Making an Officer

As I tried to fall asleep last night I kept thinking about this post. I know I had a couple of deep thoughts that I should have written down, but of course I didn’t and now I’m hoping that they come back to me as I write. Still have work to do in the area of note taking. I’ve just finished Flo Groberg’s book 8 Seconds of Courage. One thing that slapped me upside the head was that many Americans may not understand how officers are made – not assembled from spare parts at OCS, and it’s not quite like An Officer and a Gentleman. The clueless LT that provides comic relief in so many films is also not quite accurate, although not so unheard of that there isn’t a kernel of truth to the satire. This past Saturday was also the Army/Navy game. I realized that this annual football game is probably the only time the service academies cross some peoples’ minds. So let’s dive into the murky waters from which spring fresh faced new officers, and a bit of my own experience in this process.

First, there are four sources from which the Army sources officers. The service academies are the most well known, but only account for around 30% of the officers in each year group (that’s like a class year, I was year group 2006). ROTC, which was founded in 1916 and is tied with the nation’s maturation into a global power needing a standing army, will contribute around twice as many officers as USMA, with Officer Candidate School and direct commissioning rounding us off. Direct commissioning is typically used to bring high needs specialist into the ranks, eye doctors for example. They are brought in after finishing their med school, given some shiny ranks, and have to attend a school that is basically a crash course on ‘being in the Army’.

Officer Candidate School is a way for enlisted soldiers who meet educational requirements to become officers. These people typically have years of service already and need the officership piece taught to them. So their school is primarily the leadership material taught at USMA or in ROTC on a condensed schedule. Some OCS candidates though are straight from basic training. The ‘college option’ candidates are recent college grads who missed the boat on ROTC and decided they wanted to serve as Army officers (with student debt paid off). They’ll go to basic training and then straight to OCS. So not every OCS product has years of prior enlisted service as a foundation.

As for the vast majority of officers, they’re coming from West Point or ROTC. Some critical distinctions between these two sources are that West Point cadets are on active duty status from day one, they receive an Ivy League level education, and when school is not in session they are required to go to some kind of training. West Pointers also get first crack at branch selection (we’ll get back to that). ROTC cadets are either ‘contracted’ or ‘non-contract’, which means that not every ROTC cadet is on scholarship and that any college student can enroll without committing to the Army. Once a cadet accepts a scholarship (2, 3, or 4 years) they are technically in the Reserves. These cadets will have the chance to go to some extra training during the summers but are not required to. There has long been heated debate over which of these two sources is better. As I am horribly biased I’ll simply leave this link to one of the better pieces I’ve read on the matter. I typically found a solid 80/20 rule applied to West Pointers – 20% were the finest officers I served with and some of the best people I ever met, 80% were total shitheads.

ROTC has two requirements to be met in order to earn a commission. Cadets must graduate with a bachelors degree and they must successfully complete a month long training evaluation between junior and senior year. I attended this in 2005 and it was called Leadership Development and Assessment Camp (LDAC) or for short, Warrior Forge. Previous to this it was simply known as Advanced Camp, but that didn’t quite give off a hard core image. I think the name has again changed since 2005, but the key thing to know is that there are several tests of a cadet’s physical, mental, and leadership competence that must be passed. I can’t say that I thought any of it was very challenging. To get top grades certainly required exceptional performance (not me), but I was able to comfortably pass the requirements. I’m a solid B/B+ in life.

The one event that I was nervous for was the Army Physical Fitness Test. This involves doing as many push-ups as you can in 2 minutes, as many sit-ups as you can in 2 minutes, and a timed 2 mile run (this is something else I believe is now different). A few weeks before I left for Warrior Forge (man that still sounds lame in my head) I caught a nasty sinus infection that caused my tonsils to swell up so much that they touched. I lost 15 pounds in 3 weeks, leaving me a bit weaker and my run time suffered big time. Before leaving for Fort Lewis, WA, every cadet in my class at SBU had to come in for one final diagnostic PT test, just to be sure the school wasn’t sending anyone unprepared. I typically maxed out the push-ups and sit-ups and clocked a sub-14 minute run (an OK time). This time around I struggled to get beyond the minimums for push-ups and sit-ups and failed the run. The cadre administering the test knew this wasn’t because I had been lazy in the weeks between the end of the semester and mid-June. I explained the illness I was just recovering from and promised I would pass the APFT at camp. I was terrified that this damn infection was going to delay my commissioning, that I wasn’t going to join my roommates the following year. Fortunately I was given the green light to go. My APFT score wasn’t as good as my usual, which knocked my overall assessment, but I got through it. Again, the APFT isn’t hard, but I had a lot riding on being able to get my shit together after spending my prime prep weeks laid up, barely able to breath because my throat was so swollen. With that bit of anxiety off my shoulders the next 30 days was pretty smooth.

Following this I was sent to Fort Polk, LA for 3 weeks. I spent much of August 2005 in northwestern Louisiana. As my former ROTC instructor MSG Zackery told me “Fort Polk is about an hour away from Shreveport, and there ain’t shit in Shreveport. Have fun.” The time I spent there I was basically job shadowing a platoon leader. This is one of those optional trainings available to ROTC cadets, but mandatory for West Point cadets. Three weeks doesn’t seem like much, but I watched and learned from some great teachers. I was assigned to a Field Artillery unit and was very lucky to be placed where I was. Talking to some of the other cadets there with me it was pretty clear that I got one of the better units and benefitted from officers and NCOs who actually cared about teaching me. This all became very clear two years later when I took over my own platoon in Korea.

After a month plus of not being allowed to drink I used this opportunity to catch up a bit. One night at the house of my sponsor (the PL I was paired with) a bunch of LTs from the unit stopped over to shoot the shit and have some beers. To my surprise a fellow Bonnie walked into the house. Kevin Schuster was a senior at Bonas when I was a freshman but he still remembered me. It was really cool running into another Bonnie in such an out of the way place. This would become a recurring theme throughout my service. Everywhere I went, I found fellow SBU grads – not always ROTC people either. One of the great things about the Army life is that no matter where you go there are familiar faces. I miss this a lot and I took it for granted. While I try to not look back on my time in the Army with rose-tinted glasses, there are some genuinely amazing things about that lifestyle that are hard to appreciate until you’re out.

I left Fort Polk and was back in class a week later. Then Katrina hit. Little did I know, but this would become an event that would impact my life later in the year. For the sake of staying on topic though, we’ll save that for a future post. My senior year went by (too fast), I had my bastard tonsils removed, and we made it to commissioning day. Pictured above is me with my two ROTC roommates (we also had a ‘normal person’ to round out our 4 person apartment). James, me, and Phil. These are guys I look on as brothers. I’ll joke that Phil became my hetero-lifemate because our orders seemed to always overlap. He was even my next door neighbor in Korea. Cropped out of the photo is Phil’s wife Francie, who would commission the following year and was also in Korea with us (sorry France).

So there you have it. One dopey kid’s path to becoming an Army officer and possibly leading your kid. When I think about all of this it doesn’t strike me as strange, or special, or anything other than just what I was doing with my life. Imagining things any differently is what strikes me as odd. I’m aware that my internal normalizing of my story, thinking of this as just another job or path in life that is perfectly natural for any person to take, is an oddity. My perfectly odd reality. Things that I took for granted or as just another fact of life are viewed with wonder, suspicion, reverence, and a bit of side-show freak attraction by others.

I hope that I helped to bring some of these things into better understanding for you. That’s really just scratching the surface, but the way our military sources personnel is a topic that doesn’t really get discussed very much. I mean, who the hell enjoys an HR story anyway? Well, hopefully you did.

Until we meet again.

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