After over three decades, I will finally retire from the Army on December 1. Starting in 1986, when I swore in as a new Cadet at The Citadel, through commissioning as an Infantry Lieutenant in the summer of 1990 as the Cold War was ending, through the conflicts and deployments of the 1990s as a junior officer, through the post-9/11 conflicts as a field grade officer, I have been blessed to serve during “interesting times”. About half of this service was on active duty, and the rest with the Reserve Component. As I am “hanging up the spurs”, I would like to provide some of my observations of these times and experiences and changes over the decades. In particular, I want to express the importance of the ethos I experienced over these years and why we cannot lose it.
First, the aspect that has not changed over these 30+ years has been the high character of those with whom I have served. From my fellow cadets, to my fellow officers, to the NCOs (Sergeants) who helped me lead the various units, to the lower enlisted we led, all were part of American society of the time, and yet all were a cut above. Some may have been partially motivated by College money or other such financial benefits, but even in those cases the motivations also involved Patriotism and service. I grew up in a military family, during the time the Army went from being a draftee Army to the All-Volunteer Army in the early 1970s. I saw the pains and adjustments of the Army coming back from Vietnam and switching away from the draft. A Chief of Staff of the Army, General “Shy” Meyers called the Army of the 70s the “Hollow Army” due to that adjustment.
By the time I was a cadet, Ronald Reagan had been President for over five years, and had truly helped rebuild the force I knew and loved throughout my career. I cannot stress enough what happened during the 1980s to Desert Storm in the Army becoming transforming to the high morale and professional excellence I remember. A great book about this period, Prodigal Soldiers, explains the transformation of the Army I joined by the Vietnam Veterans who experienced the woes of the post-Vietnam Army. My experience was of people joining of their own will, including during the conflicts of the 1990s and after 9/11, when everyone was going to war. Unlike the Reserve Component of the Vietnam era, of which the Reserves were generally “safe” from combat deployment, the All-Volunteer Reserve Component was involved in all the combat deployments and those joining were quite aware. In my own experience as an Infantry Officer, I was primarily around men (Infantry was all male until recently) who not only volunteered for the Army, but usually volunteered for being at the “tip of the spear”, and when I commanded Airborne Ranger (Ranger Trng Brigade) and light Infantry, they had volunteered for Airborne, Ranger, and Air Assault qualifications. Motivated and Patriotic Americans who were ready and willing to go to war.
We went through tough times during the Army drawdown of the early 1990s, going from around 800,000 to around 500,000 in only a few years. This occurred while I was a junior officer and during two deployments to the Persian Gulf region. The drawdown brought more selectivity and competitiveness with the various boards to determine who had to leave. Unfortunately, many credit a certain “zero defects mentality” and a certain culture of risk aversion in the mid to late 1990s to those drawdowns. This was a time of many deployments, and I again deployed to the Middle East for over six months even while stationed in Hawaii, but substantial cutbacks to Defense Spending. The Clinton years brought what we perceived as some attempts of “social engineering”, as the ban on homosexuals in the military was lifted in 1993, but with “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as the replacement. After the “Tailhook Scandal” of 1992, the military went to extreme efforts to both deglamorize alcohol and end sexual harassment, and the number of positions opened to women gained steam in the 1990s.
The attacks of 9/11, and subsequent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq brought a number of changes. The Army expanded a bit, but saw substantial money and pay raises after years of stagnation. The screening criterial was loosened a bit to increase, but the troops coming in the Army, active duty and reserve, understand they would likely deploy to war. During the 1990s after Desert Storm, actual combat operations were of very short duration and it was tough to receive a right shoulder combat patch. The Vietnam veterans had mostly retired by the 1990s, and so only those who made operations like Desert Storm or Somalia had combat patches. Six or seven years after 9/11 it would have been tough to avoid a combat deployment and combat patch. Particularly during the Obama administration, major social changes took place quickly and frequently. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was ended. Gay marriage came to the military before many states recognized it. The Infantry and other combat arms and special operations were ordered open to women in 2015. Transexual service was allowed just prior to the Obama Administration leaving office. The wars had wound down by the early 2010s, and more of the zero defects culture was perceived to be coming back. The 2010s saw a substantial emphasis on sexual harassment and social/cultural sensitivity.
As I leave the service, my perception is that the Army recognizes it has lost the post-Cold War edge over peer competitors like China and Russia and others. This is not just an issue with the Army, but the other services like the Navy and Marines facing China are quickly attempting to adapt to a new reality. When I joined the Army, the prevailing ethos of “Needs of the Army” first (over personal desires) was ubiquitous. Service was a privilege, and we were assigned and sent where we were needed. That service may require our lives if necessary, but that was part of the ethos. Additionally, more so than almost any other institution I have been a part, the military has allowed for religious freedom and exercise. That grounding in Judeo-Christian values (the military, for example, criminalizes adultery) has kept the discipline and strength of the force. That is part of the ethos, even while not crossing the line into forcing religion.
Though that ethos remains generally intact, I am concerned about the effects of political agendas being fostered on the military. The military is not “systematically racist”, but has been a guiding light in becoming the most colorblind of all American institutions. When African-American Colin Powell became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (highest ranking military officer) in 1989, nobody in the military thought it unusual or unexpected. The military has been a true meritocracy, and brought so much good from the experience of veterans in civilian life. Hopefully, we keep the ethos intact to help America during these turbulent times. I see the number of veterans taking their place in leadership, and that gives me hope. More than anything, I came so close to God during my tough times in the military. I prayed to him constantly getting through times like Ranger School and combat deployments. I was with other brothers who became better men by turning to God in the challenges and dangers of the military. We can never lose that ethos, and I will do whatever I can to help protect it in retirement.
General Douglas MacArthur once said “Old Soldiers Never Die, They Just Fade Away”. I have not faded away yet, but I start that process with the prayer that the ethos I joined as an 18 year old cadet in 1986 will never fade away.
Bill Connor, an Army Infantry colonel, author and Orangeburg attorney, has deployed multiple times to the Middle East. Connor was the senior U.S. military adviser to Afghan forces in Helmand Province, where he received the Bronze Star. A Citadel graduate with a JD from USC, he is also a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Army War College, earning his master of strategic studies. He is the author of the book Articles from War.