Trigonometry over tattoos: Why educating our enlisted troops is paramount

Trigonometry over tattoos: Why educating our enlisted troops is paramount
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“I feel like Jimmy Stewart in ‘Rear Window.’”

My son, an infantry Marine, texted this to me from an undisclosed location in the Middle East. We both loved Hitchcock’s film, in which Jimmy Stewart played a photographer laid up in his Greenwich Village apartment with a broken leg who becomes convinced that the neighbor across the backyard must have murdered his wife.

“Are you watching suspicious things happening?” I texted back.

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His answer gave me a new perspective on his job: “Or seeing things that aren’t anything at all, but making them suspicious.” He complimented me on my parenting skill of making him watch classic movies. And then he went silent.

I don’t know where he is, or what he actually does hour to hour, but he asked me to ship him a new Kindle — his screen had melted. With limited WiFi, he doubted he’d be able to download anything but he at least wanted to spend some of his free time reading. That’s an improvement on how he and his friends spent their free time and dollars when they were “in garrison” stateside: getting tattoos. 

The texts from my son, and the memory of his tattooing escapade, reminded me of the importance of ensuring that our enlisted troops — and not just officers — have ready access to education. Let me explain why.

When he was stationed at various Marine bases on the West Coast, my son disregarded my suggestion that he take college courses and finish his bachelor’s degree. A college degree is a prerequisite to being selected for officer training, which several senior enlisted men and officers had encouraged him to pursue. Although open to the idea — once he finished his first overseas deployment as an enlisted grunt — he told me that the realities of Marine life made schooling almost impossible. 

Training schedules were unpredictable, so attending classes at a community college was impractical. He would start a course and then miss class for several weeks while in the field.  When he returned, he’d be behind or have to drop the course and start over at another time. Even the most accommodating schools aren’t structured to handle the start-stop-restart schedules that govern military life. Taking classes online wasn’t much easier. In fact, the quality and availability of his internet access while on base — or  if deployed aboard a Navy amphibious ship — made those programs almost as inaccessible. Most importantly, there was little command influence, from officers or senior NCOs, that even hinted higher education was a priority.

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That isn’t surprising, given the conclusions of a study on Navy-Marine Corps education commissioned by Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modley. The task force composed of retired admirals, generals and ambassadors was surprisingly candid in describing what needed to be done differently for future generations of military officers to be prepared to meet near-peer (Chinese and Russian) challenges. Higher education needed to be valued and rewarded; promotions needed to be pegged to real (and appropriate) academic participation.

The main problem, the study candidly concluded, is that an officer’s career path is not helped by taking time “off” from operational postings to attend graduate school. Very simply, promotion boards need to be told that spending a year at the Naval War College, the Naval Postgraduate School, Marine Corps University or some other elite civilian graduate school should be a plus-factor in considering a candidate’s potential for promotion. Otherwise, too few hard-charging officers will take that route. There is little incentive to “check the box.”

Although it is clear from the “Education for Seapower” report that the Navy is serious about wanting better-educated officers, there is one major fault with the study: There are but a few paragraphs about enlisted education. Yet, enlisted sailors comprise 82 percent of the Navy and, in the Marine Corps, the percentage of the force that is enlisted is even higher — about 90 percent

So, while it is not surprising that the under secretary’s task force focused on officer education, it is a bit disheartening and shortsighted. Grand strategies and many tactical innovations undoubtedly will come from senior officers. (At a recent Jamestown Foundation breakfast, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spaulding said he finds it inconceivable that any senior officer should be allowed to put on a flag officer’s stars without a solid grounding in international economics.)

But just as many tactical insights and technological innovations and adaptations will come from the enlisted ranks — the deck-plate sailors and grunt Marines who are the proverbial “tip of the spear.” They need first-rate educational opportunities every bit as much as those in command.

Recently at a conference, I talked with Sgt. Maj. Ronald Green, the highest-ranking enlisted person in the Marine Corps. We talked a bit about my son’s experience so far, and my frustration about his not taking any college courses. He said: “You tell your son that the sergeant major, not his old man, says he should finish his degree while he is in the Corps, not wait until he gets out. Tell him I got my bachelor’s, my first master’s, and am working on my second master’s degree. Tell him to make it a priority.”

So I did. Let’s see if the message filters down — from both the sergeant major and the under secretary’s task force — to those who can really benefit from a focus on trigonometry, rather than tattoos. 

Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP, and a former member of the Board of Directors of the United States Naval Institute.