Editor’s note: The following is reprinted from September 2011.
There’s an old saying, “The more that things change, the more they stay the same.” I believe that this particularly pertains to the U.S. military service, of which I was a member for 38 years. No doubt about it, the outward appearance has changed drastically since my retirement, especially a lot of the equipment and individual dress, especially the combat uniforms.
In my younger days, the draft was in effect, and the Army was made up of people from all walks of life: the rich, the poor, the talented and the untalented, the highly intelligent and the not so intelligent. The uniforms were sharper and more formfitting. The Army could take in a young civilian, train him, shape him up physically, wipe out his bad habits and instill strict dis cipline which, after a certain time, resulted in self-pride and awareness of accomplishment, all of which made him carry himself differently, a thing called “demeanor.” I could look at an actor dressed as a soldier on television or in a motion picture and immediately tell that he was no real soldier simply by the way he moved and carried himself. It was a lack of military demeanor.
Just the other day, as I walked in a shopping mall, I saw an older man who was walking straight and tall, and his shirt and trousers were in a gig line.” I instantly knew that he was ex-military. He still had, and will have forever, military demeanor.
There was, however, an exception to wearing the uniform and having demeanor. Back in those days, the Army took in certain professional civilians and commissioned them as officers without putting them through basic training or any other training. They were doctors, lawyers, dentists and other professionals, most of whom did not know how to properly wear the uniform. It didn’t matter much because they spent most of their time in offices.
There was another thing of which I was silently critical in the Army. It pertained to the giving of awards and decorations. In my opinion, way too many were given to soldiers who were performing their duties in a satisfactory manner.
The purpose of the majority of awards and decorations is to reward soldiers who perform above and beyond what is required, and many a soldier has received a medal by being given credit for something that another soldier actually did, usually lower in rank. Too much of that can adversely impact on the morale of a unit, and it’s almost always the fault and responsibility of the commander.
I well remember a situation that highlights what I just said. For several years, I was a member of a unit in which the soldiers had exceptionally high morale. Now any old soldier can tell you that morale can make or break a military unit. The military units in my day contained certain key members called “cadre,” soldiers who were responsible for performing critical functions, and they were not always the highest ranking ones. It was my experience that the manner in which the cadre carried out their duties affected unit morale. For instance, any old soldier can tell you that there were three people in most every unit that you wanted to keep on the good side of. The were the food service sergeant, referred to as the “mess sergeant,” who fed the troops, the supply sergeant, who issued clothing, tools and just about everything else the soldiers needed, and the finance officer or “pay master,” who paid the soldiers. In 1959, when I was in U.S. Army Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, S.C., payday was the last day of the month, and a private’s pay was $30 with $9.50 being withheld for tax.
If these three key people did their jobs well, the unit morale was always high, and their jobs were not easy. It’s one thing for a mess sergeant to furnish the soldiers a good, hot, nourishing meal in the mess hall on post, but it’s a different situation to feed them in the field with bullets flying, bombs dropping, mortar rounds coming in and the enemy all around. I’m sure that in today’s Army, the feeding, supply, and financial procedures are much different from my day.
I remember a unit in which I was the supply sergeant. I kept the soldiers in uniforms, boots and other clothing, kept all necessary tools, ample ammunition and all other critical, necessary and nice-to-have items. We had an excellent mess sergeant who took pains and pride in providing the soldiers the best possible meals and in a timely manner. We also had a good first sergeant who treated the soldiers fairly and with just the right amount of compassion. In the dining room, the mess sergeant had a large sign on the wall: “Take all you want, but eat all you take.” There was another one: “The Army travels on its stomach.” I had a sign on the wall in my supply room, “In God we trust, all others must sign a hand receipt.”
The time was shortly after the draft ended, and just about every Army unit was under strength, but because morale was high in our unit, we remained at full strength. Then our commander was promoted and transferred out and a new and young captain was transferred to command our unit. He was trouble from the start. He wanted to make himself look good and get a quick promotion, and he attempted to accomplish his objective by driving his troops into the ground. Unit morale began to nosedive, and the three of us cadre saw it happening. Was there anything that we could do?
—Continued next week—