Ask America’s 1stSgt: On Officers

I was wondering, from your experience do you think officers are better when they start as enlisted, study at military academies or come from civilian universities?

 My initial thoughts on this question were if someone conducted themselves as a dirtbag while enlisted then they will be a dirtbag while commissioned too. Character matters. While any military experience will give someone an advantage early on in their officer training it will not enhance their credibility forever. Eventually the Marines under their command will figure out who’s who and rate an officer’s ability against his peers.

 One common mistake prior enlisted officers make is forgetting they are no longer enlisted. They sometimes fail to realize they are now commanders and not one of the boys. Being too chummy with your Marines will only lead to disaster. Officers should cultivate a relationship with their platoon sergeants not their troops. Former Staff Non Commissioned Officers may go so far as to try to take their platoon sergeant’s work over. A good platoon sergeant will not let them but it happens.

 The flip side of that coin are former enlisted officers who look down their nose at enlisted Marines. We refer to them as Marines who forgot where they came from. At a battalion function once the staff and officers were putting money together to buy the Marines some beer. One of the captains, a former NCO, remarked: “I’m not pitching in to buy those animals more alcohol.”   Our battalion commander, a former sergeant, gently but firmly suggested to the good captain if he really had such a low opinion of the men he might seek employment elsewhere.

Iraq 2007: Kilo Company CO and America’s 1stSgt properly cultivating their relationship.

 From my experience military academy ninjas come in two flavors; totally awesome superstar or complete bag of dung. There doesn’t seem to be an in between. The advantage academy graduates have is four years of experience which resembles being in the military. They are held somewhat more accountable than their civilian counterparts and this tends to work in their favor. On the down side they do not attend Officer Candidate School (OCS) like other Marine officers and in my opinion are not always properly indoctrinated in an orthodox Marine Corps manner (every Annapolis officer I know is going to flay me for saying that). I had a lieutenant in 3rd Recon who was an Air Force Academy graduate. A great officer actually (superstar) but I always thought he was a little different. One day he admitted to me he had never been to OCS since he went right to The Basic School (TBS) out of the Academy. He had taken a Marine option since he was not able to become a pilot. Upon arriving at TBS the other officers had to show him how to wear a Marine uniform since it was his first time. I spent the rest of the day lecturing him about proper indoctrination into the tribe and questioning his loyalty. 

 Although not technically military academies, private military collages like Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel produce a similar product but they still attend OCS. VMI graduates are personally forged the largest class rings in the galaxy. I had a company commander who only wore his VMI ring at the Marine Corps Ball. I thought he was sporting a set of brass knuckles the first time I saw it. It was so massive, every time he saluted the tide would come in.

 The biggest drawback of being from a private military collage or academy is the danger of developing a sense of superiority and privilege. Occasionally academy types may think themselves better than their peers and subordinates. A sense of entitlement is a dangerous trait to develop in oneself. I recommend against it.

 Public and private university graduates are the classic example of the wide eyed lieutenant. Not a one of them has any idea what in the world is going on (except for prior service types). Almost every one of these officers seems to have majored in Criminal Justice. Not sure why except perhaps as preparation for dealing with felonious 1stSgts. The danger for private university graduates is not setting aside the frat-boy mentality after leaving campus. I had a platoon commander who went on a bender with his platoon one night on liberty. They ended up in a fight and busting up the club they were in. This kind of thing does not generate joy and good will. Remember the disaster I warned you about above? If you show your ass to your buddies you only lose cool points. Show your ass to your subordinates and you lose their respect. Something to think about.

 As to which starting point is better? From what I can tell their success and failure rate are about the same. Sometimes our perception is what seems different. Again, character matters. Someone of low character will make a lousy ditch digger let alone an officer. Self interest and fundamental character flaws are not curable conditions in any university I ever heard of. 

 In the end the best officers are those who show a genuine enthusiasm for the mission and concern for their Marines. Those you command will always see through a fraud. Be yourself and stick to the leadership fundamentals.  You can’t go wrong there.

Semper Fidelis!
America’s 1stSgt

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  1. Top,
    Well said. I ALWAYS showed all officers respect…they had to work at it to loose it…and many did. Just as we NCOs should not act too arrogant, we should be able to walk on water and never have to say anything nasty to an “O”.
    I’ve had a lot of brand new “butter bars” say some really dumb things- because they didn’t know anything about our jobs…but by me not laughing at them, I usually earned their respect and they were quicker to just tell me what they thought should be done so I could make it happen.

    Last year when I ran the pistol range our batt gave me all the brand new 2nd LT’s. Most watched and learned…a few thought they were in charge, but a few kind words from the more senior LT’s set them on the right path so I wasn’t forced to throw them off MY RANGE. It took a few hours before they all understood that I was the one really in charge…but I was never rude or cocky about it…I just knew what the hell I was doing.
    The smart “O’s” took notes.

  2. From my experience military academy ninjas come in two flavors; totally awesome superstar or complete bag of dung

    Oh, so true. There just isn’t any middle ground and one wonders why.

  3. “From my experience military academy ninjas come in two flavors; totally awesome superstar or complete bag of dung”

    While officers may come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, talents, races, and creeds, there is but only ONE Major Hanson!

    Best part of the officer community: Eat their weak. Can’t hack it, BOOM, gone. Unless you have senior leadership like you, who establish, and HOLD a standard, it is quite unfortunate that many a SNCO has hidden amongst his peers for his precious retirement date.

  4. Meadowlark, thanks, I love reading your comments!

    Kristina, this ninja’s flavor is boot leather. Picking up what I am putting down smart aleck?

    CI-Roller, sometimes we do have to let learning occur. Well done.

    Shay, I am not sure either. Just another unexplained phenomena.

    Tom, much like the Highlander: “There can be only one.”

  5. As the son of a First Sgt, and having been an OCS 2LT, I feel qualified to stick my oar in the water here. My Naval Academy peers were, as you observed, very good, or very bad. All suffered from missing OCS or PLC. The 3 week “bulldog” rotation one summer left them way behind at the start of TBS. Most mustangs did well, and OCS types were a mixed bag. Most very bad ones did not survive OCS, some mediocre ones did.

    My dad’s advice was: Listen to your NCOs, but keep your brain engaged. There are good ones and bad ones. Pay attention and you can tell the difference. Applies to officers as well, no matter where they came from.


  6. I’ll strongly concur on the odd but clear bifurcation of Academy grads into guys you’d go to war with in a heartbeat and guys you never, ever turn your back on. A friend of mine said that half (you can guess which half) learn how to survive and just keep their eyes on graduation and what lays beyond, the other half learn very quickly how to game the system to their personal advantage as Mids and continue to “game” things to their perceived advantage beyond the Academy.

    My proto-2ndLT is very lucky in that his best friend at his private college (yep, he’s PLC) is a former CPL who’s taking the time to make sure he knows to mind the care and feeding of his Marines. Great post, as always.

    BTW, I’d rather eat in the souk any day over the food court!

  7. Hmm, I don’t know.

    As an officer, and never being enlisted, I can only tell you my experiences from this side of the coin. If you want an even spread of shitty to great officers, go with ROTC. If you want to play double or nothing, go with an Academy (or military school) grad. If you want some kind of middle ground, then go with OCS. Just my opinion.

    Personally, I’ve met two prior-service officers I’d LIKE to work with. All others were too busy trying to be liked or trying to compensate for their advanced years. Call me crazy, but I think it’s better to be right, than liked. What a lot of Prior service do is look down their nose at people who went straight to commissioning, which, I think is folly. Fact is, some people who go straight to a commissioning path had the maturity to know that it was the route they wanted to go at a young age. As opposed to some people who fiddle-fuck for several years and then decide to go officer; sometimes they do it because they know that they won’t get promoted among the enlisted ranks.

    The private military academy grads… many of them had compensation issues, because they didn’t go to a Federal Academy; a few of them had a bit of a little-man syndrome. They couldn’t get into the real deal, so they ended up going to the Fed. Academy-lite, all the crappy experience, but none of the calories. Of course, I say this as a private Academy graduate.

    Just like anything else, there’s a huge confluence of events that make an officer what they are. Do they get an NCO like CI-Roller? Or do they end up with one that says all officers are worthless, go sit in the corner LT, that private has been promoted more than you? What is that person like as an individual?

  8. Jim, looks like dad gave some sound advice. One has to remember to be your own man and not be afraid to make decisions.

    Aniemyer, the souk is always preferable, just not convenient.

    Syrah, you bring up some relevant points about officer development. I chose not to bring any of that up this time for the purpose of the question. We often say if a young officer is messed up it is because his plt sgt is a bag of smashed ass. More young officers are ruined by poor SNCO mentorship than due to where they got went to school.

    It is always a bad idea to dismiss anyone out of hand just because (fill in baseless reason here). Also, worrying about your reputation based on anything but your performance is always weak-sauce.

  9. Exactly right 1stSgt.. Character DOES matter. You can be the most tactical, toughest, brightest, and bravest in the group, but without humility and compassion, you have nothing. When we give our attention, support, and admiration to our peers and our troops, we respect them. We work hard to make them look good because we are humble. We have goodness in our hearts. We are respectful — we are respected. Semper Fi!

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