Monday, May 11, 2009

Thoughts on Being an FNG

I mistakenly wrote to a former Army Captain today and referred to the term FNG, as in "F---ing New Guy," as being "something they say in the Navy." The term is almost always used disparagingly, it's gender-, rate-, and rank-neutral, and it works equally well overseas or back in the Continental U.S.

One wiki search later, and I've learned that FNG is an old term that spans all services and dates back at least to Vietnam.

FNGs were an important part of the group dynamic of US units in Vietnam and their treatment had at its core an overall sense of "us" (those with experience of the war) and "them" (those who were back in the United States). As one soldier said, FNGs were "still shitting stateside chow".[4] It was in combat units that the FNG was truly ignored and hated by his fellow soldiers. An FNG in a combat unit was "treated as a non-person, a pariah to be shunned and scorned, almost vilified, until he passed that magic, unseen line to respectability".[5]

I bolded that last part of the quote because I love the way it refers to one's transition away from being an FNG as something unstated and non-quantifiable. I think there's a universal application here and it goes way beyond the military: Anytime you show up ANYWHERE for the first time, like it or not, you're an FNG. Eventually, of course, you stop being an FNG, but no one really knows when. Personally, I think the ratio of people newer or older than you to the unit is key -- after a year or so at any active duty unit, you can't really be an FNG anymore, because by then half the staff has probably been there for less time than you have.

So it might not necessarily work so well for your neighborhood, your church, or your job -- if turnover there isn't all that frequent, you can still be an FNG after years, no matter how much you wish you weren't. I guess it all just depends, but no matter how welcoming your *group* is, or how transitory its membership, there's still got to be some period of time where you're an FNG.

Soon, I'm going to be an FNG in many senses of the word -- new to the rank, to the MOS, the unit, the base, and most important of all, the service. So in comes the question -- How should one handle being an FNG?

The most obvious thing that comes to my mind is a probationary period on new ideas or suggestions about how things should be done. I won't try to remain completely quiet -- besides running counter to my natural personality, I might run the risk of appearing aloof, which couldn't be further from the case. However, I definitely won't start regaling people with tales from "...this one time, at band camp" because I know no quicker way to make eyes roll.

But I think the real key to successfully transitioning from FNG to just, well G, is to give oneself a healthy period of time to Observe and Orient before Deciding to Act (and thanks to Col. Boyd for coming with the OODA loop phrase to aid the memory).

Soak stuff in.

Get your bearings.

Learn which side of your blouse the patches go on.

Figure out the hierarchies, formal and informal.

When the Good Idea Fairy lands on your shoulder, brush him off before you wind up with the newest suggestion to most efficiently maintain the vehicles or to muster for PT.

Eventually, when you see something that you might want to tweak, or wish it were different, find the right way to voice that opinion, subtly and tactfully. But only once you're no longer an FNG.

All groups have their tribal codes and codas, stated and implicit. All have common rituals and language to draw distinctions between *in* and *out.* Naturally, then, all SHOULD have a healthy skepticism of anyone who comes in from somewhere else, especially someone in a leadership role prone to verbal miscues like confusing "latrine" with "head."

That is, of course, until that person stops being an FNG. At which point, of course, he can begin viewing newcomers with a quizzical eye and the dismissive tone that comes when he turns to someone else and says, "So, who's this FNG?"


C R Krieger said...

And I thought FNG stood for F--- National Guard. No, that was FANGO, F--- Air National Guard Officer.  That's it.  But, that is where I thought this post was going.

Funnily enough, in another thread today there was a discussion of PTSD, which expanded into how best to replace people on the front line—individual replacements or unit replacements, which got into what Germany did in WWII and what we did in Korea and Viet-nam and now in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Loss of trust and a sense of betrayal are a large part of the effects/symptoms of PTSD. "They" up at HQ don't give a damn about us.  The (insert rank above you) doesn't know what's going on.  They sent us in without adequate fire support.  It is a common thread that runs through almost all combat reports.  Read Krohn's "The Lost Battalion" about Tet near Hue.

Then this from someone who has a friend whose sister works with people with PTSD.

You start out w/ a small group.  Some people you like, some people you don't; some you trust, some you don't.  Over time, there is a steady attrition: death, wounds, discharges.  The problem is that there is not a correlating and compensating INFLUX of people INTO THE SMALL GROUP.

Sure, there are replacements. And every personal combat memoir I've read suggests that they are held at arm's length.  According to my friend's sister, that is a true sentiment—the old vets don't know you, don't know your capabilities.  If you survive over time, you might be accepted, but not before.

A big part of the PTSD, apparently, is the steady shrinking of your trusted group.  That's BEFORE survivor's guilt and the rest kicks in.

With the surprising low casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan, unit replacement seems to be working.  In avoids the FNG in combat problem.

I am told that Hell In Hurtgen Forest: The Ordeal And Triumph Of An American Infantry Regiment (Modern War Studies) (Paperback),
by Robert S. Rush, does a great job talking about replacements in units in combat.  Dr Rush, a retired Army Command Sergeant Major, received his PhD from Ohio State University and works for the Center for Military History and is currently over in one of the sandboxes as a civilian historian with one of the commands.

Most PTSD goes away in about 30 days.  And it isn't just soldiers.  Abused spouses suffer from it.  Sometimes it is around for a long time and has profound impact.   We had that horrendous shooting in Iraq today, perhaps related to PTSD.

This discussion on another thread all started with a CBS News Story here...

And a great story it is was from CBS.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...


Thanks for mentioning how PTSD fits in with all this. One worry I have for guys coming back from OIF/OEF these days with full, 100% PTSD-related disability is that you're taking a relatively young guy and basically telling him never to work again. That could lead to a lack of mental/emotional stimulus which would worsen an existing mental condition.

Also I like the reference to how incompetence always starts one HQ level above you. That "common thread through almost all combat reports" is still holding nicely, as I'm sure it will continue to do..

..and I'm sure I'll hear "FNG" in the context of anti-Guard stuff, too...I've already heard "Nasty Guard" and "Nasty Girls" so the list probably just goes on from there..