By Brandon Sanders
“Why do the support MOSs tend to have the most issues?” my battalion commander asked me. It took me a second to formulate an answer from the years of work as a chaplain, advanced education, and untold study hours concerning the human condition and military life.
“I have no idea.”
My analysis warranted a shoulder shrug from him, but my lack of understanding of something so basic nearly drove me insane. Why do our cooks, fuelers, mechanics, and other non-combat arms Soldiers tend to contribute an untold amount of workload to the Soldier support structure of the Army?
Trying to understand why the Soldiers sitting on my couch were much more likely to work in supply and not the infantry became an obsession for me. They weren’t recruited differently. The combat support and service support jobs were generally easier for the same pay. As a national guard battalion, they even came from the same communities.
So what was driving the trend? Why is it always this way, no matter what unit I served in? Even when I was a crew chief on active duty, all of our DUIs, criminal activity, and wild sex shenanigans seemed to come from our support company.
I then started to examine why people came to see me as their battalion chaplain. At the time, we were a Stryker Infantry battalion augmented with cavalry scouts and a battery of field artillery. I had a very interesting group to learn from, to say the least.
The first thing I noticed confirmed the question itself. The most underrepresented MOS I had coming to my office was the infantry. This seems crazy since the vast majority of Soldiers we had were infantry, and you would expect that they would make up the majority of my counseling practice.
However, I can only think of a few that darkened my door. Most of them simply wanted life guidance. They wanted to talk about an issue that they were afraid would make them look weak, or they didn’t trust their peers to give them sound advice.
On the other hand, the vast majority of the counselings that came from our support company and other support personnel is the kind of thing that makes me rethink being a chaplain. Child abuse, neglect, dubious moral decisions, and adherence to toxic ideologies weighed heavy on my couch and on my heart.
There was a clear difference between the two. If you were in combat arms, you either didn’t talk about the toxic environment you came from, or you were blessed to avoid that world altogether. However, if you came from supply, maintenance, or some sort of administration-type role, your chances of experiencing the worst humanity has to offer at an early age were very high.
I needed some way to verify what I was picking up on. Luckily, I was also on another quest to understand morale. That led me to survey the formation with bemoaned “morale surveys” in an attempt to quantify our formation's morale level so it could be properly analyzed.
I simply needed a line of questions our Soldiers could respond to that would help me understand why they joined the Army in the first place. Since the Army allows you to choose your MOS from the start, this would illuminate the motivations for selecting their MOS as well.
If you have ever taken a psychology class, you have heard about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The premise is pretty simple, human motivation starts at their most basic needs and progresses to the more complex and abstract needs. The person without food isn’t too concerned with their identity or purpose. They just want to eat.
So I constructed a question concerning why they joined the Army. It prompted them to select a statement that best reflected why they joined. On the lower end of Maslow’s hierarchy, the option of “I joined the Army because I needed food, water, shelter, etc.” was available. The questions progressed through the hierarchy and culminated with the self-actualization option of “I joined the Army to become something.”
My theory was pretty simple. Those who joined out of adverse backgrounds would seek “a way out.” They would get in our formation and bring the trauma of their childhood with them. Those escaping the foster care system, abusive situations, and neglect would best harmonize with the lower end of the spectrum.
However, those that came into the Army wanting to serve the idea of “being a Soldier” would gravitate toward the other end of the spectrum. Those with fantasies of being Solid Snake, James Bond, or Rambo would select “I want to become something.”
The results were astonishing.
Most of those in the line companies selected the option “I joined the Army to become something.” Without fail, the combat arms Soldiers had joined without the motivation for money, shelter, or escape. Instead, they were there to live out childhood fantasies, prove to themselves they had what it took, and confirm a warrior identity.
However, the support personnel in those companies, our support company, and headquarters Soldiers nearly always selected something on the lower end of Maslow’s Hierarchy. They weren’t all focused on acquiring basic needs, but they were far from trying to self-actualize.
My wife has long since worked in the foster care system as a licensor. That presents me with a unique view into that system and the science that is leveraged to understand the environments that children are removed from.
One tool that is frequently used to determine if a person has experienced trauma in their past is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) quiz. This is a simple, ten-question quiz in which you answer yes or no to each question. The “yes” answers are totaled at the end of the quiz. Any score over a 4 indicates a higher proclivity toward physical and mental health issues in adulthood.
I included the ACEs questions at the end of the survey. I hypothesized that the support Soldiers would tally a much higher aggregated ACEs score than the combat arms Soldiers. The answers I got were much, much more compelling.
I was wrong.
The support company responded with a whopping, consistent “0” to the ACEs quiz, while the combat arms companies were all over the place. This makes a much more compelling answer than if they had come back with a solid 5 or 6.
Now, I knew the people responding to the quiz very well. They would also stop me in the chow hall, our office hallways, or on the street and ask me, “what’s up with the weird survey questions.” Those who wanted to talk to me about it outright lied on the quiz.
From counselings, I knew they nearly maxed out the ACEs index but responded with 0 and had an emotional reaction to the quiz itself. It was an eye-opening result.
Not only did it confirm that they had come from an adverse childhood, despite their reluctance to respond to the quiz, but it also unveiled something more interesting. They didn’t trust our organization, the survey, or me with their childhood experiences.
Now, that could be because they were in denial. It could be because confirming it on the quiz is so embarrassing to them. It could be that I am a poor chaplain, and no one trusts me. I will allow for all those possibilities.
However, for an entire company to respond unanimously with “0” when their peers responded honestly is compelling.
The support company were transactional recruits. When we recruit someone like that, they will continually barter their time for benefits. That is until the trade becomes unacceptable for them. They also bring the trappings of someone deprived of basic human needs.
However, the combat arms Soldiers show up asking, “how do I become.” They are transformational recruits. When we recruit those people, we get people fighting for promotions, school opportunities, and the privilege of serving.
It is profound when we consider the implications of this on how we market to Soldiers. Army marketing almost always attempts to cajole people into enlisting by advertising material gain. Bonuses, free schools, and benefits are aimed at the lower end of Maslow’s hierarchy.
As we pump millions into advertising across multiple platforms, we must consider who we attract to our formation. While one of the most endearing things of American military service is the ability to ascend from poverty to unrestricted heights, we still have a country to defend.
By attracting those on the lower end of Maslow’s, we also are bringing in people with a high ACEs score. Those people are more likely to struggle with height and weight compliance, commit suicide, and consume support resources at an astonishing rate.
However, if our recruiting messaging transmits “become something” to future Soldiers, we are much more likely to recruit people who will enlist, re-enlist, and be value-added for their careers. A simple cost-to-benefit analysis would demand that Army advertise the opportunity to test itself against hardship rather than get an absurdly high enlistment bonus.
Despite the easy access to high numbers of people showing up for the benefits, advertising for military service should take the more challenging path of finding the right people instead of just people.
If we have learned anything from the war in Ukraine, it is this: the will to fight matters. If you are a student of warfare, you will be able to think of many examples of how the will of a select few stopped better-equipped, vastly more numerous, and more experienced armies dead in their tracks.
The critical distinctive in all those examples has been, and always will be, their morale level. While the discussion of morale is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that morale is best understood as the level of trust that exists in an organization.
A quick study of morale will undoubtedly land you reviewing JFC Fuller’s Foundation of the Science of War. Fuller would submit that winning in the moral sphere of war depends on a soldier's trust that he will be protected, helped, well-equipped, fed, paid, and remembered.
As a young sergeant, I was taught that the “five things that affect morale are meals, mail, military justice, pay, and billets.” All of those are functions of trust. I trust you will pay me, feed me, treat me fairly, and let me have a reasonable level of comfort and communication. That old board question is brilliant.
When we consider the result of the ACEs survey, we can see the support company simply had no trust in the organization. That’s a severe problem. If they tend to be untrusting, then building trust in the organization may not be achievable.
The recruitment of people with a very high ACEs score could be a chink in the armor of the American military machine.
For several reasons, the Army is wrestling with recruitment shortfalls. As with many problems in the military, the tendency is to “whip out the money gun” and shoot the problem right in the face. However, we need to be very careful with doing that in this context.
Simply flooding the internet and airwaves with promises of $50k bonuses and a life of benefits may only set us up for failure in the next conflict. Instead, we should look at how to tailor our communication and Soldier experience to let our future warriors become what they truly want to be.