Small Wars Journal

The Combat Patch: Binary Indicator or Something More?

Mon, 12/09/2013 - 1:56pm

The Combat Patch:  Binary Indicator or Something More?

Scott Nestler

Saw two senior NCOs this morning wearing ACUs with “slick sleeves.” Not sure how this can be, given that we have been at war for over a decade.

—Colonel Scott Nestler, July 31, 2012, Facebook status update

One morning in July 2012, I observed two Army non-commissioned officers (NCOs) wearing Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs) at a nearby table in a restaurant. I was in civilian clothes, so they had no way of knowing that I was an active-duty Army officer. On their left sleeves both wore the “USA Star Logo” patch indicating assignment to Headquarters, Department of the Army (HQDA) or the U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC). On their right shoulders, where I expected to see a combat patch, was … gasp … nothing. This caught my attention because at that time our nation had been at war in Afghanistan for 11 years, and in Iraq for 9. Over one million U.S. Army Soldiers had deployed to these countries and the surrounding area; roughly one-third of them had completed two or more deployments.[1] I found it surprising that these two NCOs (a master sergeant and a staff sergeant) had not yet deployed. Later that day I posted my observation as a Facebook (FB) status update. Soon thereafter, a friend and respected colleague emailed me about my post,

Your recent post on ‘slick sleeves’ is easily the most offensive and inappropriate thing I’ve read on FB this year. ...You are publically marginalizing the contributions of lots of soldiers who, for a variety of reasons, have not deployed. ... Coming from a senior officer, your post helps to perpetuate an absolutely dysfunctional culture that treats with contempt the opinions and contributions of a significant number of us. Two kinds of people will read your post; one kind will think you’re a fool for posting it, and the other kind will mimic (or exceed) your behavior – both are bad outcomes for the future of our Army.[2]

After some contemplation, I realized that there was merit to his emotional critique. I retracted my FB post, thanked him for being candid with me, and began a period of introspection on the meaning and value of military service, especially for those not serving in direct combat roles. This essay attempts to provide one perspective on how, in a time of war, many contribute to the mission in ways other directly engaging the enemy. Clausewitz writes, "The end for which a soldier is recruited, clothed, armed, and trained, the whole object of his sleeping, eating, drinking, and marching is simply that he should fight at the right place and the right time [original italics]."[3] However, the right place, time, and way need not be the same for everyone.

More recently, I observed some fellow officers making disparaging remarks about Soldiers who, like me, have largely been in the Institutional Army (IA), or generating force, for most of the past decade. The IA provides the organization and infrastructure needed to raise, train, equip, deploy, and ensure the readiness of all Army forces. In contrast, the Operational Army is the warfighting side of the Army; it consists of corps, divisions, brigades, and battalions that conduct full spectrum operations around the world.[4] An officer with multiple deployments to Iraq at brigade level and below belittled officers who have “deployed only once, maybe for six months but feel they have done their part.”[5] The same officer said mockingly that Assignment Incentive Pay (AIP), originally designed to reduce the high turnover rate in South Korea in the 1990s, had now become known as “Avoid Iraq Pay.”[6] I cannot blame them too much for their perspective, and am not trying to take anything away from the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and civilians who have spent as much time over the past decade in combat zones overseas as they have at home with their families. In retrospect, it took little time upon my return from my most recent deployment (in 2009) for me to think, “OK; it’s somebody else’s turn.”

I critically examine how the Army (and by extension, the military in general) values and recognizes various types of service, sacrifice, and experiences differently, and the implications of these actions, especially during an extended period of wartime. The other military services deal with similar matters-- sea vs. shore duty for the Navy, the dominant culture (fighter vs. bomber) in the Air Force, etc. While a focus on combat experience is understandably central to the military’s purpose, perhaps we (both as an organization and as individuals) take it too far at times, especially with regard to visible signs of differences in contributions. Combat experience is invaluable for a number of reasons, including Tim Kane’s recent finding in Bleeding Talent that, “Officers with combat experience were less perfectionist and more tolerant of failure.”[7]

There is an internal struggle faced by those who do not feel that they are contributing to the core mission of their organization. This is something I experienced more strongly over time during the past decade while serving in the IA. This tension is an enduring challenge for the Army. As such, we must consider the implications of these issues as we enter a period where the likelihood of large overseas contingency operations (OCO) appears to be diminishing, and the percentage of those in the force with combat experience decays toward historic norms.

Although primarily focused on the IA, these vignettes are representative of those serving in comparable organizations of the other services during the past decade, and contain more broadly applicable lessons. The goal is to increase awareness that the contributions of all who serve in the military are important, and to increase understanding among those who may not fully appreciate the full scope of service and sacrifice made by members of the armed services.

In Army 101, military correspondent David Axe opines, “A soldier’s uniform is uniform in only the most general sense of the word. Few wear the same combination of patches, badges, and wings. Every soldier’s uniform is like a pressed, camouflaged, wearable resume.”[8] When a service member walks through the airport in uniform, many civilians with thank them for their service, but does not pick up on further cues about where they have been and what they have done. However, to those currently serving or some veterans, the wearable resume is read in greater detail.

The simple meaning of a combat patch is as a binary indicator of combat service; a Soldier either does or does not have one. In the case of the ACU, the combat patch may be the only available clue about wartime service. When observing a Soldier in the more formal, blue Army Service Uniform (ASU), there are other useful indicators to provide amplifying information. For example, on the right sleeve near the wrist, each Overseas Service Bar (OSB) indicates six months of service in a combat zone. More can be inferred from wear of the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) and newer, Combat Action Badge (CAB), as well as other special skill badges and awards.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the majority of right shoulders were bare, as only very senior officers and NCOs had combat patches from the Vietnam War. Over 200,000 Soldiers earned a combat patch during the Persian Gulf War (DS/DS), but over time most of these veterans left the Army. By 2001 combat patches were relatively rare once again, but over the next decade this would change dramatically so that Soldiers with a combat patch were “virtually ubiquitous.”[9]

A study done in 1998 on students in the now disestablished Combined Arms and Services Staff School (CAS3) at Fort Leavenworth indicated that the possession of a combat patch was significantly correlated with the average judgments captains received from their classmates.[10] Interestingly, the study showed little evidence that past achievements represented by medals, badges, and combat deployments, affected self-evaluations. Even though individuals did not consider themselves to be more effective leaders based on these accomplishments, others did consider them to be indicators of value with regard to performance.

A mid-grade officer writing on 21st century strategic leader development contends, “Little emphasis is placed on what particular skills or attributes officers develop during the wartime experience. As long as an officer gets a combat patch, what he or she did to get it is not thought to be critical.”[11] That is one perspective; however, others would argue that there are differences. A friend with a background and experiences similar to mine made the following observation:

While you and I are not ‘slick-sleeve’ soldiers due to Desert Storm and an augmentee rotation under our belts, we are not far above that in the eyes of the combat arms officers that have been … in combat. It is just the way things are…these battle-hardened officers have a view about the institutional Army and I am not sure that there is anything anyone can do to change that view.[12]

Observing what an organization mocks is one way to tell what it values. Military humor has been around in a variety of forms for some time. In World War II, Bill Mauldin’s cartoon strip Willie and Joe was popular. The Facebook character Doctrine Man and the weblog The Duffel Blog are two examples from recent wars. In a recent entry, titled “Garrison Sergeant Major Swears He Wants to Deploy,” The Duffel Blog parodies the issue at hand.[13] This short satire relates the story of why a fictional Sergeant Major has not deployed during his 28 years in the Army. He presents a variety of reasons (or possibly excuses) such as health issues, and assignment to Korea or the training base. All of these may be valid reasons for not deploying, but when viewed collectively over nearly three decades of service, can be construed as something different. However, as with most things, it is not quite that simple. In the words of Colonel Lou Henkel, Deputy Director of Enlisted Personnel Management at Human Resources Command (HRC) in 2007, “Giving Soldiers the chance to earn a combat patch is a part of what defines Army readiness, but the absence of a combat patch does not necessarily tell a Soldier’s full story.”[14]

For the first eight years of my Army career, I was an Air Defense Artillery (ADA) officer. I served as a platoon leader in a PATRIOT missile battery during Operations Desert Shield and Storm (DS/DS). Less than one year after starting my military career, I was officially a combat veteran of sorts. This was largely due to luck and timing as only 30% of the active Army (and less than 20% of the total Army including the Reserve and National Guard) deployed for DS/DS and it only lasted seven months, although the awarding of combat patches did not end until two years later.[15] With a few exceptions (e.g. Somalia), those who entered the Army a few years later did not have the opportunity to serve in combat until 2001 or later, if they were still in the service after the significant drawdown in the 1990s. I recall numerous top-notch officers who felt that they were at a disadvantage for promotion and choice assignments because of their lack of a combat patch, only due to timing or the vagaries of the assignment system for junior officers.

After two more operational deployments to Southwest Asia (SWA) and commanding a PATRIOT missile battery in South Korea, I made a significant career change within the Army. After attending full-time graduate school for two years and a teaching assignment at West Point, I requested and received designation as Operations Research / Systems Analyst (ORSA), or Functional Area 49 officer. I knew this meant that I would be given the opportunity to contribute to the Army mission in a different way in the future. This choice also meant that I would likely not command Soldiers in higher-level tactical and operational units. I was fine with my decision at the time and am now, but there were some other implications of this career decision that would not become obvious until years later.

After the terrorists’ attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, those of us in uniform who were teaching at West Point realized that the events of that morning would change not just our lives, but those of our students and families as well. Although some colleagues were mobilized and/or deployed, most of us continued teaching cadets whose own prospects for combat leadership had changed dramatically. We wondered about when and how we would be able to contribute more directly to our nation’s efforts and when or if we would be leading Soldiers into battle in far off lands.

The combined Army Staff and Secretariat office I joined a few months later had been among the first occupants in the newly renovated wedge of the Pentagon where the plane had impacted. At the August 2002 dedication of a memorial (on the 2nd floor, at the intersection of the E-ring and the 4th corridor) I learned that an officer with whom I had served in Korea, Major Ron Milam, was among the 29 Soldiers and civilians from my new organization who had been killed that day.[16] Although he and I were not close friends, learning of his death that day shocked me. While I had previously mourned in broad terms for those who lost colleagues, friends, and loved ones in New York and Washington, DC, the attacks took on a different meaning for me that day-- the terrorists had killed someone that I knew.

While working in the Pentagon, especially after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in March 2003, my contributions to the GWOT seemed ancillary to me. While I was going home to my family at night, many of my brothers and sisters in arms were halfway across the world, fighting to keep us safe. I struggled to be satisfied with my role by throwing myself fully into whatever it was the Army asked me to do -- directly related tasks like working overnight shifts in the Army Operations Center (AOC) and more peripheral analyses for the transformation of the Army from a division-centric force into modular Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) to send to theater. In retrospect, I believe that I was learning how some of my peers who were in the Army but not deployed for DS/DS had felt.

In 2004, the Army asked me to return to graduate school for three years to earn a PhD. I wrestled with the decision to be a student during a time of war but chose to do so, partially because I (and most others) did not expect the conflicts to continue as long as they actually did. After learning that a colleague had terminated his doctoral studies, I briefly considered asking the Army to release me from the student detachment and send me to a deployable unit. While some mentors and friends suggested that I remain in school, the decision to do so was mine alone. To compensate for a growing feeling of guilt, I focused my class projects and scholarly research efforts on topics of interest and utility to the Army as opposed to just subjects of interest to me as an individual.

Upon completing my studies, I returned to teaching duty at West Point and again found teaching cadets to be rewarding. As a senior military faculty member, I now had a role in the development of junior faculty members. I also conducted research of interest to the Army using my newly developed skills. While I knew that my responsibility “to train, educate, and inspire the Corps of Cadets…” was necessary, I continued to believe that I was not truly contributing to the Army’s mission.[17] This is somewhat ironic because, during my time at West Point, between classroom teaching, cadet sponsorship, and mentoring of athletic team and club members, I had the opportunity to influence more of the Army’s junior leaders than a battalion commander comes in contact with during a 24-month command.

In 2008, Army Chief of Staff (CSA) General George Casey responded to a military spouse’s question about equity and sharing of the deployment burden by saying, “We need to do a better job of getting everybody into the fight."[18] At that time, about one-third of the active-duty Army had not deployed. A number of these Soldiers were in units preparing to deploy; others were non-deployable for a variety of reasons, e.g. in basic training or other schooling, medical or legal issues, or serving in the training base.[19]

At General Casey’s direction, the Army’s Human Resources Command (HRC) identified roughly 37,000 active-duty officers and enlisted Soldiers (or 7.2% of the force at the time) as not having been to a war zone since 2001 but being eligible for deployment.[20] However, this percentage varied dramatically by branch and specialty, based on differing demands for various units and capabilities in theater. The Army’s force structure did not match the operating environment, creating the need for improvisation to spread the burden of combat among all in the military. The retraining of field artillery battalions to provide wide area security, using air defense artillery units to provide route security, Navy officers and NCOs serving on provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), etc., provides further evidence that the Army truly was “out of Schlitz” (or at least infantry, armor, and military police units).

The challenge the Army faced in 2007 is similar to the situation seen in sports, where there is a need for many players of particular specialties and talents. Often, there are not enough of some types, and those few spend much more time on the field than desirable while others remain on the sideline. Just as the football coach requires a variety of specialists, the Army needs officers and Soldiers with various skill sets. An offense comprised of 11 outstanding quarterbacks and running backs would likely not fare well on the field of friendly strife against an opponent’s balanced defense with hulking linemen, agile linebackers, and speedy defensive backs. As highlighted in the popular book and movie The Blind Side, some of the players in less glamorous positions (in this instance the left tackle, who protects a right-handed quarterback’s “blind side”) are critical to the team’s success.[21]

The previously mentioned CAS3 study indicated that individuals from the high-status service branches (combat arms) received more favorable evaluations than those from the lower status branches (combat support, and combat service support).[22] However, an Army that only includes individuals in combat arms specialties would likely not succeed on the battlefield. Those in the Army’s “tooth” need to be supported by many in the “tail.” While some of these supporting personnel (e.g. combat support and combat service support branches and units) are required in theater, others can and should perform their supporting roles from back in the United States, including some in the IA. One colleague suggested a set of guidelines for assessing whether a particular Soldier or function needs to be deployed in the modern era.[23] Essentially, those who do an office job involving paper or virtual work that is the same when deployed as in garrison are candidates for providing support from outside theater. Some examples include: military intelligence analysts (other than human intelligence and collection personnel), many in adjutant general (human resources) organizations, staffers working in headquarters above brigade level who have no role outside the wire (off American bases) and no required interaction with the host nation. Do all staff assistants making PowerPoint slides at various echelons need to be physically present to do their job or could they work from stateside on a reverse cycle? These types of positions can and do take away from operational units; when a brigade of 4300 deploys with only 3000 to stay under a theater force cap, the commander may need trade off between fully manned squads, logisticians, and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams.

Two business professors at Harvard highlight that the attention paid to star performers can lead us to underestimate the vital importance of the supporting actors.[24] Although their examples are from the corporate world and the entertainment industry, the analogy works in the military as well. Similar situations exist in education, where teachers are the stars and the custodial and administrative support personnel are treated like a sub caste.[25] While focus is on the superstars, organizations’ long-term performance and survival depends far more on the unsung commitment and contributions of their B players. In the Army, the focus is rightfully on the combat arms, those that close with and destroy the enemy; however, those in supporting roles of combat support and combat service support are necessary for accomplishing the mission to those in the “leading roles.”

In Max Hastings’ discussion of military heroism in Warriors, he observes that the physical courage of the type one sees in combat is much more common than spiritual (or moral) courage.[26] However, those in supporting roles that may commonly be viewed as safe and comfortable jobs face situations requiring this latter type more often. Moral courage is more difficult to develop because it has no direct counterpart to muscle memory, which assists with the development of physical courage. Also, moral courage is more essential to leaders at the strategic level, but the path to leadership values evidence of physical courage. While deployment during wartime, as indicated by a combat patch, may be a demonstration of physical courage, does it say anything about moral courage? Serving in a supporting role provides the opportunity to develop a different type of courage, even though others may judge you harshly. Part of self-awareness is having a strong sense of your role in the organization’s overall mission and not caring about uninformed judgments of others. A colleague suggested to me that, “some serving in support roles, who don’t get the publicity, glory, book deals, and trips to the White House, but go about their duty quietly and in unheralded ways, may contribute as much or more to the military mission and securing the nation’s safety.”[27]

It is imperative to understand that most Soldiers do want to get into the fight, regardless of where they are in their career. This applies to both individuals and units, and is not just a recent phenomenon; examples can be found from nearly every war. During World War One, three battalions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) went to Bermuda to replace British units joining the fight in Europe.[28] Their men became impatient while conducting drills, watching for German submarines, and patrolling the beaches, because they had enrolled for active combat, not humiliating garrison duty. The 1955 movie Mr. Roberts is an example from World War II. Navy Lieutenant, Junior Grade Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda) repeatedly asks for a transfer from the cargo ship USS Reluctant, commanded by an uncaring Captain (James Cagney), to a ship on the front lines of the battle in the Pacific.[29] Lieutenant Amy Dietrickson, of the Michigan Army National Guard, expresses a more recent example of this sentiment. In 2011, she wrote a short piece entitled, My Story: I Have Not Deployed.[30] Because deployment has been central to the recent military experience, civilians often assume that she has been to Iraq or Afghanistan. Not having deployed made her feel like she had not done her part as a Soldier. She also reflects on her internal sense of obligation and need to serve as being self-centered. As a single parent, she also feels the pull to stay safe at home and care for her son. She is clearly conflicted about which of these two desires is more selfish. The Lieutenant’s emotions matched my growing frustration from 2001 to 2009 as I heard my own call to serve and looked for an appropriate way to bring my unique skills to bear in the war.

I discovered that it is not as easy as one might think to grant an individual officer’s request to deploy, even during an extended conflict. In May 2009, about one year after I started asking in earnest, the Army sent me to Iraq to be the Deputy Chief of Assessments for Multi National Force-Iraq (MNF-I). My job was to help U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill and General Ray Odierno, the MNF-I Commanding General answer the question, “So, how are we doing?” by assessing the effects of our actions in lines of operation (or effort) other than security, namely political, diplomatic, economic, and rule of law. After completing this deployment I felt proud of having served again overseas, this time as a deployed analyst. Afterwards, I did feel that I was treated differently, i.e. with more respect, by fellow officers and cadets alike because of my recent “combat experience.” Six months after returning from Iraq, I jointed the faculty of the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). While I once again found myself “on the sideline," I no longer felt that I was not contributing to the Army’s mission. Deployment to Baghdad, where I employed the skills acquired through years of education and experience as an analyst, fulfilled my desire to serve in theater.

The mix of Soldiers in the Army who have combat experience is constantly changing. After large-scale and/or long wars, the percentage of Soldiers with one or more combat patches is fairly high, as it is now. Then, as they leave the service through the end of their service obligation or retirement, the proportion will decrease to where those with a combat patch may once again be a small minority, as was the case in the late 1990s. The current defense strategic guidance makes it appear that once operations in Afghanistan end, we are heading into a period of reduced overseas presence and increased partnering with allies and other nations.[31] The Army will likely have to rely increasingly on live, virtual, constructive gaming (LVCG) in training that is a surrogate for actual operational experience.[32] While useful in preparing Soldiers and units for war, this form of experience provides no visible indicators (i.e. combat patches) of having “seen the elephant” in the form of an actual enemy. It will be interesting to see how perceptions regarding different types of service changes in the coming years.

I have enormous respect for folks who have deployed, be it one time or five. I also have admiration for those who have not deployed, just for volunteering to serve our nation by wearing the uniform of one of our military services. While I have no doubt that there are some who have actively sought to avoid deployment to a combat zone, I am personally aware of Soldiers who have not been to Iraq or Afghanistan for good reasons, e.g. medical conditions that prohibit deployment, low demand for their specialty in theater, etc. At a fundamental level, comments like my Facebook posting about Soldiers without combat patches are corrosive and counterproductive, especially when they come from senior officers. We do not need to belittle the accomplishments of others to celebrate our achievements. To those two NCOs I observed last July, I offer a simple “I’m sorry,” even though it is probable they never knew what I was thinking.

There are many different ways that Soldiers can serve our Army and nation. The fact they have not deployed does not mean that they are not contributing to the mission; we should not devalue their service for this reason alone. This will be increasingly true in the coming years, as the percentage of serving Soldiers who are combat veterans declines. I have attempted to illustrate that the absence of a combat patch is not simply an indicator that a Soldier actively sought to avoid deployment, but instead indirectly reveals a contribution of a different type. The next time you see a Soldier without a combat patch, instead of reacting in a dismissive manner like I did, I encourage you to engage him or her and get to know a little bit about him or her, or simply thank him or her for volunteering to serve.

End Notes

[1] Dave Baiocchi, Measuring Army Deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013).

[2] Email from confidential source, August 31, 2012.

[3] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. & trans. Michael Howard & Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: University Press, 1976), p. 95.

[4] U.S. Department of the Army, ”Organization,” linked from the United States Army Home Page at “Organization” (accessed May 3, 2013).

[5] Email from confidential source, August 17, 2011.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tim Kane, Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 36.

[8] David Axe, Army 101: Inside ROTC in a Time of War (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 49.

[9] Eliot Cohen, “The US Military After Iraq: A Speculation,” RUSI Journal 151, no. 1 (Feb 2006): 20.

[10] Monica Biernat, Christian Crandall, Lissa Young, Diane Kobrynowicz, and Stanley Halpin, “All That You Can Be: Stereotyping of Self and Others in a Military Context” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75, no 2 (August 1998): 301-317.

[11] James Hardaway, Strategic Leader Development for a 21st Century Army (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), May 2008), 13.

[12] Dennis Day, email message to author, January 29, 2013.

[13] “Garrison Sergeant Major Swears He Wants to Deploy,” Duffle Blog, (accessed January 25, 2013).

[14] Gina Cavallaro, “If you haven’t deployed yet, stand by,” February 24, 2008, linked from the United States Army Home Page at (accessed January 25, 2013).

[15] U.S. Department of the Army, War in the Persian Gulf, Center of Military History (CMH) Publication 70-117-1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Army, 2010), 69.

[17] The United States Military Academy's mission is to educate, train and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army. (accessed January 15, 2013).

[18] Cavallaro, “If you haven’t deployed yet,” 2008.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Michael Lewis, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006); John Lee Hancock, The Blind Side, DVD (Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 2009).

[22] Biernat, Crandall, Young, Kobrynowicz, and Halpin, “All That You Can Be.”

[23] Niel Smith, email message to author, February 12, 2013.

[24] Thomas Delong and Vineeta Vijayaraghavan. “Let’s Hear It for B Players” Harvard Business Review (June 2003): 96-102.

[25] Jim Hazen, Personal interview by author, Carlisle, PA, February 9, 2013.

[26] Max Hastings, Warriors: Portraits from the Battlefield (New York: Knopf, 2006), xvii.

[27] Charlie Dunlap, email message to author, February 12, 2013.

[28] Jean-Pierre Gagnon, “Canadian Soldiers in Bermuda During World War One,” Histoire Sociale (Social History) 23, no. 45 (1990): 9-36.

[29] John Ford and Mervyn Leroy, dir., digital media, Mister Roberts, (Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 1955) (accessed 25 January 2013).

[30] Amy Dietrickson, “My Story: I Have Not Deployed,” PowerPlay: A Journal of Educational Justice, Vol 3, No 2 (2011): 105-108.

[31] Department of Defense, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” January 5, 2012.

[32] Juan Carlos Llorca, “Tanks, Aircraft Interact for virtual Training”, March 3, 2013, Army Times,, March 3, 2013 (accessed April 18, 2013).


About the Author(s)

Dr. Scott Nestler is an operations research analyst who is currently the Force Strategy Division Chief at the Center for Army Analysis. Previously, he taught at the Naval Postgraduate School and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A serving Army Colonel, he served as the Chief of Strategic Analysis for Multi-National Force-Iraq in 2009.



Thu, 12/12/2013 - 10:17am

I understand that it can be difficult to get into the fight. I know all the jobs we have are requirements or they wouldn't exist. I was sent into an ROTC position for two years while I chomped at the bit and watched my friends deploy. Did I influence future Army leadership? Sure. I also felt very frustrated and even angry that I was not doing what I had always imagined my real purpose in the Army to be - to deploy and go to war. The worst part was when an acquaintance told me he had heard I managed to dodge deployment by volunteering for ROTC duty. At that point in my career I was shocked to think any officers might even consider such an action. Later on that changed.

I badgered everyone I could to get into the fight and finally did, managing to rack up four deployments. I even managed to piss off a GO by inquiring if this was a private war or could anyone join the fight? If a Soldier wanted to deploy there was a way to get into the fight. If a Soldier didn't want to go, there were many ways out.

Going to war is what we are about. Killing people and breaking things. It is important that we all participate...and participation includes everything from the SOF folks and others doing thier things globally to the personnel specialist doing thier job on FOB.

I am currently at a large headquarters. There are are plenty of slick sleeves here, in senior ranks of NCOs and officers. I try and withhold judgement reminding myself of how long it took me to get into the fight. I tell myself well, maybe they have HIV, family problems, he was "stuck" in recruiting, languishing in Korea, ...and then I ask myself ,"Really? Since 2001... and then I do judge them. It may not be right but I can't help it. I don't see the same shared sacrifices.


Fri, 12/13/2013 - 3:13am

In reply to by Wyatt

Your welcome. You'll get that chance, every generation does. Sometimes it comes sooner, sometimes later, but it always seems to come.


Fri, 12/13/2013 - 1:39am

In reply to by Luddite4Change

I wish you carried the same handle into the council where a pm would be appropriate. As a 18D qualified candidate about to enter the "real world" of SF outside the q course I want to say thank you for the reply. The person relating the eighties experience to me did remark as an aside "what does it really matter now" regarding the recognition in '96 of their efforts in the 80's, giving creedence to your statement “An honor delayed is and honor denied”.

I will absolutely cede your expertise at this point on the matter. I can only hope that one day I am fortunate enough to be that 18D in the CAR, providing care to a community and leveraging his position with the discrimination and tact required to be a strategic asset. Again thank you.


Thu, 12/12/2013 - 3:11pm

In reply to by Wyatt


The problem with receiving recognition/credit at some future date is that service members are competing for promotion and retention in the here and now. Being credited for your combat service in these location/operations upon retirement (BTW; VA follows a standard established in Federal Law for granting combat credit, the Army is currently using its own more restrictive standard) strikes me as more than a little unjust. As the saying goes, “An honor delayed is and honor denied”.

There is, I believe, a more than subtle difference between the 80’s service you mention and today; while there service was not officially recognized at the time promotion boards gave significant weight to their deployed service as the operations in Central America, Persian Gulf, and Lebanon were highly visible when the rest of the 800K Army was performing peacetime garrison duty. Today, the situation is reversed with operations in secondary theatre competing with board members perceptions anchored in their Iraq/Afghanistan experience.

I think that the Army is coming around on this as some SOF GO’s who have served on these types of OPS are advancing. It was only 6 months ago that the Army published a rapid action fielding to modify AR 600-8-22 (Awards Manual) so that it could clarify the conditions for award of the Distinguished Service Cross to a JSOC member for actions in Libya, so I think there is some realization that this could be an issue going forward.

Our laws, regulations, and policies were not established to handle the framework of what is an ebbing and flowing cross COCOM operational dynamic that takes into account the service in very high intensity combat in the Hindu Kush, to the S-1 clerk in Kabul, the supply clerk in Kuwait, an OPSNCO sitting at CENTCOM Forward in Qatar, an attaché in Yemen, and the 18D working out of a mud hut in Obo, Central African Republic. Some are in a declared Combat Zone Tax Exclusion (CZTE) Area where there personal danger and risk exposure is high, some medium and some miniscule, while others are outside the limits of the CZTE yet often facing significantly higher levels of risk due to the nature of their activities (i.e. no QRF, limited MEDEVAC, no trauma care, small numbers of US embedded in Foreign forces, lack or ineffectiveness of the usual combat multipliers, etc).

Given that I spent the last part of my career with many individuals who held unique jobs, I try not to judge, but I have to wonder if focus on sleeve insignia, badges, and Ranger tabs is ultimately healthy for the institution. Perhaps one of the best officers that I served with was a vanilla looking O-6 who had no SSI-FWS and limited other badges/campaign/service medals, what he did have was over 15 years in special assignments what much of that coming in hostile or dangerous conditions. By outward appearance many would think him a combat dodging slug, and that would have been the wrong call.


Thu, 12/12/2013 - 1:21am

In reply to by Luddite4Change

I hope I didn't come across as leaving no room for exceptions. SF has its central american history from the 80's with heroes like SFC Greg Fronius and others, who only got recognized for their sacrifices in what, the late 90s?
No doubt other men in other units are creating that type of impact across the globe in many ways. Hopefully when the time is appropriate, they too will get recognition.


Thu, 12/12/2013 - 12:43am


Congratulation on being more open minded and forward thinking that the Army Leadership!

I don’t think it’s been any malfeasants on the Army’s part, just a lack of visibility, as I’ve always believed that they would come around to appropriately recognizing service in these other locations as operations in Afghanistan wind down and these formerly secondary theatres become the only war in town.

As to the second part of your post, I can think of around a dozen active and recently retired O-5/6’s who fit into this category with deployment/PCSs only to a secondary theatre.

We can start with my friend who took the AK round to the gut, one who had to set up an LZ under fire so that allied forces could evac a US embassy, a third who did multiple clandestine missions into these areas in support of US/allied operations, one had a mortar round land next to their quarters, still another who had to shoot an assailant from his vehicle, a different one who discovered an explosive devise next to their residence, and another who was shot at on multiple occasions during their tour.

I leave you with this list only so you don’t judge others without knowing the whole story.


Wed, 12/18/2013 - 2:00pm

In reply to by major.rod

"Thou shalt not covet" would have been a better principle to follow.

Black Beret not withstanding, I'm not a big fan of Shinseki. I don't think his period as the CSA set us up for success during the wars on a variety of fronts.


Wed, 12/18/2013 - 2:26am

In reply to by Luddite4Change

Luddite - Yeah, thanks for the Shelton correction.

Ref Shinseki and the Black Beret, I personally think was connected to his tanker background. US Army tankers have always coveted the black beret that commonly denoted armor in Europe.


Sat, 12/14/2013 - 12:21am

In reply to by major.rod

MAJROD. I think it actually was CSA GEN Schoomaker who did away with the branch insignia with adoption of the ASU; both decision that should be jettisoned yesterday!.

GEN Shelton was the CJCS until 1 OCT 01, and to his credit recommend to GEN Shinseki that he choose a different color if he planned on putting all the Army in berets.

Biggs. Valid point on the combat jump star, the same criticism was levied at the 173rd for jumping with "reporters on the ground" in Dak To also. I would argue that that specific award has itself been highly politicized throughout the years. None of the OSS or Jedbergs who made jumps behind the lines in WWII received a combat star, neither were any US personnel who jumped into combat with allied forces during Korea or Vietnam, nor where any awarded to SF or pathfinder units who performed combat operational jumps in Vietnam. I can only surmise that SOF's more elevated political position resulted in awarding of stars during the start of this conflict.


Wed, 12/18/2013 - 2:48am

In reply to by Biggs Darklighter

No symbol is going to be a 100%. One could take the argument into the realm of the absurd and question the utility of uniforms. The point remains patches do make a difference and even someone wearing an SF patch more likely than not brings a certain perspective and experience to the situation. Does it guarantee he's 18 qualified? No, but you can tell pretty quick by looking at the other shoulder and for sure he didn't get that SF patch sitting in the green zone. It's a much better indicator of the individual than a fuzzy shoulder of a senior NCO or officer which is what the article is about.

A combat patch just like a CIB means "something". Some have been awarded to freely others have been earned. When I was awarded my EIB only 12 of 600 candidates (2%) were awarded (the year before there were 0 of 600). Is the EIB worthless now because some units have a 50% or better award rate? No, I think not.

The combat patch as well as other insignia mean things and I'm always cautious in judging especially if I don't know the full story or am intimately familiar with the branch's culture.

BTW, didn't address before but, "I've met too many soldiers who wore combat patches who were not stellar soldiers and also met many without the patch who could run circles around those with combat patches." Huh? How do you know? I have served with soldiers that were exceptional in the field and crap in garrison. Don't be so sure...

Biggs Darklighter

Fri, 12/13/2013 - 9:46pm

In reply to by major.rod


There could be differences, or not. One can always generalize based on your assumption that the kind of combat patch you wear says you saw more or less combat. There's the logic of propensity in that argument that makes sense, but only to a degree as there are plenty of soldiers wearing division patches and even SF patches who didn't see much, if any combat as well. So we have CIB's and CAB's to show who actually saw combat, but did they? I personnally know groups of soldiers who were in the same exact area who recevied CAB's or CIB's and others who did not. It often depends on who the boss is and who is writing the award. Those 173rd paratroopers who jumped into Iraq received their gold star for a "combat jump." Was it really a combat jump with SF and Peshmerga holding a secured airfield below or just a tactical parachute drop into a combat zone?


Fri, 12/13/2013 - 8:20pm

In reply to by Biggs Darklighter

Biggs - Don't deny you have a point but there's a difference between an Infantry/Armored division or ACR/Separate BDE patch and a Corps, Army, MFO, Coalition HQ, sitting in the rear with the gear etc. patch.

The argument that a slug has worn ____ can be made for everything up to the MOH. In an organization as large as the biggest branch in the US military some help in differentiating amongst themselves helps. Then again, I was never happy with Gen Shelton's decision to take branch insignia off of officers's uniforms. I could imagine the thoughts going through a young NCO's mind when ordered to fire and maneuver by a convoy commander he never met before. The branch insignia makes a difference.

Biggs Darklighter

Thu, 12/12/2013 - 9:28pm

In reply to by major.rod


I disagree that the combat patch has become nothing more than bling. The problem is it really does not tell you who your dealing with; It could be a sniper with 10 kills under his belt or staff officer in the HQ yet they could both be wearing the combat patch. I've met too many soldiers who wore combat patches who were not stellar soldiers and also met many without the patch who could run circles around those with combat patches. The patch was not designed to make such micro distinctions anyway but it creates an unfair bias towards soldiers who do not have them in terms of their ability to perform. It has nothing to do with what the Corps or any service that provides in the combat zone when all services are in that same combat zone. Too many badge hunters in the Army overall.


Wed, 12/18/2013 - 2:52am

In reply to by Condor

Great! Since you guys pride yourselves on doing more with less no problem as long as it's a shot compared to my tall ice cold beer! :)


Fri, 12/13/2013 - 8:58pm

In reply to by major.rod

I was too so no worries! This old Marine has a pretty thick skin. Tell you what, since you come from the big brother service, you got first round at the bar. Sound good?


Fri, 12/13/2013 - 8:22pm

In reply to by Condor

Condor - Just to be clear I was injecting humor not insult.


Thu, 12/12/2013 - 8:50pm

In reply to by major.rod

Man, I wish someone had informed me I was like the Duck Dynasty crew while I was in the Corps, I'd have been rocking the beard grooming regs be damned!


Thu, 12/12/2013 - 6:35pm

In reply to by Biggs Darklighter

The combat patch isn't just bling. It's a pretty important indicator of who you are dealing with. Those not familiar with the Army might not realize that the specific patch also has a huge impact on determining who you're dealing with. You can't compare the Corps that relies on other branches to provide the majority of its logistics and support with the the exponentially larger Army. It's like comparing the Duck Dynasty crew who intimately know each other with the 20k man NYPD.


Thu, 12/12/2013 - 8:48pm

In reply to by Luddite4Change

You make valid points and in the end I doubt there will ever be a perfect system. Prior to departing the Corps I saw plenty of if instances where awards, medals and devices weren't handed out in an entirely fair or correct manner. Ultimately it often comes down to the personalities in the chain (and egos) and the willingness of a commander to push the issue in the situations where someone deserves being recognized (then there are those in command who inflate actions of others and/or the unit to get recognition). I can't speak for the Army but from the outside looking in Army uniforms have always been adorned with so many ribbons/devices/etc that unless one is well versed in Army uniform regs it would be hard to discern what was what. I guess that's what I liked about the Marines, less stuff is easier to keep track of and therefore easier to pick out the "important" stuff. Maybe it's just us Marines need things made simple? Might explain why I always liked the KISS concept. With that being said, I understand the Army has its own traditions etc. and I am not one to say that big Army should change that which it holds dear.


Thu, 12/12/2013 - 12:53am

In reply to by Condor

The Marines have the same issue, but it takes on a different dimension. Read through 10 years of conflicting thought process and guidance on how the USMC either awarded or did not award the GWOT-E in various countries.

In my view, we have elevated the SSI-FWS to something that it was not meant to be. It was to delineate service outside the US in time of war/hostilities. As I mentioned in another post, every US soldier who left CONUS (which actually mean exceeded the US three mile limit authorized the SSI-FWS.

The other problem is that the construct of a Combat Zone Tax Exclusion area does not do a good job of meeting the means of todays conflict.


Wed, 12/11/2013 - 11:48pm

In reply to by Biggs Darklighter

I was about to suggest your last recommendation to, but you beat me to it.

Biggs Darklighter

Wed, 12/11/2013 - 11:37pm

The Army should just dump the combat patch. It's meaning has become too ambiguous to be awarded for service in a combat zone. Hard to believe soldiers received combat patches for service in Kuwait and Qatar since 2001. Since the U.S. is in range of ICBMs held by many countries hostile to the U.S. past and present, such as the USSR and China, perhaps all soldiers should have been awarded combat patches due to this "imminent danger." The Marines do just fine without such "bling" on their combat uniforms. The Army would as well.

I enjoyed reading your post because it goes beyond the simple "f-ing POG" mentality to explore some larger and deeper issues in the Army.
I agree that everyone has their role to play in the Army and for the accomplishment of the overall mission: prevent shape, and win our nations wars.

The rifleman is probably more involved than the FAO during the win portion of the mission set, but the FAO's importance increases substantially to prevent and shape.

There are two concept that I got beat into my head as a young infantry officer that don't appear in your article: everyone is important but no one is indispensable, and you can do your job better, if you know your buddy's job too.

This is why basic officer and enlisted career paths are fairly set. You do the job of the guys you eventually support.
West Point always seeks "well-rounded" applicants to fill the ranks of the Corps (Sink Navy, by the way), and every officer branch that I know of attempts to place officers in "broadening" assignments.

How do we allow/accept the idea of "broadening" or "well-rounded" our junior officers when we allow senior officers to "specialize" for 12+ years?

Ranger School is one place that teaches its students to be prepared to step up to the plate when the leader checks out. Ideally the students learn to adapt concepts and systems rather than revolving around individual personalities.

When I hear senior officers say "branch wouldn't let me leave", or "he was just too good at his job to deploy." I have to throw the BS flag on it. If that person becomes a single point of failure for the organization, then the organization is broken. What happens if that officer goes on leave, retires, has a heart attack, or gets killed in a car accident. Deploying people forces us to think beyond the individual level and forces to put systems in place to deal with other unforeseen events.

On an individual basis, the stories usually revolve around the same themes. Although, there are exceptions to the rules, as with anything in the Army, I doubt few "slick sleevers" actually possessed orders to deploy prior to having them revoked. I distinctly remember that between 2006 to 2009, the Army was "scraping the bottom of the barrel" to fill MTT and PRT slots (a flawed policy best saved for a different discussion).

One of the other comments cites an FAO who helped source PRTs from many of our NATO partners and allies. However, spending some time in theater would help that officer understand the frustrations that many headquarters felt with the limitations and national caveats that came with those contributions. It doesn't require the FAO to go on counter IED patrols, but the exposure to the environment would have helped ad context to his already remarkable achievements. Maybe that officer would have found a different insight or approach to how he carried out his duties.

I like to think of Joe Bennanati, one of the commentators for the Washington Capitals. He's never played ice hockey, and his college sports career ended due to injuries. But he KNOWS the Capitals. Why? Because he is immersed in the environment. As you well know, it doesn't take long to figure out that all of the nuances of managing a theater of war are hard to articulate via email, phone or even VTC.

If leaders need broad, well-rounded experience to be effective (as the Army theorizes), then why protect the active duty senior NCO/officer that has never taken on that "particular broadening" assignment?

I am not saying that I pass wholesale judgement on the "slick sleeved". I usually wait to find out what the story is first. However, if it is a "branch wouldn't let me go", or "Korean-extension" story, I end the conversation. The folks that generally get a pass in my book are O-3/E-6 and below, and reservists because of the variability in circumstance. Of course, that and $4.50 in pogs buys a cup of overpriced Green Bean coffee.

Sir, while I disagree with you, I appreciate the fact that you at least address the complexity of the issue of deploy vs. non-deploy. Regardless of the bias that one falls into, they should at least heed your advice and find out the circumstances of someone's "slicksleevitis" prior to passing judgement.

There are plenty of young men who currently enlist or commission solely to fight and serve. With combat deployments dwindling rapidly, these same soldiers are trying to find their way to a group that will be part of the action. When the subject of senior leaders without combat tours comes up it almost doesn't even fit in the reality with which these soldiers make for themselves. How can you serve without wanting to see if you can actually do your job where it counts? It seems absurd that some have served a decade or more in the GWOT and haven't been on one rotation while these new soldiers see the opportunity for just one combat tour ripped from under their feet. Different priorities I guess...


Wed, 12/11/2013 - 1:07am

Sorry Sir, but your retraction just sounds like more senior leadership political pandering. The BLUF here is that combat deployments should be recognized not as heroic, but as painful, requiring sacrifice.

When you (the generic you also) backpedal on all that you know in your heart to be true, you betray the rest of us.

Equating the 495 commute and mindless extra hours in the Pentagon with a 12-month rotation serves to elevate the mindlessness and minimize the personal pain and systemic friction and cost associated with major combat operations. Which allows the administration to continue to employ us with impunity and, yes, for reasons related to the election cycles.

Not going to provide any bonafides here, but let me say that the seasoning and decision-making of my 6 (SIX) tour RESERVE combat veteran E-8 are much less suspect that of the slick-sleeve female Pentagon 0-6 who told me two years ago that what she was doing was just as important, or the two 0-6 pogues in the mini mall at Bragg who I asked to leave one day (more slick sleeves). I had no qualms at all about asking them to go off base to eat. They did not belong in the company of our combat soldiers. The trouble is, no one ever called them on it. These life lessons need to be learned hard, and early.

Employing combat power is a decision that should be considered as dangerous to all, life-changing, full of risk, and seen as an absolute last resort.

People who rise to the level of senior leadership inside our military need that seasoning and the healthy regard of the permanence of combat operations that only come through direct experience.

Anything else is a disservice to our fellow brothers in arms, and displays a breathtaking disregard for recorded history.

Respectfully, and expectantly,



Thu, 12/12/2013 - 6:22pm

In reply to by Luddite4Change

I think SF deployed in theatre or not are doing what they are supposed to.

I'd like to see a picture of a senior special forces soldier without a combat patch. That has to be as rare as a real unicorn.


Wed, 12/11/2013 - 8:39pm

In reply to by Luddite4Change

I would say of course it counts. SOF folks are not the deployment dodgers though. In fact, It may be downright impossible to find someone who has taken part in one of these missions who has not also been deployed to iraq or afghanistan.


Wed, 12/11/2013 - 8:31pm

In reply to by major.rod

What do you consider as "deployed" and "in theatre"? The US Army has officially viewed it pretty narrowly (deployment/TCS vice PCS, within the CZTE area only). Our currently designated opponent(s) view the zone of combat as much broader, and they have a significant vote.

Do you consider the SOF folks currently serving in in CAR/South Sudan tracking down the remnants of the Lords Resistance Army not deployed or in theatre? What about the forces who have been operating against AQIM in Mali over the last several years? How about PCS'd and TDY individuals who have been executing OIF activities in Lebanon and Syria (pre current troubles) for the last decade, or servicemembers who have been tracking down bad guys in Libya? The commonality of each of these examples it that they don't meet the Army's standard over the last decade for "deployed" and "in theatre".


Tue, 12/10/2013 - 11:33pm


Your initial reaction was on target.

At this point there should not be senior NCOs or officers that have not deployed. Understand there may be reasons like health and family but by maintaining those individuals on the rolls who have these significant personal issues we limit the promotion of soldiers that can fully function as soldiers. In a time where numbers are dwindling we owe it to the nation to have a force honed for war where EVERY soldier can do their job IN THEATRE.

I think you have let someone's hurt feelings and today's out of control PC to overcome your absolutely appropriate initial reaction. Those that have not deployed don't deserve our enmity but they should be deployed as quickly as possible. The military is not a jobs program sand should we entertain the same values of the civilian world we don't deserve the significant benefits of a career of military service.


Tue, 12/10/2013 - 7:56pm


Thanks for your cogent analysis. Perhaps not using the slang of “combat patch” and calling the Shoulder Sleeve Insignia for Former Wartime Service (SSI-FWS) would be a good first step. While the Big Army has been necessarily focused on Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 12 years, they lost sight of the significant and sometimes critical contributions that individuals and units have made supporting the conflict in secondary theatres (such as Africa) and support areas.

I am reminded of the story of an Army FAO Colonel who was serving in an embassy in Europe several years ago who generated 70 PRT’s from a major partner nation. His impact on the fight was probably more significant than if he had been serving in country as another expensive O-6. I’m also reminded of another officer who took an AK round to the abdomen in East Africa while supporting OEF in a country outside the declared limits of the Combat Zone Tax Exclusion area. Despite the fact that he was directly supporting ongoing operations in his country and the region and was drawing hostile fire/imminent danger pay he does not count as one who “deployed”.

As a point of historical comparison, every American soldier who served outside the continental US during WWII was authorized wear of their SSI-FWS, the vast majority never got close to being in combat action.

My current job takes me to a large installation on the West Coast frequently, it’s not uncommon to find E-6’s without a SSI-FWS (definitely the minority). As for an E-8/9 without one, I would bet that the numbers active Army wide are in the double digits at most. There is probably a good reason, and no reflection on the soldier. I have good friend who had deployment order canceled on three occasion sin the last year as billets were eliminated or requirements changed.

jim monroe

Mon, 12/09/2013 - 8:46pm

I loved CMC Conway's approach to the issue in 2007, framing it as Marines being deprived of the right to deploy and directing HQMC to scrub the personnel system looking for these Marines and ensuring they had the opportunity to deploy.

Just my personal opinion, but while I can see circumstances preventing a Soldier from getting into the fight for a few years--especially for a Staff Sergeant who may have joined as Iraq began to close out--for a Master Sergeant 11 years into the fight to have not deployed raises the question of whether he tried. I know there are folks whose individual circumstances prevented deployment but I have to believe that amongst the non-deployed these individuals were the exception not the rule.