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I imagine some of you are ready to move off the theme of military cultural competency. However, we will continue with this theme for several more weeks because it is that important. For us to foster a culture of understanding and respect we would be wise to discover the approaches and lenses through which we approach one another.
Last week we concluded our conversation on the three First Amendment rights our service members experience limited protection by asking the question, “So what?” What impact does this have on the soul of our warriors and veterans? This week, we will begin to look at those significant areas that characterize the military such as structure, standardization and authority.
As we shared previously, the military and veteran community are microcosms of American society, but they have unique components and histories that impact those who serve and have served. The military is a unique culture on to itself. Over the next several weeks we will conclude our conversation on how military culture greatly impacts a service member’s life.
The Department of Defense (DoD) oversees a complicated and complex structured organization. For the purpose of our conversation, we will try to keep this as simple as possible. The military is structured into different branches of service:
- Marines (who reports to the Secretary of Navy)
- Air Force
- Coast Guard (branch of the US Armed Forces however operates under the Department of Homeland Security during peacetime and can be transferred to the DoD during times of war)
Each service has a unique culture in of itself and a different mission. Each service branch has different components:
- Active Duty
- National Guard
Because Reserve and Guard personnel serve their country while also leading civilian lives, they are sometimes described as “twice the citizen,” or “citizen soldiers.” Reserve personnel perform the same mission as their active duty counterparts while serving under the same DoD leadership. National Guard units are organized in each state and are used most often for stateside missions such as disaster relief. The governor of each state controls the state’s National Guard units unless they are mobilized for deployments on federal duty, when they are managed under federal control. The 28th Division from my home state of Pennsylvania has deployed numerous times since 9/11 into Iraq and Afghanistan.
The services almost always conduct operations jointly within one of six geographic commands:
- Africa Command (area encompassing Africa)
- Central Command ( area encompassing the Middle East and Central and South West Asia)
- European Command (area encompassing Europe)
- Pacific Command ( area encompassing the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and East and South Asia)
- Northern Command (area encompassing the continental United States, its territories, and adjacent waters)
- Southern Command ( area encompassing all of Central and South America, the Caribbean, including Haiti and Cuba, and adjacent waters)
and four functional commands:
- Joint Forces Command (the center for joint force integration in training, experimentation, doctrinal development, and testing)
- Strategic Command ( plans and employs strategic nuclear forces; controls military space operations and information operations)
- Special Operations Command ( plans and employs strategic special operations forces [Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Air Force Special Reconnaissance])
- Transportation Command (controls and coordinates all strategic lift capability, including air, sea, and ground transportation assets)
Each service branch is organized differently:
- Army – Army Commands, Army Service Component Commands, Direct Reporting Commands, Corps, Divisions, Brigades, Battalions, Companies, Platoons, Squads
- Navy – Operating Forces (six active numbered fleets), Shore Establishment (facilities for repair, communications centers, training areas, ship repair, intelligence, medical and dental, air bases)
- Marines – Marine Air-Ground Task Force, Marine Expeditionary Unit, Ground Combat Elements (Division, Regiment, Battalion, Weapons/Rifle Company, Rifle Platoon, Squad, Fire Team)
- Air Force – Direct Reporting Unit, Field Operating Agency, Major Commands, Numbered Air Force, Wing, Group, Squadron, Flight, Element
And if this is not complicated enough (remember, I attempted to keep this simple), each service has its own history, traditions, rank, vocabulary and acronyms. We could spend weeks just sharing about the histories and traditions of each service. They are fascinating. But for today we will keep it simple by discussing vocabulary and acronyms. We will discuss rank under the authoritarian heading.
I remember my first command and staff meeting after entering active duty. (I had served in a reserve infantry battalion for 7 years prior to active duty.) I was now a chaplain in an armor battalion. The meeting began with the command team and staff using words and phrases that I never heard prior whether in the church (many words used in the military we would not hear in church!) or in my unit. I thought that I was in a foreign country! And on top of the different language, they threw in the conversation numerous acronyms. I thought I had missed a special armor language course. I left the meeting feeling disoriented and frustrated, but decided I would re-focus doing something that I enjoyed, visiting Soldiers in the “field.” My battalion was prepping for tank gunnery. I was excited when I saw 54 M 60A1 tanks and Soldiers ready to qualify. I entered the tactical operations center (TOC) and listened to a conversation on the radio that went like this;
“Driver stop”. “Gunner heat tank”. (The tank commander was telling the loader the type of ammunition and the gunner the type of target.) The gunner then called out “identified” when he locked onto the target with his sight. The loader called out “up” when the heat round was loaded in the main gun tube. The tank commander gave the command: “fire”. The gunner replied, “on the way” when he pulled the trigger and fired the round. If the round hit the target, the tank commander said, “target cease fire”. The tank commander then said, “driver move out”.
This conversation took place in seconds. Again, I felt disoriented by this conversation. It was a different phraseology than in my infantry battalion. However, the conversation was extremely important for the tank crew. Each person needed to understand the commands or the enemy could fire on your tank and you would be dead. I learned very early that I needed to understand the “language” of my unit in order to survive, but also be effective as a chaplain.
Acronyms complicate the communication. If one hears NBC, they may think that the person is talking about the National Broadcasting Company. But in the military, NBC refers to Nuclear, Biological, Chemical warfare. An important distinction. And to further complicate language, the services and specific units all have their own acronyms; such as PX is the post exchange (shopping store) in the Army and Air Force. But in the Navy it is BX (base exchange). This is a maze that can be daunting to even Active duty service members.
Of course this only touches the surface of military structure. But, our conversation does suggest the complexity of the military and at times the daunting task of understanding each service, not only for the civilian but even for a service member.
Very early in my time in the Army, I heard the following statement; “There is the right way, the wrong way, and then there is the ‘Army’ way.” This reflects a mindset. The Army, as well as the other services, has a way to do things based upon standardized procedures, processes, and regulations. There are standards such as military fitness, military standard issue (uniforms and equipment), height and weight, mental and medical, and education level. Each standard is required in order to successfully execute the mission. From the uniforms worn to the forms that need to be completed, all have a standardized purpose.
Service standards touch even the language used in referring to job codes. But each service has a different classification:
- In the Army, a MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) of “15R” means the Soldier is an Apache helicopter crew chief.
- An Airman who has an AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code) of “3D0X2” is a cyber systems operator.
- A Sailor with an NEC (Navy Enlisted Classification) of 0164 is a patrol boat coxswain.
Standardization has it merits for good order and discipline and stream lining processes. All are important for mission success.
But at times standards can get in the way of common sense. Prior to my deployment to Afghanistan I attended about two weeks of standardized training that was required for all personnel going into theater. Some of the training was beneficial to me, as a Chaplain and Colonel. Some of the training was not good use of my time. But, we all were required, no matter our rank or military occupation, to attend. I understand that DoD wants to ensure every warrior has training in order to enhance survivability on the battlefield.
However, the issue I had was when it came time to draw my equipment. There was a standard issue that every warrior had to take. Because I already had many of these items from previous deployments, I did not need the whole list. At the Central Issue Facility I was told I had to take everything. Now here is what is ironic, I was deploying to Afghanistan to be the senior chaplain of all US forces, where I had responsibility for 150,000 warriors and DoD civilians and 450 chaplain and chaplain assistants. I made decisions each day that had strategic implications and yet I could not deny accepting a canteen!
When one makes the transition from the military to the civilian community, it can be disconcerting not having uniformity and standardization. To a veteran it may appear there is no rhyme or reason within an organization.
The military is also highly authoritarian with clearly delineated ranks and responsibilities.
Every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine is under a chain of command that begins with the President. This chain of command is complex, to be sure, but the thread that runs from the highest elected official to the lowest-ranking service member is never broken. Generally the decision makers are the Commander and the Senior NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) who can be called by any number of names depending on the service branch and level of unit; Top Sergeant, First Sergeant, Sergeant Major, to COB (Chief of the Boat).
There are three main categories of rank:
- warrant officers
- commissioned officers
All commissioned officers outrank all warrant officers, and all warrant officers outrank all enlisted personnel. Within each category, there is also a hierarchy, with each rank assigned a letter/number designation and a title (lieutenant, sergeant, etc.). Officer ranks all start with an “O,” warrant officers with a “W,” and enlisted personnel with an “E.” The lowest officer rank is an O-1 and the highest is O-10. The titles for ranks differ depending on the branch of service. An O-1 in the Army is called a second lieutenant, while an O-1 in the Navy is called an ensign, but both are equal in rank since they’re both O-1s.
While an O-1 technically outranks an E-9, their job skills and experience will be vastly different. An E-9 will have years of experience, including management, but the O-1 might be brand new to the military. As a general rule, you can equate a higher-numbered rank to more experience, but there are exceptions, like when someone who has been enlisted for years decides to become an officer. Each rank comes with its own insignia that also differs depending on branch of service. As an Army officer, I had difficulty when working with Navy enlisted personnel differentiating the enlisted ranks. The ranks of Chief, Senior Chief or Master Chief, I learned quickly. You DO NOT want to call a Master Chief, Chief. This is difference from an E-9 (highest enlisted rank) and an E-7. A Master Chief would not appreciate the slight of hand. The other Navy enlisted ranks were all confusing to me.
The services also have a strict class system that regulates professional and personal relationships between officers, non-commissioned, and enlisted personnel. Because the military is very hierarchical, fraternization between ranks is highly discouraged. Everyone knows immediately his or her position in relation to others. Veterans often have difficulty understanding how civilian communities and organizations work, “Who is in charge here?”
I think this is a good of a place to conclude our conversation for this week. Next week we will share about discipline, esprit de corps, and mission focus. Until next week, thanks for the conversation…