"Poages," "Fobbits,"Legs,"…the internal name calling in the military is an aspect of our culture that few civilians really know about. The guy on the front line getting shot at and blown up receives the same handshake, the same "thank you for your service," and quite frankly the same pay as the other soldier who sits in the safety of the airfield and drives a forklift around post. One soldier eats MREs, the other gets Mickey D's. And yes, a bit of a rivalry develops, some chest beating occurs, and often times, certain branches of the military are regarded as civilianized.
Aviation is certainly a branch that, at least in my unit, had reputation as being a comfortable life. Mandatory eight hours a day sleep!? You get to live on the airfield where there's always great food, internet, phones, and a PX?! And on top of that, you get to fly helicopters! Of course some jealousy ensues. And when we get back home, the feeling of a lack of societal utility overcomes some of us. It's hard to feel like you're contributing anything to society when there are folks in your profession who are overseas on their third or fourth tour, still kicking down doors and taking lethal fire. It's hard to feel like a soldier when people around you are more worried about the shaping of a beret rather than the actual problems people face day to day.
But then I read this article about my good friend Anne Rockeman from West Point ’08. Annie was my friend from my plebe year differential equations class. We both had absolutely no idea what we were doing, but we managed to keep ourselves entertained through some very dry subject matter. She had intense freckles, bright red hair, and some horrific braces she was terribly self-conscious about at age 19. But it didn’t stop her showing off that million dollar smile and making everyone feel like they were her best friend in the world. Annie was one of the most down to earth and normal kids at a school where the dominant alpha-male mentality made me feel like a fish out of water. Annie was amazing at disarming even the most intimidating soldier.
When Annie and I received our branches on Branch Night, we celebrated at the Firstie club with the rest of our classmates…I got Armor, she got Aviation. we were both very excited, and it put life in perspective: four years had gone by so quickly. And they weren’t going to slow down. I zipped off to Ft. Benning and Ft. Knox, then Ft. Lewis and Afghanistan. And coming home from war, I finally felt safe. But seeing Annie die in a helicopter crash at home humbled me. It’s unbelievable to think how dangerous the military profession is, even in training. I think to myself how many amazing experiences I’ve had in the military where I never felt in tremendous danger because it was a “controlled environment”. I repelled out of helicopters, I climbed over intensely tall obstacles, ran around the woods with guns, and spent four months playing war games with 70 Ton M1 tanks at Ft. Knox. I run through the countless times in my state-side military career where I could have gotten hurt and killed. And I just can’t believe that all that internal fighting we do as a force still happens.
The military profession, whether at home in the U.S. or in a combat environment; whether it’s on the front lines or in a forward operating base…what we do is dangerous. Though we do a good job of controlling as many variables as possible, there’s no such thing as an operation without human error. This is a dangerous line of work, and I have a new found respect for those who bear the uniform, independent of the brand of service they provide. Putting your life on the line can take many forms in our profession, and I hope that we as a military–and better yet, as a country–can start having the humility to understand that the surface of person’s life is rarely indicative of the contribution they actually make.
Bruce Fleming recently published an OpEd piece in the New York Times which provoked a rather emotional response from me as he referred to the Service Academies as “mediocre”. He cited a football star receiving preferential treatment for drug use at Navy. He complains that we only produce 20% of our respective officer corps, and are obsolete compared to ROTC and OCS programs. He insists that Academy officers are burnt-out leaders, incapable of maximizing tax-payer investment. Now, I’ll be the first to affirm that the Academies do waste extravagant amounts of time and money for senseless efforts; they need work. But to pin the word mediocre upon these institutions, and thus its graduates who’ve done so much for our country, is absolutely ludicrous.
First, allow me to be the first in Fleming’s supposed vast Academy exposure to argue that YES, an Academy graduate is indeed different than an ROTC or OCS counterpart: not better, but different, and importantly so. I can only speak as a West Pointer, but I believe my perceptions are akin to those from other academies. Every waking moment of my life at West Point was dedicated to serving something greater than myself. Sometimes we serve orders from a higher rank; other times we endure sacrifices to serve the comrades on our left and right. But at all times, we are training and learning to better serve our nation. ROTC programs at civilian universities are simply unable to produce the same intensity in the cadets’ day to day lives.
Most undergraduate students strive for good grades in order to boost their GPAs. Cadets study so they have the answers when lives and equipment are on the line. Most university professors are genius PhDs. West Point Instructors are role models who have already inspired courage in the hearts of 18 year old privates facing battle; they have a vested interest in developing the cadets who will one day serve as their Lieutenants when the instructors take battalion and brigade command. Most college students avoid cheating out of fear of getting caught. Cadets do not cheat out of loyalty to a Code and the realization that honor is a virtue that can save American lives and dollars.
Two of the other Lieutenants in my Company are ROTC graduates, the remaining two are OCS. Do they understand and live up to these principles? Sure they do. I put my lives in their hands each day. But I feel my Academy experiences afforded me greater insight into the strategic reasoning behind the missions we execute. We’re groomed by the higher echelons of the institution to carry out its orders of critical importance. I’m not saying that there aren’t ROTC and OCS Lieutenants who do not embrace such a broad vantage point, but I’d argue it’s a mixed bag. Frankly, in order to truly internalize ethical values, a global perspective, and focus them for a lifetime of service, you need more than 3 ROTC credit hours a semester.
True, Academy graduates only comprise 20% of each service’s newly commissioned officer class. That being said, Academy graduates also make up over 50% of our military’s Flag Officer corps, meaning the Generals and Admirals charged with our nation’s defense; certainly not titles assigned to the mediocre. Is this high Academy concentration at the Flag level due to favoritism and networking? Sure, perhaps in some part. No institution in the world is a complete meritocracy. But I’d argue that it’s largely because of the culture in which Academy graduates are raised as committed leaders with a global exposure, dedicated to a lifetime of service to the country.
Secondly, Mr. Fleming believes that the Academy admissions process unfairly values athletics, rather than an “accomplished cellist or people from religious minorities.” For starters, I was both an accomplished violinist in High School and a Hindu-Vegetarian upon applying to West Point. I feel these factors contributed to my application, not hindered it, and I know plenty of graduates who fit either mold as well. Furthermore, athletics is highly regarded in our profession as a conduit to solid leadership under physical duress; something I believe most officers would argue should outweigh academic prowess in a military academy’s admissions process.
Mr. Fleming further grumbles of lowered academic admissions standards in the interests of affirmative action. As one who has served as a minority at war, I will assert that race and religion are huge issues in today’s military. I will speak from first-hand experience as the only minority platoon leader in my deployed Company: race and religion matter, and the army needs leaders who understand ethnic social tension. I am not ashamed of my Academy for attempting to produce an officer corps that is ethnically representative of the soldiers and NCOs it leads. The Academies do not admit cadets because of ethnicity, but a candidate’s ability to understand ethnicity and the unique role it plays in grueling military social dynamics.
Finally, Fleming does bring up the valid point that Academy graduates aren’t maximizing return in military service of the nation’s half-million dollar investment. Around 50% of West Point graduates leave the Army after their minimum five year commitment, I’m sure the other Academies’ statistics are comparable. I understand why this appears as a drastic waste of tax-payer money, but remember that Academy graduates still make phenomenal contributions to the country out of uniform. At every Academy event I attend, I meet hundreds of lawyers, financiers, entrepreneurs, marketing gurus, academics, writers, engineers, and policy makers. Now, Fleming may be angered by Academy graduates’ civilian pursuits; I am reassured by them.
I am thrilled that there are members of the Long Gray Line, former combat platoon leaders like myself, among the financial elites of our American society. It shows me that, among the cohort of Americans profiting most from my soldiers’ sacrifices, there are several who have been in our shoes. There are those who can speak on our behalf when our nation’s power brokers forget the daily blessings they enjoy as citizens of the United States. I am relieved that there are graduates who reassign the military values of service, honor, and loyalty to the mediocre ethical stylings of both Wall Street and Main Street. Perhaps if the CEOs of Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Bear Sterns had a little “service immersion” in their youth, I’d imagine our country would be a lot stronger than it is today. Whether in a Command Post or a Board Room, good leadership transcends its landscape. I’m proud of the Academy graduates who bring weathered leadership where it is most needed.
It seems Mr. Fleming’s criteria for mediocrity rests heavily on academic metrics. But I assure my audience that there is very little that is academic about combat leadership. It is about heart. It is about fortitude, honor, and courage. Now, you may call a West Point or Naval Academy graduate mediocre…but try visiting any other college in America and collecting a thousand 23 year old kids ready to lead just as many lives into hostile fire. I doubt you’ll be successful. To produce a thousand officers with the grit and spirit of warriors and the intellectual curiosity of scholars, we need a venue of tremendous investment and concentration: this is why you need the service academies.
I wonder if Mr. Fleming would have been ready for such a calling at age 23. Even if not, I surely wouldn’t have the arrogance to call him mediocre.
I find it ironic that Mr. Fleming is about to publish a book entitled “Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide” considering his most recent opinion piece does nothing more than widen it. But I can somehow understand why he would write an article antithetical to the best interests of reconciling civil-military differences so vital to our national security. After all, the bigger wave he makes with such an OpEd piece, the more attention his new book will receive and hopefully the more books he’ll sell. Well, I know I’ll probably buy one now. Congrats, Mr. Fleming…Mission Accomplished.
To the USMA Class of 2010, I’m proud to have served with you. You’re more than ready for the challenges to come. Thank you for your service. We’ll see you on the objective ;-) . Live, Serve, and Die We Pray…