In a new Gallup poll, Americans' confidence in an array of U.S. societal institutions is largely unchanged, with the military continuing to earn the highest level of confidence of 15 institutions tested. (As usual, Congress is dead last.)
Maybe one of the reasons is that the military is more of a meritocracy than many other American institutions, one that values competence, patience, discipline, and problem-solving.
I was reminded of that recently when I had the opportunity to hear the experiences of a retired U.S. Army three-star general, Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, who embodies everything admirable about our nation and its armed forces. I knew that Gen. Bostick had retired as the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after 38 years in the service, but what I hadn't realized is that he'd had a varied career in many different areas of the Army, including battle commands (Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Balkans, and others), as well as recruitment.
The big surprise for me was that Gen. Bostick greatly enjoyed his stint as the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for personnel, responsible for developing, managing, and executing manpower and personnel plans, programs, and policies. He explained that although it might not have the glamor and adrenaline rush of infantry attacking an enemy position, engineers clearing combat routes or medevac helicopters evacuating the wounded from the battlefield, recruiting and retaining superior men and women is the lifeblood of all the military services.
A story that Gen. Bostick told about one of his proudest but unsung achievements illustrates his mindset.
It began when he was the head of personnel for the Army and at an awards ceremony, asked several West Point Cadets which branch (Infantry, Armor, Artillery, etc.) they would choose after graduation.
Each one told Gen. Bostick his or her selection except one, who related that she could not receive her commission into the Army because of disability from a car accident. She really wanted to serve but was medically disqualified, she said. He explained to her that there are other ways to serve, such as in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has 34,000 personnel, only 700 of whom wear a uniform as soldiers, and she could choose to become a civilian employee of the Department of Defense. That would seem to be a fair repayment for the years of the government's investment in her education at West Point — but there was no leverage, no way to automatically appoint (the term of art) her to a DoD position.
General Bostick kept track of that Cadet, and as graduation approached, he contacted her to determine her plans, hoping to encourage her to opt to join the U.S Army Corps of Engineers. She explained that she really wanted to serve in the government, but a civilian company had offered a deal that she could not refuse.
Gen. Bostick was both disappointed and disturbed by this turn of events, because, he said, "We invest perhaps half a million dollars into the education of every Cadet, but those who develop medical issues cannot be commissioned and serve in the military. They could request a waiver to repay the costs of the education and then walk away without serving in the military or anywhere else in the federal government. This constituted a loss of great talent to the Department of Defense."
Not a person just to lament bad policy, he returned to the Pentagon determined to work with Congress to change the law to allow the government to recoup its investment in Cadets medically ineligible for an active duty commission. And work he did – for a couple of years as the Army's head of personnel, and then throughout his four years as Chief of Engineers.
Ultimately, he succeeded.
In Sec. 549 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2018, Congress authorized a pilot program to allow Cadets who cannot enter active duty for medical reasons but are otherwise good candidates, "to fulfill an obligation for active duty service ... through service as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense." In legal-speak, these Cadets can be appointed by the secretary of Defense to serve for five years. The result is an option to utilize this rich talent source — from all the military academies — across the Department.
As a result of Gen. Bostick's determination to reverse this glitch in public policy, graduates of the military academies unable to be commissioned will serve their country in a civilian capacity, and the government will obtain a return on its substantial investment.
In my own experience, Gen. Bostick is exemplary but hardly unique in the military. I have had the privilege of knowing several flag officers, including Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (Army), General James N. Mattis (Marine Corps), and Rear Admirals John W. Bitoff (Navy) and Frank E. Young (Commissioned Corps, U.S. Public Health Service). Naysayers and incompetents are well advised to get out of their way. They and other men and women like them have played an important role in making our country great. We owe them a great debt. What better time to think about that than the week we celebrate Veteran's Day?
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He served in the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service.