Memo to SECDEF

By David Hackworth

Mr. Secretary, as the war chant builds, I hope you’ll accompany me on the journey of frustration and disappointment an extraordinary West Point graduate endured until he resigned after receiving a military education that cost our country close to $3 million.

“After I finished Infantry Basic Course, parachute training and the Ranger course, I was assigned to Korea as a platoon leader. The first six months of my tour were fantastic. My company CO was motivated, tactically proficient and respected by his peers and superiors. This allowed him to let his junior officers, NCOs and enlisted men make mistakes, learn and move forward to the next objective. But he was all too soon replaced by a captain who feared any failure and was averse to any risk that might damage his ability to move up to the next level. His micromanagement permeated the company, and this feeling was only magnified with the battalion CO’s similar philosophy of ‘no margin for error.’ Therefore, training became ‘canned’ and repetitive, with little value.

“Upon my return to the United States, I was sent to the Infantry Advanced Course. There I had the opportunity to share my experiences with my peers. The feeling across the board was one of similar dissatisfaction. The majority of my class was applying to the Special Forces branch or resigning.

“A couple of months before graduation, I was told I would be assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. Now I had a dilemma. My packet to Special Forces branch was approved, and I had a definite Special Forces training start date, but I began receiving calls from 82nd Battalion commanders telling me how they would put me in a rifle company on my arrival. Weighing my options, I decided to cancel my SF packet. But the CO with the unit I wanted to join didn’t have the pull, and I was placed on the division staff.

“My boss there was a micromanager who loved to promote himself as the ‘key’ individual who determined the success or failure for the division. I found myself working 12- to 14-hour days, five to six days a week.

“After three months on staff, I was handpicked to take command of a rifle company. Unfortunately, the selection was overturned by my boss, who ‘really needed me’ because of my ‘invaluable efforts.’ At this point, I lost all hope. I realized that my own desires and development were secondary to those above me who needed my ‘expertise’ to ensure their own selection for their next career move.

“The months went by painstakingly slowly. I was introduced to: exercises that had no value, they just looked good; officers who mistrusted and manipulated their junior officers and NCOs; a senior sergeant who delivered pizza after work to supplement his income. All of this was manageable until my immediate boss crossed the line, sacrificed his integrity and used me to cover his butt. At this point, I knew that I no longer wanted to be part of a broken machine. I resigned.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t feel I let some people down by getting out of the Army. The best way to change an organization is from within, yet when one stands up for what’s right and it’s not tolerated by those who write one’s Efficiency Report, there’s no way to survive. The bottom line is that it wasn’t the money in the civilian world that prompted me to leave. I really enjoyed serving my country. Selfless sacrifice. Being a part of something that matters. The camaraderie of working for a common goal no matter how difficult or unrecognized. The higher standards of a ‘professional.’ I have yet to find their equal in the civilian sector. What prompted my resignation was the double standard, the inbred mediocrity of some of our military leadership.

“Of the eight lieutenants I started with in Korea, only three remain on active duty today.”

Tell a senior Army general the sort of horror stories Capt. Robert Nelson relates, and more often than not – since he’s usually part of the problem – all you’ll get is denial. Citizen Nelson and I suggest you or yours go down and talk to your junior people instead.

We’ll lose this war if our best and brightest keep walking. Second teams seldom win.