war on the rocks

An Open Letter About a Decision Every Junior Officer has to Make

Anyone who has ever served in the military has inevitably been asked the question, “why did you join?” The normal responses include “because I wanted to serve my country;” “because I wanted to be a part of something greater than myself;” “because I needed money for college;” “to see the world…” Although I can identify with some, if not all, of these answers, I have had trouble answering the question for myself. I suppose I could validate my decision to join the Army with some deep intrinsic “call to service” that motivates me, but sometimes I still have trouble rationalizing that concept in my own mind. I am now faced with deciding to continue my service to the United States military or to start something new.

Almost nine years ago, as a confused high school senior, I was conducting a college visit when I came across a table for the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Someone behind the table asked me if I had ever thought about joining ROTC. Not knowing anything about what it was, I promptly answered, “No thanks.”

My father brought it up later and I realized I had no better idea or plan, so I decided to see what it was about. I learned that ROTC would pay me to go to college for four years and then guarantee me a full-time job as an Army officer upon graduation. Needless to say, that offer didn’t seem like a bad one. Long story short, four years later I was handed a bachelor’s degree and had a couple of gold bars pinned to my shoulders as a newly commissioned second lieutenant. This accomplishment was the proudest moment in my life.

Throughout the Army officer accessions process there are numerous opportunities to incur Additional Service Obligations (ADSO). Essentially, this means adding time to a military contract in order to get a certain, job, school, post, etc. I was not keen on binding myself to additional service in an organization that I hadn’t even spent one day formally serving in. I know fellow ROTC graduates that, on their first day in the U.S. Army were signed up to serve ten or more years. I wanted to have the ability to walk away after my four years were up; it’s been 3 years and 6 months.

According to the Army Regulation for Officer Transfers and Discharges, if you would like to request a Release from Active Duty (REFRAD), you should do so between six and 12 months before the date you would like to exit the Army. It’s down to the wire, but I could turn my REFRAD packet in today. Six months from now, I could take my uniform off for the last time. The decision that I am faced with is the same as that of thousands of other junior officers that have completed their initial active duty obligation. I am no special case. I just figured that writing down some of my thoughts would help stimulate a better informed decision.

The past almost eight years of my life in the Army (including ROTC) have provided me with a whirlwind of experiences that I won’t ever forget. Geographically speaking, the Army has taken me to places that I would otherwise have never considered visiting — in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. I will forever be thankful for these opportunities. The amount of practical work experience and the opportunities to lead American soldiers are things that I will always consider a great privilege.

I have always viewed my time in the Army as service to the nation. There are many positives and negatives of my time in service, but these don’t mean that much to me because they are just the byproducts of my decision to serve in the first place.

I think that some junior officers lose sight of this idea of service. Some think that the Army either owes them something or that they owe something to the Army. Those that had bad experiences might want to leave because they think the Army wasted their time; maybe the Army turned out to be something different than what they thought it would be. Others might think that because the Army has provided them so much positive life experience, they owe something back to the organization and therefore should continue to serve. To me, it’s more based on a specified service obligation that I agreed to.

I also connect my service obligation to how old I am. I have always viewed my service as something I would complete while I was young (this being subjective, of course). I just think it’s easy for junior officers to get wrapped up in serving while they haven’t taken the time to properly think about where they would like to be in their life at certain stages (ages) in their lifetime. I don’t expect my peers to live their lives according to a strict timeline, but I still think it’s important for them to think about how spending a significant time in the Army can drastically affect where they are in life as they age and how that affects some of their broader aspirations.

I believe there is a significant dichotomy between those that view their time in the Army as a career and lifestyle, and those that view it as service or simply as “their time in the Army.” Of course this has been driven by the fact that the Army is now an all-volunteer force. The funny part about this is that there is no way to distinguish what camp an officer falls in by the quality of his or her work. There are good and bad officers that want to make a career in the Army and there are good and bad officers that want to serve their time and leave. Similar ideas have garnered some attention in the media, which has produced articles about how the Army needs to do more to keep its good officers, or how being an Army officer is a “Profession of Arms.”

What’s difficult is that when an officer decides they want to leave the Army, they are effectively saying that they don’t want to go down the same path that those who outrank them have. Because of this, many officers are forced to keep their thoughts about leaving under the radar until last minute. This is also, in part, because of the way the Army conceptualizes career development for its officers.

For most officers, their career development model is based on that of their battalion commanders, brigade commanders, or military mentors. These models are usually centered around taking command of a battalion upon being promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. A problem with this model is that not every officer that is promoted to lieutenant colonel can be a battalion commander simply because there are only so many battalion commander positions. Maybe the Army should think more deeply about how it could better develop officers for a wide range of positions that a lieutenant colonel could hold, rather than putting the primary focus on battalion command.

For the most part, in order to become at battalion commander, you have to have been in certain positions (and performed well) during your time in the Army, among which are company commander, operations officer, executive officer, and others. Officers who have made public their plans to eventually leave the Army are normally taken out of the running for some of these key positions even though they are ideal candidates for the jobs within the timeframe that they would still be serving. Some officers are essentially forced to keep their thoughts about leaving the military secret for this reason, which can result in an unnerving relationship with their chains of command as they fear being made outcasts rather than being put to best use while they are still serving. I suppose what I am trying to point out is that, with regard to service alone, officers on their last day in the Army are no different than officers on their first day in the Army. They are both serving the nation at that given point in time.

I believe it would be mutually beneficial for both the Army as an organization as well as its service members if officers were put to work doing what they are good at while they are still serving, not being walked through a mundane “transition” process that has questionable long-term benefits for either party involved. I would venture to say that most officers leaving the Army will do just fine transitioning into the civilian world. Yet the Army focuses on this idea of transition rather than putting individuals in positions that would benefit their units the most while they are still serving. Therefore, I believe officers who are thinking about leaving should primarily be viewed by the Army through the lens of service rather than that of either “career development” or “transition.”

All of this is nothing more than a young officer pointing out some of the thoughts playing in his mind as he thinks about leaving the Army. I have enjoyed most of my service, especially the people and camaraderie that I will surely never feel in any other organization. Many people have told me “the grass isn’t always greener.” I get this, but what they fail to realize is that I might be looking for a different landscape altogether. To be clear, if I leave the Army it won’t be because I have some kind of disdain for my time in service. Maybe I just want to end this chapter of military service and begin a new chapter in something different while I am still young enough to write the book I want to read for the rest of my life.

 

The author is a junior officer in the United States Army.