Light on the Right: Ditch Deployment Dodgers
“Bro, is that an O6… with no combat patch???”
The question, asked by a good friend of mine who happens to be a former Ranger NCO, was whispered to me inside a fast food restaurant just off post where we had stopped for lunch. I don’t think his tone could have been any more incredulous if he thought he had just seen Matt Best ride in on a purple unicorn while drinking a warm can of O’Doul’s and singing Michael Bisping’s praises.
The colonel in question was in ACUs, the Army *Combat* Uniform, and was sporting a black colonel’s eagle in the center of his chest and a MEDDAC patch on his left sleeve. He wore no badges and, conspicuously, no combat patch. It was stunning to an NCO like my friend, who had personally served multiple combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan very early on in his career, that such a senior person had apparently never earned a combat patch by deploying even once in the 13+ years our nation has been at war.
Before going much further, I think some definitions are in order. For purposes of this discussion, and in the absence of a more nuanced definition from either JP 1.02 or Army FM 3-0, I define “combat” as anything in the full spectrum of military operations that takes place in a designated zone, rather than exclusively meaning being personally engaged in kinetic operations with the enemy. I also want to emphasize that this article focuses on the active component of the Army and not the National Guard or Reserves.
Additionally, for readers who don’t already know, an Army combat patch or “shoulder sleeve insignia for wartime service,” (SSIFWTS) designates service in a combat zone, and is considered by many if not most of the men and women in the Army to be the ultimate professional credential. This is as it should be; if the mission of the Army is to fight and win our nations’ wars, then the credibility of any senior leader should be directly tied to how well he or she performed in combat conditions.
Only, there are still a lot of people out there who have never served in a combat zone. I’m not talking about lieutenants fresh out of West Point or non-commissioned officers still on their first enlistment who never got a chance to deploy. I’m talking SENIOR people. Field grade officers. Chief Warrant Officers. Senior NCOs. And not just brand new officers who received direct commissions as lieutenant colonels, I’m talking people with some longevity. People who have been in 10, 15, or 20 years. Since that day at McDonald’s, I’ve noticed more and more senior people that are “light on the right” (not having a combat patch on their right sleeve). How the hell does something like this still go on, in 2014?
Had the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended in 2004 or 2005, it would be understandable to see loads of field grade officers and senior NCOs without combat patches. The way our Army is set up, it can take a while for some people to get the opportunity to get into the fight, and it’s even harder for people in some MOSs. But the war has been going on for more than a dozen years and many Soldiers have multiple, lengthy tours in the two-way firing range.
The Army even had to ease recruiting standards, offer massive bonuses, and institute a de-facto draft in the form of “stoploss” in order to keep enough people in uniform to satisfy the requirements of the GWOT and OCO. Yet some people managed to dodge all of that? Ten years ago being “light on the right” would have been OK for senior Army leaders. These days is not only unfathomable, it’s not only unfair, it’s unconscionable.
It’s important to note that it’s hard to judge whether someone is a good person, or what he or she has really done in the Army, simply by looking at a uniform. When I was at Fort Bragg, for example, I was part of an elite unit that generally demurred when it came to wearing one’s uniform “bling.” Ensconced on our own compound on Fort Bragg, badges and sometimes even tabs were eschewed, because almost everyone had several cool-guy qualifications, and combat was seen as the ultimate credential. This is how it should be; if you have every school in the Army but never once deployed to test yourself and your training in the ultimate crucible, war, how can you even consider yourself a leader?
I used to downplay or mentally explain away the reasons people who outranked me didn’t have a combat patch on their uniform. But Army culture has changed, and now when I see people, especially senior officers, with nothing on their right sleeve I no longer try to give the benefit of the doubt that maybe they’re simply not wearing the combat patch they earned. Instead, I assume (with a pretty high degree of confidence) that they have simply never earned one.
People will read this point and say, “Who are you to judge? You don’t know everyone’s story!” To that I say, I don’t give a damn. “I tried to deploy but never got the chance.” “I’m on permanent profile, but I’m still a great Soldier,” “My MOS doesn’t deploy.” Whatever. I’ve heard these excuses, and many more, over the years. It’s been 13 years. All of those excuses should have reached their expiration date by now.
Moreover, a “combat patch” doesn’t even denote that the wearer participated in actual “combat,” the way most people would interpret that word. It simply means that an individual spent at least one day in a “combat zone,” which could, depending on the time period, include safe(er) places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, or Bahrain in addition to hot zones like Iraq or Afghanistan. Over the course of a career, can’t a senior Army leader be legitimately expected to have achieved even that low bar?
Maybe there are legitimate reasons why people with a decade or more of service haven’t managed to make it down range. But at this point, they’re either dodging deployments or deployments are dodging them. Either way, it’s time for them to go. ALL of them. I’m sorry, if you are an active-duty, basic branch Army officer, warrant officer, or NCO and you’ve been in ten years or more and you haven’t managed to get deployed ONCE, or multiple times that total at least 12 months, you don’t need to be in the Army.
You know what, I take that back. I’m NOT sorry. I’m done making excuses for non-combat Army “veterans.” These days, people who are CURRENTLY ENGAGED IN COMBAT are getting cut, and very senior people who have never once heard shots fired in anger or even spent any meaningful time in a place where shots fired in anger might actually occur are riding the military gravy train.
I understand that some MOSs don’t always have a direct combat counterpart. I know it’s possible to receive a direct commission as on O5. But I also understand that there were plenty of people who didn’t deploy in their primary MOS. There were oodles of “01A” (branch immaterial) taskers out there over the past decade. SURELY if someone was sufficiently motivated over the course of 10+ years of service, he or she could have gotten one of those. Again, if we’re in a “warfighting” Army that has been at war for over a dozen years, how can someone even be considered for senior rank or position if he or she has never even fulfilled this basic obligation?
According to a briefing given to the Chief of Staff of the Army on the 10th of July, out of the total number of Army captains and majors who are getting involuntarily downsized in the current cuts, only 3% (51/1737) are those who have never deployed. That’s inexcusable given that something on the order of 7% of Army officers have never deployed. People who don’t shoulder their share of the risks shouldn’t be allowed to reap the full benefits of those who have.
No person currently serving in combat should be getting a “pink slip.” In fact, it seems likely that the cuts we already made are too deep. There will be multiple rounds of SERBs, RIFs, whatever we’re calling them these days. There aren’t that many troops in Afghanistan right now anyway, and the numbers of people getting the axe while deployed is only a small percentage of that. Those people currently deployed should get a bye on this round of cuts and count their lucky stars that they were in the box when their number came up.
But that’s not how we’re doing it. We’re sending the message that these folks are “good enough” to actually go and do the things that the Army trained, equipped, prepared, and paid them to do, and to risks their lives, their health, and their relationships but they’re not good enough to be in the Army afterwards. Meanwhile, people who for whatever reason managed to dodge the primary responsibility of their profession are being rewarded by being allowed to stay in indefinitely. I think that is a big problem.
How big a problem is it? In 2008, there were still tens of thousands of Soldiers who were “deployable,” yet had never gone downrange. With the war in Iraq over (for now), I imagine the numbers are much higher. This doesn’t count people who are doing initial entry training; these are people who “can” deploy but simply haven’t. One plan currently being explored involves cutting another 98,000 people from the Army. We should start with every single person who “should” have deployed but never did.
What’s my solution? Cut every officer O4 and above, every NCO E7 and above, and every warrant officer CW3 and above, and anyone else in the Active Duty Army Competitive Category with ten or more years of service who hasn’t done at least 12 cumulative months in a combat zone. Does that sound arbitrary? Of course it does, and there are plenty of example of how a combat patch doesn’t mean someone is a good Soldier. But it’s no less arbitrary than the Army’s current downsizing methodology, and in the long run I think it’s much more equitable and better for the service. Case-by-case exemptions can be made as required, such as for highly specialized medical personnel, but that should be the exception rather than the norm.
After the drawdowns, and after the wars end, then we can go back to the way promotions, retention, and appointments were done in the past. But for now, if there are Soldiers out there who are unlucky enough, unnecessary enough, or unmotivated enough to not manage to have done a whole year in a combat zone out of the 13+ that our Army has been at war, then it’s time to thank them for their service and show them the door. We need to retain those who are capable, competent, and committed enough to follow through with our Army’s primary mission to deploy to fight and win our nation’s wars. You don’t do that from a desk in the US.
Keep the warfighters in; downsize the deployment dodgers.
This article originally appeared in Havok Journal.