By Peter Sessum
A recent post on social media about the attitudes of the enlisted ranks in the Army prompted me to write this. The breakdown of ranks were pretty accurate but I thought the Specialist one was too limiting to fully capture the E-4 experience.
There are two kinds of Specialists in the Army, the hard charger trying to get some stripes and short timers waiting to get out so they can grow their hair and smoke pot in college. While there are varying degrees that pretty much sums up most E-4s in the Army. It isn’t just about avoiding work, it is the creativity that goes into avoiding work. Some troops put more work into getting out of work than they would have done if they had actually done the work. For them it is more about the principle than the effort and for some it is about general amusement.
If you want to see a productivity vacuum, take away all the NCOs and privates and leave the E-4s alone for a day. If you leave one Sergeant, the soldiers will have to pretend to work and if there are Privates around they will have to set some form of positive example. Either that or they will mess with him, but even that would be doing something. But if there is no one but a bunch of Specialists, they will do fuck all. It would be like putting a bunch of adults in a room without bosses, spouses or their children. Don’t expect a lot to happen.
The I-Corps Color Guard is a prestigious unit that represents Fort Lewis and the Army in the community. A former NCOIC had been a Tomb Guard at Arlington and rewrote the SOPs for the Color Guard. On paper they were the best that the Army has to offer but in reality they are still soldiers. When the troops were allowed to do PT on their own the E-4s would go to the gym and a few soldiers would nap under the bleachers while a couple would stretch and keep look out. Unsupervised, most Specialists will do a whole lot of nothing.
When there are people around, expect the same laziness with some creativity thrown in. How many times has an E-4 taken a nap with a military manual in his lap? There is no better prop for a public nap than a military manual. An NCO might overlook the nap and give credit for reading the manual. The best place for such a nap is in the driver’s seat of a mechanized vehicle. You can’t be seen unless the person climbs up and that will make enough noise to wake you up from a strategic catnap. Even if they are fast, the view is from above and the brim of a cap will shade the eyes so they won’t know if you are sleeping or looking down. This is one of the many drawbacks of the widespread use of the beret.
I knew a guy that was short timing his entire time in the Army. He was like a Jedi at convincing people that didn’t know him into thinking he was a decent soldier. I remember that even though he had been at the unit longer on at least three different occasions I wondered who the new guy was when I saw him in formation. On a work detail he was the first guy to jump into action to get work done.
We were setting up GP medium tents and he grabbed the sledge like he couldn’t wait to get started. After a few enthusiastic swings the NCO told him to not wear himself out and to give someone else another chance. Immediately, he passed it off to another soldier. I found him sleeping in the cab of a deuce and a half a few minutes later. But he got credit for working right off the bat before he disappeared.
Next level shamming
The Specialist has been in long enough to know the rules. In the Army, the rules can’t be broken, but they can be bent. Or at least interpreted liberally. For example, at the time AR 670-1 which governs Army dress and appearance said that a soldier could dye their hair as long as it was a natural hair color. This would allow for a female soldier to dye her hair blonde as is common, but I don’t think anyone factored that a black male soldier would do the same. It was done for entertainment and maybe a little bit of rebellion. As long as it was a hair color that existed in the normal human spectrum it was legal.
There is a downside, if not allowed to cut or color the hair while in the field it will look matchstick red pretty soon. That would be a violation and almost got me in trouble. Of course, they have changed the regulation now but for a time there was fun to be had.
When trying to get out of work a good Specialist needs to be quick-witted. Everyone knows that the way to get out of an after duty hours “hey you” detail is to get out of uniform and crack a beer before anyone can knock on your door. But how do you get out of a detail given on the fly? By a Command Sergeant Major? For that, you need a piece of paper.
A soldier with empty hands could be up to anything or nothing at all. But a soldier with a folded up piece of paper is a man on a mission and this brings us to the story that the post reminded me of.
So there I was… in Germany… no shit. I was walking near the battalion HQ when I saw our Command Sergeant Major. The downside of my Spec-4 Mafia efforts was that I was somewhat infamous in that unit and everyone E-8 and above knew who I was.
“Hey Sessum,” CSM Brown yelled.
Being our CSM I had no choice but to stop.
“I have a detail for you,” he said.
“Is it more important than this,” I asked holding up the piece of paper before quickly correcting myself. “Nevermind sergeant major, what do you need?” I lowered the paper to show it had lesser priority.
“No, nevermind, I’ll find someone who doesn’t have something to do.”
“Are you sure sergeant major,” I asked dutifully, “because I will put this aside to do what you need.”
He assured me it was fine and dismissed me. I stepped out like I had to make up those seven seconds and headed back to my barracks to take a nap and he went on to find a sucker that wasn’t smart enough to have a piece of paper on him.
That situation was set up by me sitting in the mortar platoon CP wasting time. A good Specialist can tell when there is nothing going on and someone is going to think up a detail so I did what any good shamgod would do, I went to my squad leader.
“Nothing is going on, can I go do that thing,” I asked.
“That thing I told you about that I need to do.”
“If you ask, you lose all deniability.”
“Oh that thing, sure.”
The entire exchange was to give me permission to take off and he maintained the illusion of accountability of his soldiers. If asked he could claim that he couldn’t remember what I was doing and if I was caught doing something wrong I would take the fall and he could claim that I was supposed to do something legit and had abused that trust. My plan was almost ruined by CSM interference.
When I was in charge of troops I tried to return the favor by telling them to “go do that thing” when things were slow to get them out of the AO. Unfortunately, I had a knucklehead Private who didn’t know to disappear and instead asked “what thing?” But what are you going to do? Eventually he caught on.
The best part about being a Specialist is not being treated like a Private anymore. All privates are worthless. It is just a fact. They are like puppies, they don’t know anything until taught. The only thing they have going for them is their enthusiasm. A lazy Specialist is practically a cliché but they have paid their dues and are given opportunities to show they are ready for the responsibilities of leadership. Knowing how to navigate the enlisted system as an E-4 is essential to good leadership.
It isn’t that being lazy makes a person a good leader but taking those first few months in the rank to be a true Specialist will help a person be able to recognize the differences between a worthless soldier and one that isn’t properly stimulated. A regular soldier can become stellar troop with good leadership. An important part of leadership is knowing when someone is trying to get one over on you and being a proper shammer will help a person recognize from personal experience. Having been a good Specialist made me a good Sergeant and makes me a good leader in the civilian world.