This first appeared in The Havok Journal on July 21, 2014.
“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 Mat Best ride in on a purple unicorn while drinking a warm can of O’Doul’s.
The colonel in question was in ACUs, which, ironically, is 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 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.
For the uninitiated, 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 one of the ultimate credentials of our profession. 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. This is especially true in today’s Army, which has been at war for more than 13 straight years.
Only, there are still a lot of people out there who have never served in combat. 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. People who have been in 10, 15, or 20 years. Guys like the O6 my friend and I encountered.
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. 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 it’s not only unfathomable, 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, not schools, was what counted. 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 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 a shot.” “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 excuses should be used up by now.
Maybe there are legitimate reasons why people with a decade or more of service haven’t managed to make it downrange. 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’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. But I also understand that there were plenty of people who didn’t deploy in their primary MOS. There were also 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?
No person currently serving in combat should be getting a “pink slip.” 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 number 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 risk their lives, their health, and their relationships but they’re not good enough to be in the Army afterward. 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 Army with ten or more years of service who hasn’t done at least 12 cumulative months in combat. When I say “in combat,” I don’t mean “in a combat zone” in places like Qatar or Kuwait, where troops get many of the trappings of combat like the “combat zone tax exclusion” and technically get authorized to wear a combat patch without any of the real risks. I mean places where people are actually getting killed. Does that sound arbitrary? Well, maybe it is. 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.
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 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. Keep the warfighters in; downsize the deployment dodgers.
Author’s Note: If I knew then what I know now, this article would have been written slightly differently than the way it was when it was first published in July of 2014. But this is the way I felt when I wrote it, and I feel like the most important elements of it still hold true. For an excellent rebuttal to this piece, see the article my friend Cari Tas wrote, titled “Judge ‘Light on the Right’ by Merit, Not the Merit Badge,” which you can read here.
~Scott Faith, April 2015