony and asked how she could help.

I explained my dilemma, and she pulled my information up on her computer.  I heard the clattering of her typing on her keyboard along with a sigh.

“They did not call you?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“They marked it closed, but there are no notes that show a call was conducted…”

Great.

It turns out that my Official Inquiry had been marked closed with no action taken.  No call.  No notes.  No action on my claim.

I was a bit annoyed, and she was a bit perplexed.  I got the feeling that I was not the first person that she had spoken to with this problem.  To her credit, she calmly explained the next steps as she typed away.  She notified her local supervisor as well as the supervisor and the team that was supposed to contact me about the problem, and apologized for the whole incident.  She went so far as to say that whoever closed my inquiry had actually lied about it and not done their job.  She said that someone may call me to update me on the status of my claim, but she also wisely did not promise that anyone would actually pick up the phone.  Neato.

As for my claim, she further explained that the crux of the problem was that while my issues had been partially resolved (with a completed disability rating for half of my identified conditions) the remaining issues would be addressed in the future.  How far in the future she could not say.  Eight months was the average for the initial claim (which was close to my timeline), but there was no expected timeline for the rest of the issues.  It could be a day, a week, a month, a year, or more.  Neato again!

So there you have it.  My first call resulted in a promise of a call back that never came.  My second call resulted in a complaint that nobody called, and I don’t know if anyone ever will.  Time will pass, I suppose, and maybe my phone will ring.

I won’t hold my breath.

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.  Stay on top of the process!  If you are promised a phone call, follow up if you do not get it.

2.  Call early in the day and you will get through.  Eventually.   My experience is that your wait time is twice the amount of time announced, so get a cup of coffee or two and read the paper because it is going to take a while.

3.  Don’t get angry.  The person on the other end of the phone is a person too, and they had nothing to do with your particular issue.  If you make them angry they will not be helpful.  Remember the golden rule!  Be nice and help them help you.