Small Wars Journal

A Junior Officer's Perspective on Brain Drain

Mon, 06/17/2013 - 3:41pm

The debate about the Army losing its best junior officers between LTG (R) Barno and LTG Hodges on has been followed eagerly by many of my current and former (those that have left the service) peers.  While both have different views on the issue, both regard retaining the top 10-20% of officers as something important for the Army’s future.  As a junior officer who has performed in the top 10% of my peer group and decided to remain in the Army, I’d like to add to this discussion.  While I cannot speak for my entire demographic, I can provide insight.

I don’t believe that the majority of officers that make up this demographic expect the Army to put together some sort of bonus package to retain them.  I’ve never seen statistics on the bonus payments the Army made a few years ago, but I’ve only met one person who took the money that wasn’t already convinced he would stay in the Army.  I believe that most officers that stay in through a captain-level key assignment (generally command positions and primary staff roles) are not motivated by money or tangible benefits.  However, these officers want to feel like they are not just cogs in the wheel.  They have a level of experience way beyond what their superiors had at similar career points.  We are just now seeing battalion commanders who commanded companies in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Further, the complexity of their positions is way beyond that of what it is for their superiors in similar positions in the 1990’s.  These officers want trust, meaningful education and a voice, they want to be able to rise above their peers who perform below them and they want to see the Army progress not regress.


Many of our top officers had wide latitude to conduct combat operations and solve complex problems while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  However, they find themselves back at home station “reestablishing garrison systems” and being micromanaged.  Gone is their freedom.  Top performers for the most part possess ingenuity, innovative thinking, independence and drive.  While some top performers are just really good at executing orders, most are able to execute an OODA loop without much guidance.  They can plan, lead and solve complex issues without much help from their superiors.  And, they have done this in complex environments.  But now they find themselves having to put together lists and trackers and brief every aspect of their command and their soldiers to superiors.  Gone is their independence because their senior leaders don’t trust them.

Forcing leaders to fill out pages of high risk trackers to be briefed to generals rather than allowing commanders to own their companies is just one example.  Having COMET teams run around post stopping vehicles to ensure they have their warning triangles is another.  Carrying around a standards book as an inspectable item?  Does that show trust?  Most senior leaders might consider these examples inane, but to a junior officer in command, they are not.  An officer leaving command is at the last good point in his career to get out before time served is greater than time left to retirement.  He is making choices about whether or not to stay in. When he was trusted more with live ammunition and a hundred million dollars worth of property than he is when he is out of combat, he has much incentive to decide to bolt for a corporation that values his independent ways.  He wants to see coupled actions, regulations and policies that have a specific focus and that work, not shotgun blasts that don’t fix the problem and show a lack of trust. 

Meaningful Education

LTG Hodges uses the Congressional Fellow program as an example of providing officers a chance to get an advanced degree.  However, this program takes 23 officers a year, roughly half of the number of officers in key assignments in just a single brigade.  The three branches most likely to produce strategic leaders (Infantry, Armor, and Field Artillery) have the fewest opportunities to earn a master’s degree and there are no slots for them to participate in Training with Industry.  While many of these officers will earn the standard Master’s of Military Art and Science while attending Command and General Staff College, most top performers want something more.  Further, they want to interact with civilians, their constituents if you will, and they want to seek degrees that are meaningful – ones that improve the military’s knowledge base and improve them as individuals.  While it benefits the Army, given the complexity of the future, to have a bevy of top performing Infantry, Armor and Field Artillery officers versed in Behavioral Sciences, International Relations, Economics, and International Development among others, there is no system in place to do this unless these officers compete for and earn a fellowship or go on to teach at an academy, taking them out of the fight for at least five years.  Nor is there a meaningful academic fellowship system for those officers with advanced degrees to spend a year or two thinking and writing, developing perspective and improving their field.  I’d even venture to say that many top performers would jump at the chance to learn a foreign language and develop cultural awareness – something the Army recognizes as important- but outside of the Olmstead Scholarship there is no real Army-sponsored way to do this.

Beyond advanced degrees, officers want to be prepared for strategic leadership.  For Infantry, Armor and Field Artillery officers, a typical career path has them focused solely on tactics through battalion and possibly even brigade command.  As part of their education, these top performers want to serve in assignments that allow them to see the Army from a higher perspective.  Fellowships and positions as General’s Aides are so few that they do not cover all the officers in this category.  And, these officers don’t want jobs that equate to them making coffee for high ranking individuals.  They want positions that train them for future strategic leadership and where they feel like they are making a difference.  While some opportunities for this exist, getting information on these opportunities is not easy and it seems that only those in the know or well connected pull in these assignments.


The Army is transforming and its top junior officers have a lot to say about the direction the Army should go.  They have experience and they have good ideas.  They want a voice.  However, they don’t feel the Army is giving this voice to them.  For example, General Odierno sent a retired four-star to Fort Lewis to conduct a sensing session with junior officers.  Feedback from those who attended was that it was more for appearance than any real attempt to gain junior officer insight.  One officer described it to me as a giant hand wave.  As another example, the Army is changing the OER, but junior officers were never asked their thoughts in a meaningful way.  As the Army changes, these top performing officers feel like they can provide valuable input, however, many feel like the Army doesn’t really care even when it asks.  In the end, officers want to see tangible evidence that the Army cares.  Senior leaders saying that they value input is not enough.  Officers are leaving the Army as majors and lieutenant colonels where they had no voice and getting civilian positions at think tanks influencing the Department of Defense, Congress and the White House.  Does it make sense that an officer should have more influence post-career?  As it stands, a major who has deployed at every rank and performed in the top 5% of his peer group has no line to senior leaders in the Army while some his former peers are working the private sector and enjoying great influence.  All the while the Army continues to bring in retired senior leaders with no post-9/11 experience to help it make decisions.

Further, many of our best thinkers quiet themselves because they are disruptive thinkers, those that see issues the Army doesn’t want to face and propose solutions out of the norm.  These officers have some outlet in non-military sponsored publications such as Small Wars Journal and Armed Forces Journal, but publishing these articles is quite risky given the perceived aversion of the Army to officers who do so.  Andrew Krepinevich (The Army and Vietnam) and Paul Yingling (“A Failure in Generalship”) both were on great career paths that were generally derailed by their attempts to identify Army problems and change the culture.  If the Army ever wants to show its best that it wants them to help improve the Army, it needs to allow them to voice dissent and propose changes.  Doing so is not an act of disloyalty; it is the act of a professional trying to improve his profession.

Rise Above Peers

If the Army is most concerned with retaining its top 10%-20% junior officers but only promotes 3% below zone to major, as it did this year, then that means that the rest of these top performers get promoted right in line with average and below average performers.  While I am not of the school of thought advanced recently by some of my peers that top performers should be able to earn stars in their mid- to late-thirties, I do believe that officers will be tempted to leave if they see that no matter how hard they work they advance along with lower performing peers.  If a junior officer knows that in the private sector or even non-uniformed public sector jobs he can rise commensurate with his performance rather than years of service, what alternative has the Army given him?  Developing a promotion system that truly rewards the top 20%, maybe something more in line with the NCO promotion system will help show top performers that there is a reward for their hard work.

Army Progression versus Regression

Many junior officers are returning from war hearing how the Army is “going back to…” garrison, pre-war, offensive operations, the 90’s, etc.  Many officers in my year group were either cadets or enlisted prior to 9/11.  We have watched the Army transform to fight a war for eleven years and are now being told we are going to throw that out and go back to the old way.  Rather than the Army being like the phoenix born anew from the flame, it wants to go back to a golden era that didn’t exist.  As an officer, I’ve rarely heard talk of how great things were in the 1990’s.  However, the generals and colonels deciding on the Army’s future who were junior officers in the 1990’s seem to believe that that is the model for our future.  This may not be the case, but senior leaders are losing the information war here and perception is all that matters.

Some things are highly important and were always important but war has let us slip.  Command supply discipline is a perfect example.  We should never have lost our accountability and we need to relearn these procedures.  But, in many other ways the Army let go of certain systems and standards because they just weren’t important.  Why would an officer stay after 11 years of war just to watch the Army start telling him his hair that is within regs is all of the sudden too long, his soldiers need to go practice drill and ceremony daily though they haven’t marched in years and his company needs one standard for placement of gear on body armor?  Is he really likely to believe that will instill the discipline that keeps men alive when he did without this stuff in combat and still kept men alive?

When officers hear that we need to get back to the old days, they see it as us turning a blind eye to eleven years of experience.  Many officers in my peer group may not want to ever fight an insurgency again, but they seem more likely to understand that we will do just that or something similar than most senior officers.    Officers serving in peacetime need be engaged, not turned off, to keep them interested in the future.  Going back to a bygone era will not do that.  Senior officers may say that we are not, but if they believe that, they need to start listening to what their sergeants major are putting out.

These are just one junior officer’s observations but they are based on personal experience and talking to peers that have stayed in and gotten out.  Obviously there are other issues such as a human resources system that does not pair people well and a command selection system that would have prevented even Generals Chiarelli and Petraeus from ever making it to battalion command.  And, LTG Hodges inadvertently highlights a huge issue with the Army’s system.  His career has largely been guided by superiors.  Many in my peer group would see that as having benefactors.  When the Army allows those with connections to get ahead, it embitters others and likely drives some otherwise stellar officers out the Army.  I believe that LTG Hodges and many senior officers care about this issue, but I don’t think they really understand.  This is a debate the Army needs to have and the more junior officers that weigh in, the better decisions the Army can make to retain its best and improve as a whole. 

Some top performers will stay in no matter what, but most want to see an evolved Army that involves them, trusts them and rewards their performance and potential.  Few of us want financial compensation or other bonuses as incentives to remain.  We just want to be a meaningful part of an Army whose future we can help create.

Categories: retention


Bill M.

Sun, 09/22/2013 - 8:25am

In reply to by Cjw77

The top 10% and the best are a highly subjective category and more often than not are self identified based on an individual's view of his performance, which makes the claim suspect. The top 10% identified by OERs may be top performers, or they may simply know and are willing to play the game. Good officers leave the military for a lot of reasons including: better opportunities, to spend more time with their families, decide they don't like military life, etc. That leaves an unknown percentage of good officers who desire continued service but for reasons many have identified here still feel compelled to get out. We already discussed toxic leadership which is a real and prevailing problem. seems that the root of most problems is our personnel system. Who are the faceless bureaucrats? Who do they work for? Who has the power to make changes to the system? We have to understand the system we are trying to change if we're serious about it, or in grunt terms we need to do some IPE on on our own systems.

Just coming from the career course I can tell you absolutely that the best officers are getting out. And the worst, which leaves the mediocre. Also, having been part of the 90's military, I can also attest to the fact that the Army is going to back to the worst aspects of the "golden age" and mixing it with the worst aspects of today's. I may not be perfectly happy as a civilian but at least I will be spared the 14 hours work days (over made up problems), a totally inefficient and bizarre human resources system (peopled by terminal bureaucrats), and a culture that continually fails to learn from its mistakes.

Can the author provide any statistics or tangible evidence to illustrate that "the best officers" are leaving the Army? This is not the first article of its kind and yet none of the disgruntled "top officers" who are writing these articles as they leave the Army are able to provide any concrete evidence that this is even a problem at all. For those of us bottom ninety-percenters who chose to remain in the service this whole brain drain concept is somewhat insulting. Thankfully our brains are small enough to remain challenged by our simple careers and we are naive enough to think that we may be able affect positive change in our organizations rather than run from the things we do not like. Surely though we are on the road to doom without our beloved top ten percent, how shall the Army ever survive?


Mon, 07/01/2013 - 5:08pm

Jafo, an officer is in all probability not going to get that three star ADC position without already completing (or very near completion) or his/her O-4 KD assignment(s).

Also, it is worth noting that not even all of those ADC jobs are equal. My anecdotal observation is that combat arms officers who served as ADC's to LTG's in historically non-terminal jobs (ie. Corps Commander, DCSOPS) did better in the long run than those who served as ADC's to LTG's in terminal positions (i.e. Commander 1st Army). Interestingly, I did not see a large career bump for officers who served as ADCs to 1 and 2 stars while they were company grades, most likely due to the fact that the majority of GOs in question was generally retired by the time that he/she could directly impact the officer's career in any substantial long term manner.


Mon, 07/01/2013 - 4:19pm

A few Army secrets that sometime seem to be lost from time to time, regardless of an officers generation.

1. Those soul sucking $%^Y jobs on BN/BDE staff, those are jobs that actually have to be done by someone. The unit can't function effectively without it being done. Yes, they are not "cool", but remember every other year someone has to be the recruiting company commander in east Detroit.

2. The Army actually doesn't need commissioned officer platoon leaders to function, a platoon sergeant E-7 is more than tactically capable to leading that platoon in combat. The only reason we have LT's as platoon leaders is because we eventually need company commanders.

Yes, the British Army (and its descendents) has Major's as company commanders, but they also don't have the same type of officer pyramid and up or out system that we have. Additionally, as British Army officers are generally commission younger (and complete their college degree while in service) the difference in age and experience between and 8 year TIS US CPT and 11 year TIS UK MAJ is not as different as first appearances. Where they do have an advantage in experience is in keeping regular officers in TOE formation during the company grade years, as the training base officer positions are filled by former senior NCO's who have been commissioned as Captains for such purpose.

Rob H, after reading your post, and all the others, I noticed something missing. I don't know the answer to this question, but its a question that I've personally always wondered about. I think its safe to assume that there are officers who pass up key developmental job (XO/S3/CMD etc...) and therefore, take themselves out of the running for BZ promotions, making O6, coming out on the CSL, etc. . .. I think we can all agree on that. Probably some of them wonder why that PMS job knocked them out of the running. Based on what I see on the BZ list I can kind of understand why they are confused. What I'd like to know is how many of the BZ folks actually did get all the key developmental job (XO/S3/CMD etc...) they were supposed to get? Also, how many of them were Aide De Camps? How many worked at HRC? If being a PMS for ROTC, or an overseas assignment, is potentially detrimental to how the Army percieves your leadership ability and potential for advancement, then how does being a Three Star's aide versus being a BN XO/S3 compare?

I think there is a disconnect between what everyone is told to do to "excel" and what is really needed to achieve those career milestones we've been talking about (CMD, O6 promotion, CSL selection, BZ promotions, etc. . .) I'd like to hear the truth, because I spent a lot of time in "KD" jobs that probably weren't as fun, or safe, as being LTG X's aide would have been.

Having Army / Air Force experience in the Reserve Component and multiple OCONUS deployments, I see active duty personnel getting promoted too quickly. They bounce around “ticket punching” at various jobs to become generalists and masters of nothing. I flew 2 missions and give me my Air Medal. I went on 2 convoys/patrols and got shot at. Give me my CAB/CIB. I did this job for 6 months. Check that box and give me my BSM. Not everybody wants to or can be a 4 star general.

I also see an issue on how personnel management is done in DoD.
DoD problem: Shortage of MAJ’s. DoD answer: Promote CPT’s quicker.
DoD problem: Shortage of CPT’s. DoD answer: Promote 1LT’s quicker.
Add in another factor of lengthy qualification courses, AVN, SFQ, INF, INTEL and others. Junior officers come out new as nearly CPTs and do little time as a Platoon Leaders. Then they get sidelined to soul crushing jobs in staff/Battle Captain/ shit details. “Beefeaters” full of ^%$$ and vinegar don’t like shuffling papers, sending emails and doing Powerpoint. Why send a kid through flight school to make him the 3/5 platoon leader, a nonflying job or just doing Powerpoint all day in the S-3 shop? It is the never ending sucking sound of staff jobs. As leaders and mentors we must focus their enthusiasm and energy to get dangerous and difficult jobs done. Not to dampen or mash that enthusiasm and energy early.

After working with the British Forces in Afghan, I noticed that the Company Commanders were all Majors with significant and lengthy military experience. While the Platoon Commanders were LT/ CPT’s. Could this be an option? Could more mature leadership at all BN levels (and below) be better? Lessen discipline problems? Improve ROE violations? Decrease security breaches (Wikileaks?) Improve the documenting of all incidents and actions? Minimizing Sexual Assaults? Could more problems and issues be solved at BN and Company levels? In addition should the unit MTOE / Org charts be revamped to reflect the 24 hour battle rhythm? Maybe have a MTOE A (peacetime/insurgency ops mature leaders) and MTOE B (wartime surge WWIII/China)?

Several years ago I read a 21 page paper that was floated around between junior officers called “REFRAD Justification Paper” written by a disillusioned West Point grad infantry CPT. In it he lists his Top ten justifications for separation, in order:

1. Incompetence of leadership
2. Condescension of senior officers
3. The “OC mentality”
4. Officer-NCO relationship
5. Lack of Human Resource Management
6. Legalistic Treatment of Soldiers
7. Sententious codification of moral behavior
8. Dismissal of merit in the hierarchy of the officer corps
9. Bullying structure of the officer corps
10. Lack of opportunities that promote personal development

He goes on to describe and define “The 90’s Officer” and the “GWOT Officer.” “The “GWOT officers” volunteered only to join the officer corps, having known little about it (at least in a categorical sense), the “90s officers” have volunteered to stay in the Army after having spent a significant amount of time in it, which indicates a higher level of uniformity in their group.”

In another part he describes his dismay at having been an “Arabic concentrator at West Point, I watched our nation’s decision to invade Iraq with a selfish excitement, in spite of my geopolitical beliefs, because I believed that I would fulfill a critical need. I studied hard and, upon graduation, was recognized as the top Arabic student in my class.” He was assigned to 3ID and headed to Iraq but then due to “a personnel mix-up within the higher levels of the Army’s Human Resource Command that resulted in Fort Stewart’s overabundance of Infantry lieutenants. We would have the rare opportunity to serve in a brand new brigade in the 10th Mountain Division, he explained. When he saw that not all of the lieutenants appeared excited at the news, he became angered and then told us all of the hunting and fishing opportunities in Fort Polk. A couple of days later, I found out that the new brigade to which I was now going, was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan.”

“I emailed several field grade officers at Fort Stewart asking if there was any way that I could retain my slot to Fort Stewart or, for that matter, any duty station from where I would deploy to Iraq instead of Afghanistan. In response, I received several lectures about fulfilling the Army’s needs instead of my own, stories of comparatively worse human resource failures, and attempted encouragement to “drive on” and have faith. When I reported to my battalion commander in Fort Polk and explained my desire to go to Iraq so that I could use the Arabic that I had studied, he told me, “don’t worry, they speak all that shit over there.” (Obviously, they don’t). “

The rest of the paper is entertaining and saddening to read. This Soldier describes in eloquent detail his growing disillusionment with the Army and its immovable bureaucracy. Was his desire to deploy to Iraq unreasonable? Could another Arabic speaker in the chain of command saved the lives of US Soldiers? I’m not sure but in Army parlance it would have been a “Force Multiplier.”

Maybe he was not a hunter or fisherman.

Another thing, the author makes a legitimate point about Infantry, Armor, and Field Artillery not being able to attain Master's degrees. Engineers have the opportunity to obtain one during their Captain's Captain's Career Course from an accredited institution (Rolla), if they just say "yes, I want one." The Army even gives them 6 months "civilian time" after they graduate the career course to finish the degree! This is standard in the engineer corps. They then graduate, have a leg up on their peers in combat arms, and their peers see the only way to get the same education is to use up their GI bill. Everyone will leave the Army at some point. When you get a job afterward, would you rather have a bachelor's degree or a master's degree in a specialized field? When top performers in the most critical branches see they are at a disadvantage, it makes them want to leave and get a job where they have the same advantages as their peers.

Giving grad school to Infantry, FA, and Armor wouldn't be the end of the world. They can get it with their GI Bill anyway. The difference is you have to leave the Army in order to go to school full time on the GI Bill. This encourages those who want to better themselves to get out.


Tue, 06/25/2013 - 12:52pm

In reply to by Temsayah



Mon, 06/24/2013 - 8:51pm

There has been some interesting Psych studies done on today's 20 something generation- They have a very inflated sense of self. Top 10%? How do you know? I agree with one of Vitesse's points- that truly capable officers excel where ever, and under whatever constraints. H Waggy comes close to destroying the credibility of the article by succinctly attacking it's base assumptions.

@ Joe - Did I miss something in the original article that identified the author as a West Pointer? I think you're trying to cash in on a very weak and tired stereotype. Unfortunately, that cheap shot detracts from your otherwise good points.

The writer makes valid points and raises issues that need to be discussed and addressed. Whether or not he is in the top whatever % of his year group is superflous and not germaine to the overall issues legitimately raised . . .

While I agree with much of what the author wrote, unfortunately I fear that it will not be taken seriously. He writes that "we" top 10% want trust and a voice, and yet he waited until he was safely at his next job to write this article which is colored with his disappointment at not being selected BZ or being chosen for a special program. A more objective viewpoint might have given this writing more credence, instead it smacks of a Westpointer who thought he was entitled to what he didn't get and this writing will be looked on by his former COC, and other senior leadership, as a tantrum. Hopefully those leaders can look past that and see that he makes some very valid points about trust, education and voice.
The author is clearly a valued officer or he would not have held two commands or currently work as an assistant professor of military science; it just seems it was not the reward he was expecting. The JOs who speak up and voice their concerns and opinions with senior leadership are the ones who are the most respected, which in turn leads to a rapport and being “well connected” as anyone in the private sector will tell you is also important to upward mobility. Some would call that resourcefulness, not unfair favor. Having a strong personality, being respected in your career, is a personal asset one must possess to get ahead. Why wouldn’t that be true in the military as well? This reviewer, David Woodward, said it best, “A top-level performer capable of out-of-the-box thinking ought to be able to achieve their goals by working with the constraints placed upon them.” And, I will add to that, a top-level performer should have the courage to communicate with senior leadership when they want a better understand of why decisions are being made.

I’ll try to keep this short but I’m going to go in-depth and give you some of my own perspective. I don’t know if I’m in the top 10% but I do know that I was selected for Resident ILE (top 40%) and picked up for a relatively prestigious program (??%) so I’m going to go out on a limb and say that in the eyes of the Army I’m not terrible. Does that equal the top 10-20%? Dunno.

I agree with the opening statement that most officers don’t expect a bonus package of some sort. Any thinking officer that compares his pay stub with that of a civilian counterpart knows that we are compensated QUITE well when you factor in tax-free housing, medical care, food, and numerous other benefits. Add in the current retirement plan and our compensation is fantastic. We’re not in it for the money but if we were, it’s not a terrible decision. I also agree that we want to be heard and don’t want to be mindless cogs in the system. I only partially agree with the “level of experience way beyond what their superiors had at similar career points,” statement but more on that. I also agree that we want trust, meaningful education and a voice in how our lives are run and I most definitely want to rise above my lower-performing peers.

TRUST: I’ve been blessed in that my garrison experience was a demonstration of the word “Trust”. At least at the brigade and below level. My Brigade and Battalion leadership fully expected company-grade officers to act independently and there was a definitive culture of “underwriting honest mistakes.” As a commander I was given wide latitude to get done what needed to get done. However there were innumerable examples of entities outside of the brigade (garrison, big-Army, certain higher headquarters) that stepped outside of their oversight roles and directly into my “sausage-making” factory. This undoubtedly chapped my hide and resulted in more than one expletive-fueled rant but when compared to the civilian sector I am most certain that the same kinds of over-reaching-yet-well-meaning oversight happens there, too. In fact I know it does because my wife caught me complaining about certain “egregious” acts in my job and then proceeded to one-up me from her time at a large CPA firm. In short: Yes, mandatory DA-directed Sexual Harassment, Assault and Rape Prevention (SHARP) classes due to a couple senior leaders getting highlighted on CNN really sucks. But overall from my perspective… I have been trusted to do my job.

MEANINGFUL EDUCATION: There are programs out there. Certain job-fields have more than others. In the business world that I’ve seen it is only the tippy top percentage of people that are given company money AND time to get a Masters Degree. Most that seek higher education do it via night school. Of course everyone wants to get into these schools or spend some time on sabbatical. But, of course, the truly desirable positions are highly competitive. I completely disagree with the author’s assertion that, “While some opportunities for this exist, getting information on these opportunities is not easy and it seems that only those in the know or well connected pull in these assignments.” In fact I call “Shenanigans”. Getting information is not hard. An account from S1net is free and will have every single ALARACT and MILPER delivered to your email. Every single program (minus certain spooky unit/special mission unit… and in those he is correct about being well-connected or lucky) advertises through MILPER and ALARACT. Also, I am NOT well-connected and I managed to find, prepare, apply, and be accepted to a “prestigious” program… and I’m not even getting “the standard Master’s of Military Art and Science while attending Command and General Staff College,” either. If I want a Master’s degree I’ll have to go to night school with all those poor schlubs in the civilian sector.

VOICE: Agree. There are ways to offer up solutions and most of those methods start with the instructions “get promoted a few times.” However I’ve discovered that the longer I’m in the Army the more I understand the “why” behind some of the decisions. In many of the cases I patently disagree with the “why” but it’s taken me quite awhile to wrap my head around it. While I have some ideas on how to create change right now I am wise enough to believe that I haven’t seen everything or know as much as multiple senior field- and flag-grade officers in order to disagree publicly. Many people will certainly call me a “toady” or something similar for my stance but… yeah. I acknowledge that I can be an idiot and might not know what I’m talking about. I’ll err on the side of caution right now. Instead of spending my time and effort at campaigning for massive Army-wide changes I try to improve my profession daily at MY level using MY level of understanding and influence in order to make change.

RISE ABOVE PEERS: I whole-heartedly DISAGREE on this point. Only the top 3% should be promoted. If that. I know so much more about the Army this year than I did last year. That “extra” year that I spent as a CPT (nope, I’m not a superstar, folks. I got promoted right in line with everyone else) was invaluable to me. Only the very top people should be promoted early because THAT YEAR IS ESSENTIAL TO UNDERSTANDING HOW YOUR LEVEL WORKS. That way once you are the next level you can leverage your EXPERIENCE. Fast track the top 10-20% and suddenly you have a lot of young and inexperienced senior leaders. This works in the NCO ranks where a 35 year old Sergeant Major (I know one, he’s awesome) gets to sit in a staff position for YEARS before he even has the option of becoming a Command Sergeant Major. He also has MANY MORE mentors and peers available to him with whom he can communicate and ask for help. A full-bird Colonel that gets Below-Zone (BZ) picked 3 times in a row will have one or two years as a COL before he gets a Brigade Command. Who else in the Brigade can he go to for advice? Which essential job will he have missed in his meteoric rise? I hope it wasn’t involving legal… or operations… or logistics… or ANY OTHER CRITICAL JOB and with 3 BZ selections he missed at least one… and probably his Master’s Degree, too. If you start promoting the top 10-20% early then 3 BZ selections for a Brigade Commander will be the norm. It will also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Top 3% is HARD to achieve. Doing it twice is REALLY hard (I’ve met two) and 3 is unheard of (at least not by me). But at 10-20% you’ve now exponentially increased the odds of all of your BDE Commanders being in their 40’s instead of their 50’s with the accompanying lack of experience as well. Bottom line: suck it up buttercup. If you REALLY want to be promoted early you need to be in that top 3%. Do better.

ARMY PROGRESSION versus REGRESSION: A lot of the complaints raised by the author are NCO-centric. He is absolutely correct when he says that senior officers “need to start listening to what their sergeants major are putting out.” NCO’s are the keepers of standards and also keepers of common sense. As officers it’s our job to work with the senior NCOs and reason with them. Find the NCO-equivalent to your grade (CPTs, go ahead and try this with your CSM. No, no, I’ll sit right here and watch thankyouverymuch) and talk with them. Ask them for their reasoning and then engage them. Too often as officers we relegate or allow certain issues to become “NCO Business” and then complain when those “NCO business decisions” aren’t what we wanted. As for returning to the “golden era that didn’t exist” we are returning to an era of budget constraints, limited training opportunities, and garrison-bound Soldiers. Those generals and colonels deciding the future of the Army are not designing a “throwback tour” to the 90’s out of desire, it’s out of necessity. They lived through those lean years in post-Desert Storm and know how to make every training dollar/opportunity count from experience.

This is just one more junior officer’s opinion and observation. A lot of what’s in this article is what I consider observations from an EXTREMELY limited world-view. I said it earlier but if you really want those incentives and benefits afforded to the top 3% you’re probably going to have to strive to be that top 3%. As far as wanting to create the future Army: do it. Start at your level. Take charge, coach, teach, mentor, command, be a role model. Plan and execute awesome training, do well at the jobs to which you are assigned, volunteer for the jobs that no one else wants and do well at them. Train your replacement well, mentor your LTs and senior NCOs, treat people with dignity and respect and don’t get a DUI. Do all those things the right way and your senior leaders will start asking you to give an account of your success and ask you how you did it. Do NOT simply expect senior COLs and general officers to say something like, “Hey, I saw that you were selected for resident ILE and I also saw that you got an Above Center Mass rating on your last 2 of 3 OERs. How would you change the Army, bright and shiny future leader?” There’s a reason for the quote unquote status quo. There certainly are things that could be changed and better ways of doing things. Promoting or doling out benefits to the top 10-20% is not it.


Thu, 06/20/2013 - 3:45pm

I'll take it on faith that an officer who was selected for multiple commands is a well above the pack performer, but given the Army's policy of not giving OER block checks to LT's and CPT's for a significant portion of the last decade its difficult to impossible to quantify if an officer is in the top 1%, 5%, 10%, or 25% of a given branch and year group.

Where I take exception to the author is in his belief that his generation is "more experienced" than the generation who were LT's/CPT's in the late 80's/90's (and hence Brigade/Divisional leaders today). Today's generation's experiences were different that the previous generation, that doesn't make them better.

I could easily argue that the author's experiences are less, due to the fact that he has only served at company level (Platoon leader and Company Commander) during his first 8 years of service, when compared to the previous generations multiple command and staff jobs over the same career time span. I could also argue that the senior generation is more experienced and better postured to lead the Army during a period of constrained resources than the author, but that discussion in unhelpful in building a better institution for the future.

In truth, it takes dedicated leaders with all types of experiences to sustain and grow the organization, as a taxpayer I am glad to know that there are officers like the author who intend to do just that.


Wed, 06/26/2013 - 8:32pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

@ VeP -- Thanksfor the link to WP First Captains through the years. Three points come to mind.

1. I see two or three serving GOs on the list: VanAntwerp (might have retired recently, and I didn't look), Brooks, and Rapp. I'd bet the next one will be Omar Jones ('92), currently in Brigade Command at Ft Carson.

2. There is a difference between the First Captain and the cadet who graduated first in his class. So, Lee could have been the First Captain (but we know he was not) AND graduated second in his class. Those two distinctions went to two different guys in my class.

3. I'm not sure that we should even expect an extremely high correlation between being First Captain and eventually reaching GO rank. There's 22-25 years between those two events, and lots of things that can happen.

Rob H

Tue, 06/25/2013 - 10:08pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

Actually, the Army does maintain a black book. GO's put the names in and career managers pick from names in the book for specific assignments. Once that list is exhausted for the 'good' jobs they then hit the general population. I have this on pretty good authority but won't reveal my source. The exact method of how the book is maintained I am not exactly sure of, the fact that it exists I take as fact.

Vitesse et Puissance

Mon, 06/24/2013 - 1:25pm

In reply to by Sparapet

I don't think this generation of junior officers has any conception of what it takes to survive in a peacetime army, or how unusual their year groups are from the standpoint of OPMS. It may indeed be the case that the "system' isn't fair. I would argue that yesterday was the right time to fix OPMS so that it will be easier to transition to peacetime practices and peacetime force levels. At bottom this is all about money, and the Department's commitment - or lack thereof - to a humane and honorable transition to peacetime levels. In a sense, this discussion thread is a charade, because you are asking people who would otherwise be inclined to leave active service (if not military service altogether) in a way that forces out someone who wants to stay. It is as if the Army is being bashed, not for being overly careerist, but not being careerist enough. If you read the tea leaves in the public policy debate over service benefits and retirement policies, what you find is a movement to make long-term military service even less attractive. Now, I wouldn't expect this to come even close to the levels of neglect characteristic of the "brown shoe" army, but that's the lay of the land.

Robert E. Lee was second in the West Point Class of 1830. I'll bet that most SWJ readers cannot recall from memory who was the First Captain at USMA in 1830. Here is another little test - can you even name the First Captain at West Point for your own year group ? I confess - I got mine wrong. Here is a link to a list of First Captains from 1872 onward;

Now - you will find some big names on this list - but not so much after 1960. I see one serving general on the list. One.

This could lead to the question, are the "best" really the "best" ? And how do we know that ? The Army is getting smaller - but it is not yet so small that the Army Chief of Staff can keep a "black book" based on his personal experience of the officers worthy of advancing or retiring. Reading the memoirs of the "great captains' of the past, not just Sherman and Grant who certainly had their ups and downs, but in our day, Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell - all these guys served under lousy commanders with poor people skills and a bad command climate.

Can the Army build a better career path? Well, yes. But it has to stop looking at a school assignment as something to be endured, if not avoided outright. And it needs to look at staff duty as an honorable task that requires unique skills, rather than a place to improve one's resume and beef up one's professional contacts.

But when it is all said and done, I believe that we cannot reform our way out of the problem. It is not true that most FORSCOM bases are located in remote, rural areas, which hardly even have running water and sewage systems. Fort Stewart lies close to Savannah, Knox to Louisville, Carson to Colorado Springs, Lewis to Seattle. Active service can be kind of rough on single men, but it is only a poor commander who does not realize that his lieutenants also need a life. But this is part of the package you signed up for, and unhappy officers are just that - unhappy. Grant took to drink because he was separated to far and to long from his young spouse - and the rest is history. As I said before, this is the karma of career progression, and many of us just aren't the Sam Damon kinds of guys who win women to our side and keep them there out of simple magnetism. Just sayin'.


Thu, 06/20/2013 - 3:41pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

I am actually sympathetic to the sentiment. But there is a pragmatic element that patriotism will never satisfy absent a rabid ideology (e.g. communism, fascism, or religious conviction a la warrior monks etc). That element is personal satisfaction with having distinguished oneself in one's society and among one's peers. At least that is what many of the best yearn for.

This is true in every society, and in our own. We are told that we are everyday citizens that did more. Perhaps if we were a caste onto ourselves with reserved rights and privileges in general society (not just administrative privileges that we have now) patriotism might be enough. But patriotism alone is never enough. Ever. It needs a catalyst.

And many in this generation of veterans feel the services are inherently unfair. To keep the best and the brightest you need to convince them that what they are sacrificing by being in Podunk, USA while hungry and cold, or in AnyStan is actually better than clubbing in NYC or DC or chilling on an LA beach and having weekends off. Since you'll never win that argument on the merits of AnyStan's purple mountain's majesty, what you need to convince them of is that the organization that they are a part of is better than being in NYC or LA. (it wouldn't hurt to put a few maneuver bases near a major coastal city either, but that's just me talking!). It also means convincing them that Silicon Valley or Wall Street or DC have nothing as professionally satisfying. Then you get to keep them.

This is virtually entirely a cultural problem driven, or rather failed, by leadership. These JO's don't trust the Services and feel that they are (rightfully) missing out because the status quo doesn't seem worth the opportunity cost.

The chaos of war brings about the opportunities garrison never can for people to shine. But I am sure that had you asked Sherman about his career satisfaction in 1860, he would have accepted a chance to do something to distinguish himself from his peers.

Vitesse et Puissance

Thu, 06/20/2013 - 1:52pm

The karma of career progression may grind slowly, but it grinds exceedingly fine. Useful it might be to latch on to a copy of William Tecumseh Sherman's memoirs. Consigned to a side show theater of operations in California while his peers were earning their glory down in Mexico, Sherman managed to "stand out". As it was, the onset of Civil War found Sherman in the same kind of obscurity as Stonewall Jackson - Commandant of a small military academy down in Louisiana. Five years later, he was Commander in Chief of the United States Army. The only proper motivation for long term service in the Regular Army is patriotism - not self actualization, not a good "command climate', and certainly not the ever-dwindling retirement benefits. You have to have faith. Faith that your contributions are needed and will some day be appreciated. Faith that this alone is your calling and nothing else will do. Oh, and expect to have all sorts of people, HR types, career managers, even your most trusted commander, expect them to level with you and - if they have your best interests in mind - try to talk you out of it. You have to have the guts to stand up to those people and stay in anyway. It helps if you care about soldiers. Because soldiers will never bore you, leading them will always challenge you, even if - or especially if - you are one of the best. Face it - no matter how good your APFT scores, or how much fruit salad you have on your uniform or how glittering are those OERs - you are only human. Act like a human being, expect those around you to act like human beings, and always treat those around you like human beings. Do that, and it will be all right.

David Woodward

Thu, 06/20/2013 - 10:37am

My small contribution to this discussion can be summarized by an ad I see in many of the in-flight magazines I read on my various TDY trips: "In Business As In Life- You Don't Get What You Deserve, You Get What You Negotiate." A top-level performer capable of out-of-the-box thinking ought to be able to achieve their goals by working with the constraints placed upon them. If that is not challenging, especially in the garrison environment, then I do not know what is. Distance learning is an excellent alternative method for achieving undergraduate and graduate level education in many fields. When considering one's goals and the objectives of the Army, one must understand that the flexibility of the institution is limited. For example, it is not feasible for an infantry officer to have a medical degree. So, if you find your goals so disparate from your military career path perhaps it is best for yourself and the Army to seek a different path.

H Waggy

Wed, 06/19/2013 - 11:19pm

The author states that he performs in the top 10% of his year group. I do not know how the author would know this information. The Army does not publish any ranking system for officers. There are two ways in which the author would know that he is in the top 10% of his year group: if he were promoted below the zone (BZ) when the BZ selection rate was at or near 10% or if he had a chance to review the performance files of all of his peers. Otherwise, the author only assumes that he is in the top 10%, but uses his assumption to claim authority.

Bill M.

Thu, 06/20/2013 - 3:49am

In reply to by COLUSARMCret

I agree it is a good article but based on long experience I remain leery of those who identify themselves as being in the top ten percent. Some of this seems to be based on junior officers coming from the generation that had parents who put the "my kid is an honor student" sticker on their cars. It seems illogical for this generation to reference their OERs as a metric for determining what percentile they're performing in when those writing them are accused of enforcing a risk adverse work environment and demonstrating other behaviors reflective of poor leadership. Seems to me that it takes a 360 degree eval to even get close to determining who the top ten percent are based on on actual performance (instead of spot light ranger performance). The fact of the matter is the system has never been perfect, nor can it be. We have always kept some of our best junoir officers while losing many (for various reasons). Talent management is important, but lets consider tossing the idea we have a top ten percent and instead focus on putting people in the right jobs based on their unique skills and personality. One size doesn't fit all, so the top ten percent is
somewhat of a myth that may stroke our egos but des little for making us a better force.


Wed, 06/19/2013 - 6:13pm

Enlightening article. In the 1970s President Richard Nixon moved from the draft to all volunteer military. I came into the USAR about that time. There was a program in the US Army called the Five Percenter Program. Because 20 2LTs start for every 1 COL (5%), the Army tried to identify those talented 5% early and put them in this enriched program. Within a year it was obvious that those selected really had a bull's eye on their back and were vigorously backstabbed by the 95%. The program was stopped, formally. Your top 10-20% may find 'King of the Mountain' rules whereby someone in the pile may not be able to climb on top but is capable of grabbing an ankle to keep another from ascending. Another factor is the sense of entitlement of underperformers and the truely incompetent. Should you ever work with a truely incompetent, you will be impressed at how blind they are to their defects. Truely incompetents are rare but amazing when encountered- usually they are superficially very glib but seem in another reality. Underperformers comfort themselves with 'the process' and expect a pass on a good result since they followed the process. Process entitled persons seem to be about 30% of the US Army. Interesting, any US Army high achiever can attest that entering a gym of 100 people- within an hour 70% want to adopt them/put them in their wills. 30% will come up to your face and anounce they plan to stab you in the back. These 30% are almost always process oriented people that cannot stand result producers- especially if the latter take charge and change the process. Likening the perspectives of the blind men and the elephant, in this article the author has noted several dimensions of the problem. There are some that currently elude him. I am reminded of what I was taught. One- for 2LT and 1 LT, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade! Many wonderful and some unwonderful outcomes have arrived from fresh prospective. Two- CPT and MAJ- when life hands you urine, don't make urinade. At this level, run some of your ideas past LTC or COL because... Three- LTC and COL- know the difference between lemonade and urinade. Yes, there are problems and some solutions cannot happen right now because of the incestous and echo-chamber requirements for promotion. Only wars seem to separate productive soldiers from the underperformers.

Steve in MT

Wed, 06/19/2013 - 4:16pm

It's sad that we are repeating the same mistakes we made in the past. I took early retirement in 1995 during the "Peace Dividend" draw down after the end of the Cold War. I spent ten years in Europe waiting for the Third Soviet Warrior Mongol Horde to come across, and luckily then never did.
When the Army started to draw down it was obvious to the low performers that they weren't going to cut it so they got out. Unfortunately some of the best officers were getting out too, mostly because of the same complaints this young officer has made. Officers who were willing to push the limits or challenge the accepted were replaced with officers who were afraid to make a mistake.
When I commanded, I had the luxury of telling my junior officers that they should dare mightily, and to do what they thought was right. The only thing that I could never forgive was loss of life or integrity. I figured we could fix anything else. That was no longer acceptable when I got out.
Maybe the natural state of the Army in peacetime is mediocrity since it never fails. Of course, it never excels either.

Steve in MT

Wed, 06/19/2013 - 4:17pm

Sorry, too quick on the save button.


Wed, 06/19/2013 - 3:22pm

It seems that very little has changed since the days of Billy Mitchell.

This is perhaps the best essay I've read on this topic, on any of the various websites where the conversation continues. I applaud your skill in presenting a clear thesis, supported by well-developed arguments.

I do have one question though. In today's evaluation system, how does any officer know he is in the top 10% of his peer group? A best, one can only know for sure of their standing within the peer group of "those who fall under the same senior rater." That distinction also has some obvious problems, but it's the best our system provides.

This question is not meant to reflect poorly on the author at all. If anything, it reflects poorly on our watered down evaluation system. Does anyone else see this "T-ball trophy" mentality as very dangerous for our future? I know we're going back to blocking OERs for captains, but can we honestly convince ourselves that a top cohort of up to 49% is really a hard cut?


Thu, 06/20/2013 - 3:15pm

In reply to by Rob H


You are right on about the disappointment. By and large it is a fact (I count my self in the disappointed number). However, there is an aspect that you may be undervaluing, an aspect the article does discuss. It is the realization JO's (especially us maneuver types) have that the greatest freedom and satisfaction they ever enjoyed was when they were deployed. When, theoretically, they should have been more watched and regulated than less because it mattered in a way that garrison never will. It is also the realization that performance has no objective measure and that without politics + luck performance excellence will get them just as far as performance mediocrity. It's cognitive dissonance par excellence; and that is a cultural problem, which makes it first and foremost a leadership problem.


Wed, 06/19/2013 - 3:57pm

In reply to by Rob H

While it is possible that your statement entirely true, me and many of my peers are still willing to invest the time to find that one in 100 company outside the Army because we have seen the culture of command inside the Army. We may be disappointed after we leave but we will still be gone. This statement does not address the problem; the Army will still be missing its top talent.

Rob H

Tue, 06/18/2013 - 10:09pm

In reply to by Mackie2323

I would suggest if that is why they are leaving then they will be sorely disappointed because the civilian world works similarly. You can't expect that much autonomy and power in a company with less than 5 years of seniority. You will also have a higher up boss who gets on your nerves. The problem with the civilian world is you are stuck with them for much longer and don't have a PCS to look forward to. Companies do exist that meet your criteria, but they are rare.


Tue, 06/18/2013 - 1:06pm

As a junior officer who is leaving the army is the next 90 days I will tell you that the best junior officers are leaving for a very simple reason: we see the culture of command and decide our skills are better used elsewhere. It is not complicated, it is not about money and it is certainly not because the army is too challenging; we crave challenge. It is because we see the culture of command and realize our creative ideas will ignored, we will have to deal with outdated and useless administrative systems, we will have our training dictated by our battalion and will be threatened into compliance every step of the way.

I could cite examples for pages but I will tell you that the best 10% is leaving because they want to be in an organization the values ingenuity and forces de-centralization instead of centralizing decision making. In my battalion the best 4 pre-career course officers are leaving the army and we are all leaving because the army continues to centralize power and leads by threatening commanders with their careers and money.

The army needs to find a solution or it will be left with average leaders in critical positions. Instead of the best young officers seeking positions with elite organizations they are dropping REFRAD packets.

I don’t pretend to know the solution but there is clearly a problem. The sooner the army re-evaluates its command culture and officer retention the sooner it will be able to retain the 10% we are talking about.

One of the better articles on this topic. I'm glad that Fawley doesn't fall too far into the pit of loathing, which generally consists of explaining why the Army is failing because I didn't personally get BZ. I'm not sure what the solution to a 3% BZ selection rate is since it is tied to available billets, but I do agree that a 3% selection rate doesn't fit with a preference to advance the top 10-20%. A system where 3-5% get BZ and the difference get ACS and/or broadening assignments might work. We also shouldn't forget that there is more than one opportunity to get BZ. Having said all that, for everyone who thinks the Army is screwing them over there are those who are getting by just fine. I can't personally complain considering the Army has paid for my undergraduate and graduate education and given me the opportunity to assess into a functional area. My warning to junior officers is not to covet thy peers success. If you are mad at the Army because a peer who you think was unworthy got something you didn't, you should look at yourself in the mirror before trying to find the flaws in your peers or the Army system. We reap what we sow. If you chose to go OCONUS or to an ROTC position instead of knocking out that key developmental job (XO/S3/CMD etc...) then don't be surprised if your peer who chose to knock out each KD job in sequence gets the BZ nod over you.