Originally published January 18th, 2017 in The Belle Banner
This is the first in a series of articles about life in the military. I came to realize, after the Veterans Day Assembly, that very few local people know anything about the military. The younger the person the less he or she is likely know about the military. So yes I am talking to you high schoolers. I have talked to 17 year olds who thinks life in the military is like the movie “Lone Survivor”. Only if you were a SEAL in Afghanistan in 2007, sent on a questionable mission in the middle of Indian country, and everything went wrong.
The Army has Basic Combat Training, the Air Force has Basic Training, and the Navy and Marines each have their own version of Boot Camp. They all have similarities, and differences, but none is anything like life in that service. Nor are the movies anything like normal life in the military. I will be telling about the Army, because that is what I know. I spent 21 years in the Army, and have kept up with it on a daily basis, since I retired.
The Army and Marines have similar structures. The Marines do a much better job of instilling pride and esprit de corps in just being a Marine. Whether you’re a cook, clerk, mechanic or infantryman, a Marine is a Marine. In the other services pride and morale are more with specific units than the service as a whole. In the Air Force the Special Operations Command is the top of the mountain for enlisted people, although very tough to get into. For officers, if you’re not a pilot, you are a second class officer. The Air Force supports airplanes, they fly them, maintain them, and support them. Airplanes are the primary interest of the Air Force. In the Navy, if you can’t be a SEAL, I suspect working on the flight deck of a Ford Class nuclear powered aircraft carrier is about at the top of the heap. In the Navy, Ships and airplanes are their primary interest. In the Army and the Marines, people are the primary focus. Because no matter how advanced technology becomes, to win wars and hold territory, there has to be people on the ground.
In the Army, Special Forces are the top of the elite soldiers, and although the army occasionally allows recruits to enlist directly for Special Forces, I do not recommend it. The enlistment contract only means you get to try out for Special Forces. The normal route is to make Sergeant, then apply for Special Forces. About 27% of those who start the year and a half to two year training actually make it to becoming a Green Beret. The same goes for ranger school. If you want to be a ranger, enlist for airborne infantry, spend a few months in a line unit then apply for ranger school.
Normal life in the Army is very different for officers and enlisted personnel. Normal life between junior enlisted married and single people is very different. And life is different between various units. I just said that the Army is a people organization, which boils down to leadership. Changing commanders from company level to army level is a formal process. The colors of the unit are passed from the outgoing commander to the incoming commander. The commander alone, is responsible for everything his unit does or fails to do, so if the commander is a good leader, that is probably a good unit, if not, it is probably not as good as some others just like it. So, if you want to go into the Army and you want to try to get into as good a unit as possible, what do you do? The most elite part of the Army, you can simply enlist for, is airborne. They jump out of air planes. Don’t panic, it’s a rip. One of the biggest thrills in life.
In times like these when the military budgets are being cut, and the services drawn down, all units are not fully funded. When a unit is not fully funded, its training is reduced, its services are reduced, and soldiers are used to perform jobs that civilians were previously paid to do. It affects everyone’s morale, including the commanders.
The most famous unit in the army, or in fact all the military, is the 82nd Airborne Division, and I believe that it has the highest morale. Pride is a large part of that morale, because the combat units in the 82nd train hard all the time, and the support units run hard to keep them supplied. It is the most highly trained, well equipped, fully funded division in all the services. The reason is that part of it is always on standby. It is America’s fire brigade. If America needs to put troops anywhere in the world fast, the President calls Fort Bragg. The division has three Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) each composed of about 4500 paratroopers. One BCT is always on standby as the Division Ready Brigade (DRB). Within 18 hours of notification the DRB can be loaded and “wheels up” to any location in the world. Every member of the division is airborne (parachute) qualified, and every piece of equipment can be dropped by parachute. The standard mission is to jump into a hostile area, seize and hold an airfield until heavier units can be flown in. In Iraq and Afghanistan they just went and did what all other units did, only better.
Enlisting in the Army with an “airborne option” guarantees only airborne school (three weeks at Fort Benning, Georgia), but after paying for a soldier to go through the school there is about a 100% probability that they will be assigned to an airborne unit. Those are; 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy. The 173rd is the US fire brigade for Europe. My family and I thoroughly enjoyed an assignment there. The 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division at Anchorage, Alaska, and the 1st Battalion 509th Airborne Infantry, Fort Polk, Louisiana.
The Army tries to assign its best officers to those units. Good Sergeants usually stay. I’ve known dozens of sergeants who spent their entire career in the 82nd Airborne Division, minus some mandatory schools, and perhaps one overseas assignment. Of the ten current 4 star generals in the Army now, all are airborne qualified, six are master parachutists, having spent multiple assignments in the 82nd, and two of those six are former Division Commanders of the 82nd Airborne Division.
First, the Army works five days a week, Monday thru Friday. Hospitals, Military Police, Communications Centers, and Dining Facilities are some of the exceptions. The individual soldiers still only work five days a week. Everyone in the Army, who is not on shift work, does PT (Physical Training), first thing in the morning, usually 6:00 or 6:30 AM. That is the first, and for many the only formation of the day. Shift work soldiers still do PT, only at different times. Single Privates, Specialists, and Sergeants live in the barracks. Some barracks are now called dorms. A normal set up for permanently assigned soldiers is a private room with a microwave and small refrigerator. Some have baths, some share a bath with a suite mate (same sex) on the other side of the bath. Married soldiers, who have their family with them, may live in family housing on post, which are nice houses or apartments, paid for with their Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), or they may live off post. All married soldiers receive BAH, unless the family lives in government housing, so even if their family is not with them, the BAH is paid to provide for their family. BAH rates vary with rank and location. At Fort Leonard Wood, a married Private First Class (PFC E-3) (about a year in the army) will receive an extra $903.00 per month, whereas a Staff Sergeant (SSG E-6) (five to ten years in the army) will receive $1,146.00 per month. At Fort Bragg, North Carolina the rates are $1,179.00 for the PFC and $1,344.00 for the SSG. PT usually lasts about an hour. Many units vary regular PT (calisthenics and run) three days per week with athletics or gym two days. After PT, soldiers living in the barracks go back to their room, clean up, put on their uniform and go to the Dining Facility (DFAC) for breakfast. Meals in the DFAC are free for soldiers living in the barracks, those soldiers are issued a meal card. Married soldiers not living in the barracks receive an extra $368.00 per month for meals. Married soldiers go home, clean up and eat breakfast. Combat line units like Infantry, Armor, Artillery, or Combat Engineers (companies that have a single mission) will probably have a work formation at about 09:00 AM. All members of the company are at that formation. Soldiers who work in staff sections or unique sections, such as line medics usually just report to their desk or place of work at about 09:00.
Lunch is normally for an hour around noon. Anyone can eat in a DFAC, if they so desire. Soldiers who have meal cards eat free, those who don’t pay, or they go home for lunch, or jump in their car and go to Burger King or one of the many snack bars on post.
The normal work day ends at 4:30 or 5:00 PM, and they are off until PT the next morning. Except Friday, which means they are off until Monday morning.
Every Fort has at least one main PX (Post Exchange), it is like a Wal-mart, and several small exchanges, they all have a commissary, which is like a giant grocery super center, and at least one service station. There is a hospital, fire stations, a main chapel, plus other chapels, theaters, bowling alleys, gyms, and dozens of ball fields. Most also have a “do it yourself” auto repair shop, with lifts, tools, and advice available to soldiers. The family quarters have been contracted out to civilian companies, which has resulted in improved housing and service. Every post, of any size, has an education center where several colleges and universities teach classes and conduct online classes. There are six schools at the education center on Fort Leonard Wood, and ten at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Soldiers are highly encouraged to improve their civilian education. So much so that one promotion point is awarded for each semester hour of college, up to 100 points in an 800 point promotion system to Sergeant and Staff Sergeant. All soldiers are automaticaly enrolled in Structured Self Development – 1 (SSD-1) when they complete their advanced individual training (AIT). That is an 80 hour online course of military subjects, which must be completed, plus they must attend a four week Basic Leader Course before they can be promoted to Sergeant E-5.
Military pay is based on enlisted pay grades E-1 (Private) through E-9 (Sergeant Major) and officer pay grades O-1 (Second Lieutenant) through O-10 (General). Pay for grade E-1 is separated for those with less than 4 months in service and those over. The base pay for a Private E-1 under 4 months is $1480.00 per month. That translates to about $1,200 per month take home pay, for a single soldier, half paid twice monthly. If the soldier is married they will also be paid Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). That gets them through basic and part of the next phase, which is advanced individual training (AIT). Then regular E-1 pay is $1,600 per month, which means about $100 per month increase in take home pay. Private E-2 comes at about six months in service, that base pay is $1,793, which means about $1,450 take home. Private First Class (PFC) E-3 usually comes at about a year in service, that is $1,886 base, which is a little over $1,500 take home. Specialist E-4 usually comes at about 18 months service. A Specialist E-4 over 2 years base pay is $2,089, equaling a little over $1,600 take home.
In the coming weeks I will attempt to portray the life of different soldiers in different jobs. In the next two weeks, I will take two different soldiers, both young women, through their training to their permanent assignment. One enlists in the Army, the other finishes college and is commissioned into the army as an officer. Both go into the same field and are assigned to the same unit and the same office, but their working relationships, living conditions, and pay are entirely different.