Army Promotions

So, as the latest “list” to which I was a slight possibility was published today (12/8/11), I am once again reminded of how broken the promotion system is.  I will give a basic primer on how the system works for the enlisted ranks, as well as my solution to the major problems inherent in the system (if you don’t recommend a solution to a problem, you’re just bitching.).  The information in this post pertains only to the US Army, as I am unfamiliar with the workings of the promotion systems in other services.  Let me also add to this introduction that while this all may sound like “sour grapes,” and I have indeed been passed over by the centralized promotion board, I am well aware why.  I have a debilitating injury that has prevented me from doing much of what I should be able to do (physically) for a few years now, and in a time of war, even the greatest paper pusher should find it hard to beat a successful combat veteran (generally with multiple combat tours) for promotion.  No one would have been more surprised than me if I had been selected, as I am presently ineffective for the most part.  I do all I can and then some, am very good at what I do as is evidenced by my evaluations and the willingness of former bosses to write me glowing letters of recommendation for my future endeavors.  The information I discuss below is a list of the problems with this method of promotion, and workable solutions only.  Perhaps, by some random miracle, someone in a position to affect a change will see it and realize how broken the system is.  This article suggests A method of repair, not the only way, not the best way.. just a single recommended course of action that would repair the problems present in the current system.  Onwards…

If you are in the military or are already familiar with the current promotion system, stop reading at the ’s and resume reading at the  as the information between them is not going to be even remotely interesting to you.

Supposing one joins the Army as an E-1 (enlisted pay grade 1, Private 2, “no insignia”), in 6 months time you are automatically promoted to E2 (Private, E-2, Private).  There are “waivers” and such which can be obtained for extraordinary work during training, but they are few and far between (and there are waivers available at just about every promotion level, I am going to write for the average Soldier, no waivers).

After another 6 months (12 months total), you are automatically promoted to E-3 (Private First Class, E-3, Private First Class), and when you hit 24 months in service you are promoted to E-4.  For the vast majority of E-4’s, their title is Specialist (E-4, Specialist).  A person is expected to know the basics of their job like the back of their hand, and generally do.  There is another E-4 that’s called Corporal (E-4, Corporal).  A Corporal is generally in a leadership position, and if there are 2x E-4’s in a room, one being a Specialist and one being a Corporal, the Corporal is in charge… even if the Specialist has an earlier promotion date (which would normally indicate a higher rank than the newer E-4).  This part of the system is all fine and dandy.  It works, it flows, and other than the odd Corporal (there really aren’t many of them in the Army), E-1’s through E-4’s are all the same.  Some know more than others.. but they are all doing the same job.  Basically, these promotions are based on longevity and have no other real significance.

All of the promotions described above are De-Centralized, meaning the Army has given the individual unit commander the authority to have typed a single piece of paper, sign it, and upon presenting it to the Soldier they are the next higher rank.

Once you are an E-4, there are military educational requirements (leadership schools) that you must go to before you can be promoted, although with the current state of deployments this has been changed so that a Soldier can be promoted while deployed, as it is not practical to send someone home from a combat zone to attend a school.  They are most likely getting a FAR better education on leadership, tactics and their MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) while deployed than any school could offer.  These schools can be valuable, but they are so full of “fluff” and silliness that much of the usefulness is lost (proportionately).  In some of the schools, you are strong armed into joining organizations or making “voluntary contributions of time or money” to different groups.  I went to one of the schools and  refused to spend my money on an organization that, in the 12 years I had been in the Army to that point, had not benefited me even the smallest bit.  When I refused to do so, I was summoned to the office of a VERY high ranking person in my MOS and asked why I wouldn’t join.  I told that person… “that I have to come explain to you why I won’t, is why I won’t.”  It wasn’t a money issue at all, it was cheap… but it was absolute BS that it was being forced down our throats.  There were 4 of us that were summoned to that officials office, the other 3 caved.  Weenies!

There are, these days, 2 ways to be promoted to E-5 (Sergeant, E-5, Sergeant).  The traditional way is that you are recommended by your leadership for attendance at the “Promotion Board,” you study, attend and either get recommended or not based on your performance.  A promotion board is basically a group interview in which you are asked a series of questions about basic soldier tasks that an E-4 should have well mastered, and a few questions that would pertain to the individual caring for Soldiers if promoted.  They are mostly in the form of “which regulation covers this” or “how do you make a group of soldiers move from being in a crowd on the grass to being in an organized rectangle, ready for training or instruction.”  The board members than give you a score which is 100% subjective and you are on your way.  You work out a promotion point work sheet where you get promotion points for your awards, training, education (military and civilian), shooting prowess and your physical fitness test score.  After this has been accomplished, the Army has a large group of individuals who are eligible for promotion and they have a varying number of “points.”  The number of points varies from 450 (min) to 800 (max).  When the Army needs 15 new E-5’s in a particular job, they count down that list and see how many points the 15th person has, and they lower that months promotion “cutoff score” to that number.  Anyone who has that many number of points or more, gets promoted on the 1st of the following month.

There has recently been adopted a method of promoting people to E-5 (Sergeant) automatically at 4 years Time in Service.  These people are not promoted based on potential, but rather because they haven’t gotten into any real trouble.  This is a MAJOR problem.  You see, everyone is not meant to lead.  There are many people in the world to which you can provide the best leadership training and all the tools in the world to succeed, and they are still inept at being in charge.  They don’t know how to wield power, flail it around like a flag in a hurricane(see also; abuse of power) and generally cannot get anyone to take them seriously.  This is not a “knock” on them.. some people just aren’t mean to be in charge, and there are many who just don’t want to.  Everyone in the Army wants to get promoted, but there is a very large number of people that are just after the increased paycheck and respect.  They will hide from the challenging jobs, or the positions where they will be in charge.  There was, years ago (before I joined the Army in 1992) a method to promote people without placing them in leadership jobs.  They were “Tech Sergeants.”  A Tech Sergeant could have been any rank from E-5 to E-8, and was promoted based on their technical ability.  If there is to be automatic promotions beyond E-4, this is how they should be accomplished so that people who have no leadership potential or desire to be in charge can still be promoted.

The process to be promoted to E-6 (Staff Sergeant, E-6, Staff Sergeant) is identical to the process to be promoted to E-5.  There is a school you are supposed to attend between these promotions if possible, but there’s no difference between the processes.  These two promotions are semi-centralized, as the unit’s decide who gets to be eligible for promotion, but the Department of the Army (DA) decides (and the Soldier by way of working to increase their points as they can always be updated) when the promotions happen.  These promotions are anonymous, DA doesn’t know who the people are, names don’t matter.. it’s all about the points.

The most desirable candidates for promotion are those who have received awards for their work, are better trained than the average person, are physically fit, and are educated.  This is the reason for the points system… and this is where it stops.   When you are to reach a level where you have a substantial amount of influence, the things that the Army says are the most important cease to matter.

Each promotion after E-6 (E-7 E-7, Sergeant First Class thru E-9) is centralized.  There are multiple types of E-8’s (E-8, First Sergeant) and E-9’s (E-9, Command Sergeant Major), just as there are for E-4’s.  They have to do with whether the person is in a leadership position or not.  For this writing, I will just use the leadership titles for those pay grades.  Additional information on Army ranks can be found in the references I’ve placed in the footnotes of this article.

Centralized promotions mean that an individuals records are validated for correctness and then submitted to a panel for grading. The idea is that individuals are graded based on a stated criteria, with accomplishments, training and success in specific jobs weighted to produce a list of the best candidates for promotion (in the Army, we are promoted based on POTENTIAL to conduct business at the next rank, which means that people are promoted up to their level of incompetence).  The problem is that the selection committee is a group of Sergeants Major from that same career field (CMF; MOS groupings of similar jobs, like a radio operator and a network administrator are different MOS’s, but both in the Communications career field).  It’s been well suspected that this is not how it actually goes.  In the smaller career fields, people seem to travel in social circles.  The way the board seems to work is that the Sergeants Major do something along the lines of “Hey, this is my guy, take care of him,” and that action is later reciprocated.  There are people who get promoted because of the demographic category they fall into.. some because they are friends with one of the Sergeants Major (membership in what used to be a “secret society” is a definite plus here).  This isn’t always the case, but some of the people that I’ve worked for and seen get promoted leave me to believe that this happens more than it doesn’t.  The “party line” is that you have to have this specific job, and this type of degree within this amount of time… but in practice, none of that matters.  It’s “Who do you know,” or more specifically, “Who knows you?”

My method to fix this is very simple.  Continue to have Sergeants Major make the selections, but not for their own CMF.  Each CMF should develop a list of how to weight individual items, actions and events and present that information to the board.

Your records are presented (in the current system)minus a bit of personally identifying information, but your picture is present.  Um… problem?  Ya think?  The idea with presenting the picture is that you are supposed to “look like a Soldier,” but that is annotated on just about everyone’s evaluations.  There should be a process by which pictures are presented without records… they should be given a “yes” or “no” grade as far as whether they “look” like a Soldier.  This could be done completely randomly by ANY Sergeant Major from ANY CMF.  There are standards that depict how we are supposed to look.  Having your picture included with your records ensures that you are anything but anonymous to the board, as they are people you may very well have worked for (using present system).  Once all pictures have been checked, ALL records (even those who got a “no” for appearance) should be presented to Sergeant Majors from CMF’s other than your own, with no identifying information.  The Sergeants Major from one CMF should all look at the records from the same CMF (but not their own!) so that there can be developed a fair understanding of what that CMF has identified as important, and how to rate the Soldiers.  Your records could then be systematically, and fairly, graded on your performance.  There should be NO statements on evaluations alluding to race, age or gender as well.  These are all biases that are displayed, and are all very unfair.

While I have your attention, and since I’ve just mentioned evaluations there is a comment I would like to make.  At the bottom of each evaluation (one paper, front and back, covers up to the last 12 months of work, good luck getting everything in the blocks provided if you’ve done much of anything) there are 2 blocks that are weighed heavily for centralized promotions.  They are “Performance” and “Potential.”  Each of the blocks has a scale of 1-5, 1 being the best, 3 being average, and 5 being “It’s time to find a new line of work, you suck at this.”  The problem with this system is that, in reading evaluations, no one is average.  Everyone is a 1/1.  How is that even possible?  If you averaged ALL the NCOERS in the Army in a given year, I am willing to bet you would find that overall, the median scores are right around 1.2/1.2.  That’s ludicrous… and let me explain how this has happened.  We are in a time in this country when no one wants to hurt anyone else’s feelings; no one wants to ruin someone’s career.  Let me suggest that if someone is only average or they have worked diligently all year and all their efforts can support is a 4/4 (and I’ve met a TON of these people, who almost all get 1/1 or 2/2, no worse) then they don’t care about their own career… why would you?  I have written an evaluation for a subordinate before that was a solid 3/3, no better.  This person did nothing extra, nothing special.. just sorta skated along.  When I turned the evaluation in to MY boss, who provides a couple of comments in their own block on the form and is one of the 3 approving signers of the document other than the rated individual, he told me it wasn’t good enough.  I explained that this is what he earned, and if I was missing something to let me know and I would eagerly update the form.  What I was instructed to do was to “fluff” (read as lie) the present bullets and make it a better evaluation so I could score him higher.  I stretched as far as I was comfortable, and feel like I got a solid 3/2 evaluation.  I was told it needs to be a 1/1 and do it again.  Eventually, I emailed the file to my boss and told him that if he wasn’t going to allow me to honestly evaluate the Soldier, I was not going to do it at all and that he could do it.  This is just a single example of the inflation of the evaluations which is an epidemic in the Army at present; and it’s this inflation of what should be a factual document that makes it a very unusable measure of a persons performance.

All of the problems explained above are fixable, but it would require a major overhaul of the current system… and overhaul that is desperately needed, and will never happen.


For a “by the book” primer on Army Promotions (without the opinion and explanation I presented above), you can go to the link below, which I referenced a couple of times to verify I was presenting the correct Time in Service data while writing.

For a description of the enlisted ranks and a picture of their insignia, you can go to the link below.  It is from this website that I’ve taken the images of the insignia used in this article.

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8 Responses to Army Promotions

  1. Jesse Boitel says:

    Awesome writing style!

  2. chcknhwk says:

    Well done, Battle. I did my first real blog following this theme. Please check it out and tell me what you think.

  3. Scott Blint says:

    Your style is so unique compared to many other people. Thank you for publishing when you have the opportunity,Guess I will just make this bookmarked.2

  4. Gina says:

    You did an awesome job writing this! I just wanted to add that I feel the same way you do on this topic!

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