As it turns out, West Point cadets *do* outrank Army noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Technically.
Even after more than twenty years in uniform, it still surprises me what I don’t know about my own profession, and what I still have to learn from my NCOs. Let me explain:
It’s summertime, and for many cadets in the Army’s ROTC programs and at West Point, that means “Cadet Troop Leader Training” or CTLT.
This is more or less the Army’s summer intern program, where young future officers get hands-on experience as a kind of “third lieutenant,” under the tutelage of a commissioned officer for three or four weeks. This gives cadets going into their final years of pre-commissioning training the opportunity to experience life in an active duty unit. Specifically, it allows them to try their hands at officership, and to get a feel for the kinds of officer/NCO relationships that are essential to the success of our Army.
CTLT happens in all kinds of units, both in the U.S. and OCONUS. As far as I know, there are no CTLT positions in combat zones. But short of that, cadets can end up in just about anywhere. While CTLT is a useful and important mentorship and developmental activity, many units see CTLT as a drag, and dealing with cadets as a hassle. Sometimes cadets are relegated to less-meaningful duties, or endure some modicum of hazing as part of the experience.
I was recently in a conversation with a senior noncommissioned officer in an elite U.S. Army unit, when the subject of CTLT came up. I wondered how he, as a senior NCO in a highly specialized unit, felt about having cadets around. I asked if he gave the cadets in his unit a hard time as part of their CTLT experience.
“No, I always salute them and treat them as officers, and I make sure everyone else does too,” he replied in total sincerity. Somewhat surprised by this, and thinking back to my own experiences in CTLT, I asked why he felt that way.
“Because according to the Army, they outrank me, sir.”
I was floored. Everyone knows that the lowest Army private outranks the highest cadet… right? I mean, that certainly seemed to be the case at Airborne School back in the day.
The NCO referred me to AR 600-20, Army Command Policy, which makes it pretty clear that West Point cadets do, in fact, outrank Army NCOs. This regulation shows that cadets rank after commissioned and warrant officers, but before NCOs. Very interesting. I learned something that day. You’re right, Sergeant, a West Point cadet DOES outrank you. Technically.
OK, fine. That’s what the reg says, but how does that work in practice?
But having learned this, it made me wonder when this would actually matter in any meaningful way. Outside of authorized developmental training events such as CTLT, no NCO is going to allow a cadet to swoop in and take charge of his platoon, squad, or section. So when would a cadet actually “be” in charge?
AR 600-20 again provides the answer:
AR 600-20, Section 2:
2-8. Death, disability, retirement, reassignment, or absence of the commander
a. Commander of Army element.
(1) If a commander of an Army element, other than a commander of a headquarters and headquarters element, dies, becomes disabled, retires, is reassigned, or is temporarily absent, the senior regularly assigned Army Soldier will assume command.
(2) If the commander of a headquarters and headquarters element dies, becomes disabled, retires, is reassigned, or is temporarily absent, the senior regularly assigned Army Soldier of the particular headquarters and headquarters element who performs duties within the element will assume command. For example, if a division headquarters and headquarters company commander is temporarily absent, the executive officer as the senior regularly assigned Army Soldier who performs duties within the headquarters company would assume command and not the division commander.
(3) Senior regularly assigned Army Soldier refers (in order of priority) to officers, WOs, cadets, NCOs, specialists, or privates present for duty unless they are ineligible under paragraphs 2-15 or 2-16. They assume command until relieved by proper authority except as provided in 2-8c. Assumption of command under these conditions is announced per paragraph 2-5. However, the announcement will indicate assumption as acting commander unless designated as permanent by the proper authority. It is not necessary to rescind the announcement designating an acting commander to assume duties of the commander “during the temporary absence of the regularly assigned commander” if the announcement gives the time element involved. A rescinding announcement is required if the temporary assumption of command is for an indefinite period.
Of course, there is another reason to treat West Point and ROTC cadets with respect: they are not going to be cadets forever. The best way to train cadets to be officers that their soldiers will look up to and their NCOs will respect is to treat them the way you want them to act. While it might be fun to haze the new “margarine bar” (he hasn’t even worked his way up to “butter bar” yet), is that really the impression you want him taking with you when he gets commissioned and reports to his first unit?
So yes, a West Point cadet DOES outrank a sergeant. Or a sergeant major for that matter. But only a complete cadidiot would get his or her cadet rank confused with an NCO’s authority and influence.
Scott Faith is a veteran of a half-dozen combat deployments and has served in several different Special Operations units over the course of his Army career. Scott’s writing focuses largely on veterans’ issues, but he is also a big proponent of Constitutional rights and has a deep interest in politics. He often allows other veterans who request anonymity to publish their work under his byline. Scott welcomes story ideas and feedback on his articles, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in The Havok Journal on June 27, 2016.