It’s fitting that 27 plus years of active and reserve service in the United States Army ended with a piece of paper, but those of us who had the chance to serve understand that the military runs on paper. A paper enlisted me on May 20, 1987, and another paper, Order No. 297-1088, transferred me to the retired reserve on January 2, 2015.
Not 2 JAN 15, mind you. January 2, 2015. I’m retired, so now I get to write dates like a normal person. Though, when people on the other end of the phone want me to spell out words, I’ll still say, “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie.”
People ask me how I feel about leaving what has been such a huge part of the majority of my life. I usually answer that I don’t have feelings – I’m infantry. But that’s not quite so – military people are the most sentimental people there are even if they don’t show it by blubbering. I guess you have to spend some time with warriors to really see that, and to see the other characteristics of this most unique breed. Man for man, and woman for woman, military are the funniest people you’ll ever meet. Contrary to what smug elitists presume, our warriors are the most knowledgeable of all Americans when it comes to our history and the Constitution. And in my biased view, they are simply the best of all Americans.
All decent Americans talk about supporting the troops, and they are absolutely right to do so. If you could see what I’ve seen of these young Americans it would validate what you already know – our young warriors are every bit the equal of the warriors who came before them. They live the Army values every day. People would thank me for my service, but I am a colonel – I just tried to look oriented to my surroundings. The troops and the sergeants/petty officers make it happen. They deserve your appreciation, and I only accepted your thanks on their behalf.
But, as amazing as the troops are, I leave an Army that is in crisis. Yes, some of it has to do with poor civilian leadership and strategic ineptitude, as well as budgets that prioritize passing out freebies to slugs at the expense of ensuring that our military can perform our government’s most vital function – defending our nation. Yet none of that explains the institutional sickness infecting the Army – and the other services.
Throughout my time, I served under great senior leaders, but today we see colonels and generals being court martialed for using their commands as their personal harems and private piggy banks – and getting slapped on the wrist where junior soldiers would find themselves locked up. Senior commanders who nearly lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were promoted while enlisted warfighters found themselves roasted over the coals by office-dwelling weasels for decisions made in the heat of battle. There’s a saying you sometimes hear – lose a rifle and lose a rank, but lose a war and win another star. Sadly, there’s a great deal of truth to it. The bad apples are the exception, not the rule, but allowing them to escape nearly unscathed sets a new, and lower, standard.
As the wars come to a close, a chickenstuff garrison mentality has started to creep back into the force. Look at its new priorities. The Army cries about being overworked and out of cash, but it chooses to spend precious training time and taxpayer money photographing its soldiers’ tattoos so they can’t get new ones because, well, damned if I know. This kind of degrading, foolish waste sends morale plummeting. So those guys with tatts were heroes when we needed them on the battlefield, but they came home and somehow morphed into dirtbags? Give me a break.
You read about generals bemoaning how the American people are removed and remote from their military, the proverbial civil/military divide, but then these same generals turn around and ensure that during the one time American citizens used to get to interact with our young troops they now can’t. I would fly in my camo uniform up to drill in Sacramento every month – yeah, being a reservist cost me about $600 a month for flights, a car and a room, which is surprisingly common among our dedicated citizen-soldiers. But then last March, the geniuses at the Pentagon decided that flying in ACUs didn’t look pretty and changed the uniform regulation to prohibit it with limited exceptions. Remember how troopers used to walk through airports and feel the appreciation of the American people? That’s mostly over. Maybe the brass was afraid that – God forbid – a civilian might buy one of our warfighters a Coors. There’s your peacetime Army mentality – it’s easier to ban the whole thing than risk a minor “incident.”
Pathetic. During my last few months, I had to fly in civvies and then change into my United States Army uniform in a damn toilet like it was something to be ashamed of. Are you kidding me?
It’s petty nonsense like that which drives our experienced combat vets off of active duty. I would like to tell you we are preserving their invaluable battlefield experience in the reserves, but the active component is doing everything it can to scoop up the reserve components’ resources. For example, the active duty force recently tried to take the National Guard’s Apache helicopters. Now, it takes millions to train each pilot. Reserve helicopter units allow the country to preserve that training and the combat experience earned post-9/11 in case we need it again. But because the active force was more interested in empire-building than combat effectiveness, it was willing to dump all those veteran aviators and instead spend millions training a bunch of new flyers who had no time under fire just so it could have those toys for itself. What a Charlie Foxtrot.
There is good news that conservatives need to hear. The end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has generally been a success. Many conservatives feared that the change would dramatically weaken the force, but that hasn’t happened. Here’s a little secret for you – who was and wasn’t gay was never a secret among us. You can’t work that closely and not know; if people are professionals, you have no reason to care.
I have personally seen no problems. Frankly, gay soldiers would have to work like hell to cause me more consternation than my straight ones did. The success of the change is a tribute not to posturing civilians but to our troops. The order came down to make it work, and they did. Period.
Sure, it was still a bit odd for us old timers. I was at one change of command ceremony where the strac incoming commander introduced her partner, and I turned to another bird colonel and said, “Well, I guess she and I have something in common – we both like hot Latin women.” Personally, I’m glad the gay soldiers I worked with over the years don’t have to worry about being hassled anymore and can focus on continuing to serve.
It’s that I won’t be continuing to serve that gets me. I loved being part of history. I listened to radio calls that I would later read about in books while in the VII Corps main command post during Desert Storm. I was in the first combat battalion on the streets in L.A. during the riots. I rolled after the Northridge earthquake and led my reinforced cavalry squadron to San Diego in record time when the city was in flames in 2007. I trained with Ukrainian soldiers who are now defending their country, and I walked through blasted villages in Kosovo and helped build that new nation.
I won’t miss the nonsense, but I’ll miss the people. I’ll miss the troops who never give up and always find a way. I’ll miss the NCOs, who taught me how to be an officer when I was an O1 and kept on teaching me until my last day on duty as an O6. I’ll miss the officer corps and its dedication to the men and the mission. Our warriors are the best, but now it’s time for me to cross the line of departure into retirement.
I took an oath when I enlisted as a delayed-entry private on May 20, 1987. I took another one when I became an officer. My Dad, a Navy lieutenant commander, swore me in when I was commissioned out of the Fort Benning Officer Candidate School (Company A, 3-11 Infantry) on March 26, 1988:
I, Kurt Andrew Schlichter, having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of second lieutenant, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.
I’ve tried to fulfill that oath ever since. My country’s confidence in me to lead American soldiers has been the greatest honor I will ever have. I leave with a profound sense of gratitude to my country, and with the knowledge that what I gained serving her far exceeded whatever I contributed as a soldier.
And there’s one more thing. Do you notice something about the oath? Something that’s not there?
Like so many others, just because I’m retired doesn’t mean I’m done. Two of the colonels I worked for came back after retirement and did at least six tours in Afghanistan and Iraq between them. That’s the standard. So if my country needs me again, I’m going to be just a high and tight haircut away from ready.
After all, that oath I took has no expiration date.