Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Being ALL That You Can Be..

Caveat lector: This is probably the first of many entries that are going to compare Army and Navy culture, and maybe start to spill over into civil-military relations. If you're interested in following the best online debate that I know of regarding current military culture, you don't want to miss "The Best Defense," by Tom Ricks.

First, just from a military history buff's perspective, there were two really interesting things that stood out for me recently:

1. Running into TWO Vietnam-era vets in my unit still in the service. Both are SFCs. Both have had storied careers that have run across different services, different branches, and different components. But what they both have in common is that they enlisted prior to 1973. Neither actually set foot on the ground in Vietnam -- not by their choice, but by the vicissitudes of the Army personnel system that send some people to Germany and others into the bush. Either way, I never would've guessed it -- Desert Storm and Panama, maybe. Grenada? Probably not. But Vietnam-era?!?! Yes, it's possible.

2. Running into someone in my section whose father is an Afghanistan campaign veteran. It's funny, no one else's eyes seemed to double in size upon hearing this. I didn't flinch when the guy said his brother was currently in Afghanistan, and that he couldn't wait to go, but his dad? How was that possible? Looking over, I saw the guy's name ended in -kov. Turns out, the family is from the Ukraine but the kid was born and raised in the U.S. and speaks unaccented American English. Maybe for no other reason than the sheer historical quirkiness of it, I thought it was pretty awesome.

Anyway, to the service culture stuff. A major difference between the Army and the Navy is the degree of job specialization that comes with the servicemember. I know this will sound weird to most, but people in the Navy don't call each other by just their last name, or even as "Petty Officer Johnson." You'd never say that or hear it. What you WOULD hear is SK2 Johnson (Storekeeper, Second Class), YN1 Johnson (Yeoman, 1st class), EN3 Johnson (Engineman, 3rd class), etc. That changes when people advance beyond E-7, but it speaks to a major difference. In the Army, you'd just be Specialist _____, or Sergeant ______. Your job description never factors into your appellation.

Here's a reason why: Things are never that specialized. You may have multiple MOS's. You might be a cook one day, and you might be a turret gunner on a convoy the next. You might be sent to an entirely different school to change your MOS at a moment's notice.

You might train for urban operations, but then wind up being a desk jockey overseas. By contrast, you might go over expecting desk jockey/TOC monkey type of stuff, but find yourself running convoys or patrolling neighborhoods.

There's just a way bigger sense of uncertainty, and a greater acceptance of the degree of risk that might come with that.

That probably shouldn't come as a major surprise. By and large, the Navy is a bit more technical, and a bit more reliant on using things that beep and squeak in order to locate, collect intelligence on, or destroy something far away -- something over the horizon that the operator won't ever see or touch.

The Army, on the other hand, sort of gets hit with more broad-brush task of "secure and occupy this piece of land...figure out what to do and best of luck with that." That makes for a more chaotic environment, so it's natural that roles are going to have to be more fluid.

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