As a Master Chief Petty Officer in the United States Coast Guard with over 25 years of continuous active duty military experience, I have worked through the changing conditions, purposes, and sociological culture in the military. The ever-changing, socio-economic times have spawned aggressive recruiting initiatives at times and workforce shaping tools at others, while political correctness has changed the values, demographics, and the social climate in a profound way. For some who chose the military as a profession, it has been challenging to adapt, especially for those who were too steeped in tradition and the military culture of old. The entire social structure of the military has had to evolve into a diverse, well-trained, organized, well-led workforce driven by core values, risk management, and purpose in order to justify its existence in the tightly budgeted modern environment in which we live in. Concrete Experience
My first unit in the Coast Guard after basic training, the Coast Guard Cutter SALVIA, a 180-foot, black-hulled, oceangoing buoy tender, worked with buoys lining the shipping channels in the Gulf Coast. From the moment I arrived on board, the hazing began. I had to go through foolish hazing and initiation such as the crew putting shoe polish around the eyepieces on the binoculars that I used while on lookout duty. It backfired on them, however, when the Officer of the Day, a commissioned officer, used them. When all the personnel on duty went to check in with him at attention, he had black rings around his eyes. I have seen people getting initiated by the Chiefs by having to search the entire ship for keys to the sea chest or a bucket of prop wash.
The member would search for days until learning that those items did not exist. All male crews were quite common back in the late 1980’s, so when people advanced or transferred off the ship, some would be tackled and shackled to the crane on the outer deck, stripped to their underwear, and doused with eggs and flour. Some people threw their shipmates over the side of the ship when we were in port or anchored out at sea to celebrate their promotion or other events. The Health Services Technician (Corpsman) would mess with the heads of new personnel on board. He would make up a fake medical record, tell the person that he made him mad for some reason, and then he would throw the medical record over the side of the ship, while under way. This made the people coming from basic training panic because they had just received dozens of shots when they were there, and the Corpsman told them they would have to get their shots all over again.
New people from basic training were also selected to calibrate the radar, a humorous event for the crew; the new people were dressed in tin foil and taken to the front of the ship on deck. The bridge of officers then gave commands such as having them turn slowly in place. The Damage Controlman, who knew how to manipulate the radiation detector, would approach them and fake as if they were covered in radiation, and the rest of the crew would run away from them, laughing all the way. When personnel would be advanced to Chief Petty Officer, most of them would go through a secret initiation. Members who decided not to go through initiation were not considered to be “Real Chiefs”. At the initiation, they would be put through various humiliating situations so they would know how it felt to be humiliated and learn to trust their fellow Chiefs. They had to answer to an Honorary Judge who would make them drink truth serum made with tuna juice, tabasco sauce, and other undisclosed ingredients.
During the initiation process, they would be forced to wear a costume such as a dress, and they would have sea lawyer (usually a Commissioned Officer) representing them. They had to shine all the real Chiefs’ shoes and boots, deliver doughnuts and coffee, and sing songs as a team to the delight of all the Chiefs. I have seen live crabs, dead fish, coffins full of ice, fake electric chairs, a stockade, and competitions involving blow tubes with truth serum inside all used in the initiation process. When asked by the judge if the sea lawyer had a license to practice law in his court, a witty sea lawyer would then produce the judge’s license plate stolen from his car. Various forms of hazing used to take place on ships that crossed certain date lines such as the Arctic Circle or the Equator. Being hardworking sailors on a hardworking ship, we played hard too, even getting kicked out of some ports; many of my shipmates were arrested for various drunken plundering that took place. Since we had an all-male, straight crew, as far as we knew, pornographic movies commonly played on the mess deck, where we ate our breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Good times seemed to be had by all in those days, all in the spirit of morale, in order to cope with such hard work and the separation from our families while we were at sea. Modern-day political correctness, coupled with the addition of more women in the military and mixed gender crews, changed the way of life in the military by adding core values and professional ethos to work and live by. Now hazing, initiations, and harassment of any kind are not tolerated and are dealt with severely. Even Chief initiations are toned down to a panel with no antics involved. All rights of passage are now done with purpose and are used as learning tools, with an emphasis on leadership development. The military repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” in 2011, at which time the entire military had to go through mandatory training on homosexuality acceptance. For the most part, in the Coast Guard at least, most people kept their gender preference and sexual acts out of the workplace.
The repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” process is still ongoing, and there have been much deeper issues brought up such as issuing significant others military identification cards to receive military benefits, including housing allowance, medical benefits, and the use of the base commissary and exchange services. In addition, there has been talk of giving the benefit of co-location transfers to military homosexual couples. This certainly is going to be a burning issue for those straight couples, who had been living together for over ten years through common law marriages or unions. When someone first joins the military, most personnel are single and acquire spouses and families later on.
Some, however, get married for the wrong reasons before they leave for basic training. Divorce is quite common for those who join the military at such a young age because of either being under way on ships for a long-time or being on extended deployments without their spouses. The military is sometimes hard on family life. Free counseling is in place for families, but the counseling only helps so much with the loneliness and frustration. Choosing the military as an occupation affected my relationship with my first wife in a bad way. I married very young and was shipped out quite a bit when I first joined. My first wife became bored and lonely, and she started partying with a young group of neighbors. She maxed out all of our credit cards and had nothing to show for it, which led to years of distrust, infidelity, and eventually, a bitter divorce and custody battle, which I won. Reflective Observation
In the early 1990s, many military personnel lost their careers due to lackadaisical performance by the use of aggressive workforce shaping tools designed to reduce the amount of personnel in the military to free up advancement opportunities. At one point, I was transferred to a small boat station in West Palm Beach, Florida, to take the place of a member who had been separated from service due to poor performance. The problem with the shaping tools in place at that time was that they forced out too many people, leaving the workforce too short to get the job done effectively. In addition, while military troop reductions were in place, recruiting was very limited, which affected those who thought they could just fall back on the military as an occupation when all else failed. Then in the late 1990s, the services began to recruit aggressively once again. Most people would be surprised to learn that there were extra troop build-ups going on a couple of years before the 9-11 disaster. I had experienced it first-hand.
In 1999, I set up one of 39 new Coast Guard Recruiting Offices throughout the nation; my particular office happened to be located in Panama City, Florida. Even before 9-11, the National Guard had aggressive recruiting campaigns, offering the best education programs there were, such as 100% tuition paid for college. They tried to fool the average prospects into thinking that they would be weekend warriors only working within the state they were recruited in as a National Guardsman one weekend a month. The National Guard, the Army, and the Marines were even requesting waivers for their recruits who scored a one on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). The Army recruiters were so desperate that one of them came to my office one day and made me an offer that if I would give him the names and contact numbers for the hundreds of rejects we had accumulated, in exchange, he would give us a drug clean-out kit used to trick drug tests for recruits. I could not believe it. I told them, “I don’t think so; the Coast Guard doesn’t need those type of people in the service.”
Flash forward to modern day, and we have too many people in the service once again having no plans of getting out because of the poor economy and job market in the civilian sector. The amount of people that we have in the service can also be associated with the big troop build-up and recruiting efforts pre-9/11 and post-9/11 with the two wars we had to fight, coupled with the ongoing wars on terror and drugs. The over-abundant amount of personnel remaining in the military has made advancement possibilities very limited, at best. In order to advance someone in the military, a vacancy must exist at the higher ranks (through retirement, etc.), and then it has a trickle-down effect down through the ranks. Having a stagnant workforce is not healthy for the military because people with poor attitudes and a lackadaisical work ethic can affect the performance of entire teams, and sometimes entire units.
The wind-down of the war efforts, along with the need to keep a productive and effective workforce, has developed the need for force reduction through even more aggressive workforce shaping tools. Currently in the Coast Guard, all E-6 and below with 20 years of service and all E-7 and above with over 20 years of service and more than three years time in rank, have to go through a Career Retention Panel. Their careers are looked at closely. Any history of performance problems or misconduct could force them into retirement. Those personnel chosen for retirement can submit appeals and waiver requests; they will surely be turned down based on the needs of the service at this time. Along with the workforce shaping tools in place, most of the Armed Services have core values and spirit de corps standards to live by. No one will remain in the service with more than two alcohol incidents, which may include being arrested for driving while intoxicated or being involved in a bar fight, etc. Services are also cracking down on personnel with multiple violations of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice.
There are many reasons that warrant discharge from military service. With such a drastic reduction in force in place, commands have discretion such as reviewing a member’s record upon expiration of enlistment to decide to allow them to reenlist or not. They can also be discharged for convenience of the government, dependency/hardship, lying about their age when they joined, disability, unsuitability, security purposes, misconduct, court martial sentence, for the good of the service, and a temporary separation to care for newborn child when requested.
In addition to workforce shaping tools, internal audits are under way to discover those who joined the military through fraudulent enlistment, such as lying about police records or Ritalin use after the age of 12. When someone joins the military, the military will not accept any condition that would need ongoing medication to maintain due to lack of prescription refill capability while they are deployed or under way. Some lie on applications about having learning disorders, attention deficit disorders, etc. The over-abundant populations in the military create the need for the further development of competitive standards for retention. A selection board is being established to review those middle-management personnel who have been in the service over ten years and are just coasting through their career, trying to remain in the same geographic location. Meanwhile, fewer recruiting needs opens the possibility of saving money by closing select recruiting offices throughout the nation. The effects of the workforce shaping tools, however, must be monitored closely, to avoid the mistakes that have been made in the past, causing the services to be too short of key personnel and the additional strain of each service to struggle to do more with less.
Lastly, most of the Armed Services have mandatory physical fitness tests and weight/body fat standards. Health, Fitness, and Weight Standards promote a more fit service and allow people to do their jobs more efficiently. There are some, however, who struggle to maintain a healthy weight/body fat. Maintaining a healthy weight is difficult now, when most Americans are thought to be obese and comfort foods for children are commonly found in homes, making them easily accessible to the military member, additionally, seasonal effective disorders often come around during the wintertime in cold/wet environments. Furthermore, the average military member could be depressed about the lack of advancement possibilities in the service and the lack of job possibilities if he or she decides to leave the service. When people get depressed, they tend to eat and drink in excess. Those who are found to be obese and fail several fitness tests or fail a weight probation period are subject to discharge from the military.
I have been in charge of the Weight Program for the Coast Guard for over 24 years. I have discharged a Coast Guard reserve member who had been working in the reserves since the Nixon era. As he was a high-ranking Coast Guard reserve member and a Chief of Police, no one wanted to approach him about his weight until I asked him to get on the scale when he was well beyond his deadline for weigh-in. As the weight program coordinator, he knew I had the Commanding Officer to back me up, and he could have made him step on the scale if he did not comply. He was quite upset! I have also withheld a person’s promotion to Captain until she made the weight. When someone is separated from the service for excess weight or body fat, he or she can apply to return based on the needs of the service, but with reductions in force in place, no one can expect approval.
Women have faced challenges from the very beginning, such as the lack of privacy on ships and in the combat field environment, perceived emotional differences that have kept them from combat roles, and inappropriate relationships detrimental to unit morale and cohesion. Throughout the 1990s, the population of women in the military increased even though the number of occupations open to them was limited. “The growing population in the military called for more equity of treatment between men and women in the workplace” (qtd. in Armor). Studies conducted in the early 1990s found that sexual harassment was very common in all branches of the military. By the year 2000, the military tightened its prosecution of sexual harassment and took several steps, such as periodic general mandated training, ensuring that all personnel are reminded of the consequences of sexual assault and sexual harassment and keeping incidents to a minimum (Armor).
Known homosexuals have been excluded from military service since the Revolutionary War. However, “President Bill Clinton challenged the policy in 1993 and ordered the Secretary of Defense to order the end of discrimination in the military based on sexual orientation” (qtd. in Armor). However, the most senior leaders in the military voiced their concerns that having openly homosexual personnel among its ranks would go against good order and discipline. Eventually, the “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” allowed those with an alternative lifestyle to serve just as long as they did not admit that they were homosexuals. Finally, in 2011, the military repealed the policy, allowing all otherwise qualified personnel to serve with honor and distinction without prejudice regarding their sexual orientation. There were three phases of mandatory training involved and each military Commanding Officer had to certify that all personnel were well versed in the changes taking place. The few prejudiced military members who could not fathom working alongside homosexuals just had to adapt, due to the poor economy and job prospects on the outside (Armor).
Since the transition to a volunteer workforce from the days of the draft, there have been a lot more married personnel and families to care for. “The demands of military lifestyle can have many negative outcomes for family members such as: Geographic mobility, residence in foreign countries, periodic separations from family, and the risk of service member injury or death” (qtd. in Burrell 44). Geographic mobility is necessary in all branches of the military, in order to satisfy the needs of the service and keep people from getting too lackadaisical in the same position, people are transferred to different types of units to make their experience better rounded. Most members of the military are transferred every two to four years. However, budget cuts have forced leaders to look at geographic stability in order to save money. The reality is that most people want to rotate out of arduous duty or ship duty.
These relocations can disrupt family life, friendships, and other supportive relationships in the present community and disrupt the spouse’s employment during a time when a two-household income is necessary, given the economy. Research has shown that geographic mobility has led to problems with their psychological well-being, lower marital happiness, and lower retention in the service (Burrell 44). When I was young, my father was in the Army, and we had to move every two years. It was hard because I lost friends and had to adapt to new locations on a regular basis. When I joined the military and had kids of my own, I had to see them go through the same trials and tribulations that I had to endure through military transfer.
Geographic mobility and residence in foreign countries can strain families and relationships because the member may be assigned to a unit that frequently deploys or travels without their family. This has a profound effect on the family unit due to the creation of a single-parent situation (Burrell 45). Those who were able to take their families to foreign lands experienced lower morale because the family felt alienated due to the language barrier. More families exist today than during the days of the draft. There are more people to rely on the primary caregiver, thus, there is concern when a member deploys on peacekeeping or combat missions. This stress can lead to lower morale and further marital strain and lower retention rates in the service. The economy has led military members to marry other military members. There are advantages to being married to other members of the military such as being transferred and co-located, in most cases. Each member would have a steady job and receive a housing allowance that, when added to base pay, would allow a couple to live quite comfortably. Each member would also receive GI Bill Educational benefits (Burrell).
In “Core Issues and Theory in Military Sociology” Guy Siebold notes that since the military professionals work, for the most part, in large groups, control and coordination are necessary to synchronize the large amount of personnel. “Thus the professional is very hierarchal, formal, heavily socialized, and full of explicit rules, regulations, checks, and counter-checks. This results in a fit, self-disciplined, controlled, obedient, outward-looking, professional military member” (qtd. in Siebold). There are many academies and institutions that train mid-level and senior managers in the areas of leadership, as well as operational training courses. All of these initiatives are in danger due to budget cuts, and each military service must justify the need for each military school, as well as each military asset. These courses are very important and they have made the difference between the well-trained, well-led professional military we have now and the less professional warmongers of old (Siebold 148).
The military can be studied in terms of how it handles many changing sociology issues such as the addition of more women into the workforce, multi-generational differences, and political correctness of modern day. The military has been forced to develop programs to boost resilience in families during the member’s absence, train all personnel to recognize the signs of suicide for their soldiers and shipmates, and develop state-of-the-art leadership tools to support and their workforce and build skills. There have been many changes within the structure of the military, resulting in many military jobs becoming civilianized, encourging military personnel to get involved in brainstorming and decision-making, and to taking steps toward improving the way of life in the military (Siebold 152).
Tight budgetary controls have forced every branch of the military to streamline the workforce, get rid of unnecessary positions and equipment, and audit all divisions of the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is the branch of government that the U. S. Coast Guard falls under. Strict financial audits of all branches of government are in place now to identify waste, fraud, and abuse. Some military positions have been civilianized to save the DOD and DHS money. Each unit has been strongly encouraged to develop paper and aluminum recycling programs, as well as to sell their excess property to salvage yards to acquire extra funding wherever it can be found. Even though the services must remain forever diligent and train through deliberate practice, budgetary constraints keep them from training in excess due to the cost of fuel and logistical items to run training exercises and drills. On a global level, each unit or base will have to show his or her worth to avoid being closed during the base closure process put in place to save money.
On an individual level, in such a tight budgetary environment with a poor economy in the civilian sector, when each branch of the service must downsize, it is more important than ever for each member of the military to develop professionally and show their worth. It begins in the recruiting environment where recruiters must be very selective and only choose those who are fully qualified and who show potential to excel in the military.
The workforce shaping tools in place will streamline the workforce and make “the cream of the crop” rise to the top. Once they join, each member will be groomed for success, encouraged to get a college degree, participate in community service, and train to be a top professional in a chosen field or occupation. Currently the military is being forced to do more with less. The services must now develop people to the point where the budget cuts will not have such a great impact on operations and missions. The military has developed highly trained professionals in a well-organized, diverse social climate filled with leadership, deep core values, and purpose in order to compete for retention and justify its existence in such a tight budgetary, modern day and age.
Armor, David J. ” Military Sociology.” 2010. Web. <http://edu.learnsoc.org>
Burrell, Lolita M. “The Impact of Military Lifestyle Demands on Well-Being, Army, and Family Outcomes.” Armed Forces & Society Journal, Oct2006, Vol. 33 Issue 1, 43-58. Print.
Siebold, Guy L. “Core Issues and Theory in Military Sociology.” Journal of Political and Military Sociology. 2001. Vol. 29 (Summer), 140-159. Print.