MAJOR MALFUNCTION, PART FOUR
A Soldier leaps over an obstacle during the Army Best Medic Competition at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Sept. 24, 2019. 
July 10, 2020
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL
This “Major Malfunction” piece is comprised of several parts. It’s main purpose is to take another look at the problem of training management and organizational effectiveness in the Army. I’ll examine the issue from multiple perspectives—from statistical analysis, anecdotal story-telling, personal observations, and existing academic publications. Let me qualify all of this by very clearly acknowledging the limitations of my perspective and experience. This is simply what I’ve observed through my humble lens and I have enough intellectual humility to know there’s a lot that’s beyond my understanding and areas where I’m just plain wrong. I’ve worked with and for leaders that fall on every part of the spectrum and this isn’t an attack on a particular echelon or rank. Dealing with a problem with such a large scope requires starting and maintaining the dialogue at every level for multi-echelon and interdisciplinary input, actionable change, and comprehensive feedback. It’s not something that is going to go away anytime soon. So please keep that in mind before you fire for effect! Thanks for visiting–I hope you’ll stick around for its entirety!
OTHER MANIFESTATIONS AND VALIDATIONS OF THE PROBLEM
Believe me when I say I hate to even go here, but from an anthropological perspective, when social media meme pages have been created solely for the purpose of documenting the lamentations of the unpredictability of Army life and how leaders at all levels are complicit, this just confirms that we have a problem on a larger scale. The sad part is, it’s funny because it’s true. Everyone can relate. It’s universal, regardless of your duty station or your Army branch/MOS.
It’s easy to be dismissive of cultural quirks and stereotypes like this when coming from a perspective that certain ranks or positions in the Army are rites of passage–or viewing some organizational phenomena as “the way it’s always been.” But more often than not, stereotypes exist for a reason, and they are often related to statistical frequencies and at least partially grounded in some form of truth.
If we continue to ignore these issues and we aren’t doing our very best to improve the organization, then we are failing. If “I did it this way, so you should also have to do it this way” is the best explanation for why we are doing something, then we’ve gone down a dangerous path.
Yup… I went there. Art imitates life, does it not? 
Another anecdotal example—a trend NOT accurately or comprehensively captured on our command and staff meeting slides, our health and wellness slides, our USR slides, or our quarterly training brief slides is the landslide of mental or physical health issues I’ve personally observed in approximately 80% of all field grade officers and senior NCOs. Anxiety, stress, depression, divorce, custody battles, broken families. Bad knees, bad backs, chronic health issues, insomnia, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine dependency…
Who is accounting for the cumulative stress and anxiety that has worn on a person for over 15 years of service and results in their suicide? What’s the aggregate personal and organizational cost of all of this? Sure, we look at MEDPROS statistics as a metric of readiness, and we have our Soldier Leader Risk Reduction Tool (SLRRT), but who is REALLY doing the long-term analysis on the collective health of our people? I know as a commander, I’m not. As soon as someone leaves the unit, it’s not my job to care anymore, and it’s not that I don’t care–I just literally don’t have the time for it. I imagine that a lot of leaders feel this way. So really, I think long-term organizational and personnel health is a realm where we largely lose visibility. Consequently, how does this short-sighted perspective on the health of our people affect taxpayers, who pay for the healthcare of servicemembers, veterans, retirees, and their family members. Hmmm…it would be interesting to run some numbers. Maybe that’s something I’ll investigate later.
A three-star level inquiry research team (that same one I’ve already cited in previous parts) did a recent study on calendar volatility. Here are some of their findings:
- Few Soldiers or NCOs could remember conducting a formal 8-step training model in the last several years, and none had mentored or trained their junior leaders in the process.
- Information requests and short suspenses in the form of daily orders and “flash” orders overwhelm battalion and company leadership and do not allow staff to plan properly for missions.
- Staffs applied minimal analysis to orders, often simply forwarding them to the subordinate units. This was usually due to the short notice of the order, but sometimes due to the volume of orders as well.
- Most units, company/troop/battery, conducted training meetings and briefed a 6-week lock-in horizon. Battalion (BN) and higher headquarters published the majority of orders within the six-week window.
- There was no observed “ruthlessness” in application of the principles found in the Corps Commander’s Training Guidance or FM 7-0, Train to Win in a Complex World.
A tank crewman with 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, ground guides his tank in the Republic of Korea, Nov. 19, 2019, during the battalion’s gunnery qualifications. 
Below are some of the statements the research team heard from leaders as they conducted sensing sessions:
- “Unit has a training schedule but it is fiction.”
- “Reclama process requires a novel.”
- “Real troop-to-task submissions briefed weekly would blow higher-ups’ minds.”
I think anyone reading this can pick up on the palpable tone of cynicism laced throughout the comments. But this IS the genuine perspective of the people. We all know that the truth is somewhere in the middle, but if this is your life every day, it IS your truth and it’s the way you see the world. It affects your ability to do your job, it affects your family, and it affects your life and well-being.
This should all be alarming. But back to what James Q. Wilson said about safety issues versus health issues–these problems don’t have a timely or clear feedback loop. The cause-and-effect timeline isn’t short or easily measurable. Consequently, it seems the sense of urgency and intensity directed towards these issues isn’t proportional to the scope and gravity of the problem and it’s second and third order effects.
It’s complicated. And struggle is real.
We all know in the back of our minds that the cumulative effect of all this is a revolving door of fluctuating readiness (actual and reported) that simply isn’t sustainable. For me personally, it’s one of the main reasons I’ve decided to leave the Army and seek life elsewhere. The espoused values of the organization–families, health, balance, and planning are all contradictory of reality, and we all hold some responsibility in this.
So we’ve acknowledged we have a problem. We’ve definitely begun to discuss this more than anyone did just a few years ago. But we still aren’t there yet. Volatility and unpredictability perpetuated by collective dishonesty continue to permeate our organization. It exists. We all joke about it. Senior leaders talk about it and start initiatives to try to fix it. People do studies on it and write scholarly articles about it. But why doesn’t anything actually change in a significant way? What’s it going to take?
Well, now what?
For a very real struggle, there are some real ways that people operating at all levels can work towards trying to improve their sphere of influence. This is a complicated, nuanced topic, and there are certainly a lot of different opinions on how we should go about solving these problems. After eight years of active duty, my perspective is obviously limited, but all I can do is offer my perspective.
In the final piece of this series, “Part Five: Continuing the Discussion,” I’ll examine some of the practical actions I believe leaders can take to improve their organizations and what institutional policies at the senior leader level might be helpful. Thanks for reading.
 A Soldier leaps over an obstacle during the Army Best Medic Competition at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Sept. 24, 2019. September 24, 2019. https://api.army.mil/e2/c/images/2019/10/22/568531/original.jpg
 Instagram meme and moral support pages: @sad_lieutenant_memes, @kd_complete.
 A tank crewman with 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, ground guides his tank in the Republic of Korea, Nov. 19, 2019, during the battalion’s gunnery qualifications. November 19, 2019. https://api.army.mil/e2/c/images/ 2019/11/20/571234/original.jpg