That there should be a connection between unit morale and combat effectiveness seems perfectly obvious. Why, then, do we treat our mobilizing soldiers so poorly?

That there should be a connection between unit morale and combat effectiveness seems perfectly obvious. Why, then, do we treat our mobilizing soldiers so poorly? I am in the midst of preparing for my third overseas mobilization. Each has been with a different high-performing Army National Guard unit. Each has been through a different Stateside mobilization station. But all these experiences have had a few things in common; none of them good.

The accepted standards of how the Army cares for its soldiers appear to be systematically disregarded during mobilization. I have been in the service for fourteen years.  All of that time may have been as a reservist in the National Guard, but through basic combat training, all my Army service schools, annual training periods, drill periods, deployments, and other periods of service I have stayed in upwards of fifty different barracks buildings around the country. Do you know what all of them have in common, in addition to the sleeping areas, showers, and toilets? A day room – a place where soldiers can sit and read a book, write a letter, or watch TV. Even as a recruit in basic training we had chairs in the oversized laundry room where the privates could congregate. All, that is, except at the barracks at the mobilization stations (or, officially, Mobilization Force Generation Stations, or MFGIs) that serve as First Army’s collection and remedial training point for reserve component units before they ship overseas. Somehow at Fort Dix in 2007, at Camp Shelby in 2012, and here at North Fort Hood in 2018, the day room, this almost universal feature of Army billeting throughout the United States, seems to have been curiously omitted from the building plans.

The absence of such a simple thing is not important. Having a day room in the barracks is not a human right, and nobody joins the Army for its creature comforts. Yet it is significant because of what it represents, more broadly, about the way the Army sees itself as an organization, and what it values in the people who constitute it. In the Army there is a standard for everything except, it seems, when dealing with reservists. Then there is another standard.

Soldiers are moved away from the part of the country in which they live, are forbidden from leaving the mobilization station, and housed in remote areas without transportation links to basic services and amenities that are available to the full-time soldiers who live nearby. It is as though we are still treating every US soldier like a seventeen-year-old conscript who will desert his or her unit at the earliest opportunity, when we know this not to be the case. Soldiers who have volunteered to fight and die for the nation are treated like criminal flight risks.

My unit is made up of hundreds of soldiers, all volunteers, all wanting to go forward and do great things for America, all grown men and women, and many of whom have served for years. During mobilization, none have the means to leave the post for a coffee or to Walmart for supplies without permission and special transportation arrangements being made. Due to the limited number of vehicles and the need for special permission to leave the post, the rare opportunities that do arise tend to disproportionately become available to soldiers of higher rank.

Recent Army efforts … appear focused on capacity and throughput, without any apparent consideration of the philosophy underlying facility construction or the effect of the current system on morale.

At mobilization stations, there is practically nothing. Most regular amenities of an Army post are absent where I am now. Indeed, the MFGI at “North” Fort Hood is in a different county from Fort Hood itself, and no shuttle bus or other regular transport is provided by the installation. Those conveniences that are provided are only available in some grotesquely minimal level designed to serve the Army’s needs, not the soldiers’.  So, in addition from being prohibited from leaving post, even the amenities available on a different part of the same post are also effectively forbidden to mobilizing soldiers. In 2007, the garrison commander at Fort Dix specifically prohibited mobilizing Guardsman from purchasing items at the post exchange’s Cinnabon.  At my current location, soldiers are required to have cut hair and to take showers, so there is one small barbershop (today’s wait time, over 90 minutes) and a small “shopette” where mobilizing soldiers may purchase soap and other essentials. The post exchange? A coffee shop? A military clothing and sales store? All absent.

The Army does not owe me these things, but they are available to soldiers on practically every post, because this is the Army standard… except at an MFGI. My unit and I are confined to a place—and we will be here for weeks if not months – and that place falls way below the standard – not my standard, the Army standard.

The Army seems unprepared to take even the smallest risk to improve soldier morale. At some point during our Long War in the Middle East, it became part of Army culture and doctrine that alcohol consumption was forbidden to deploying soldiers. At the time, some explanation about not offending our regional partners was trotted out and we all learned to accept that. Now we parrot a requirement that soldiers be personally ready at all times, as if the opportunity to fight the enemy might suddenly materialize here in rural Texas. Alcohol consumption, at least in some countries in the Arab world, is strictly forbidden. For some reason the Army has chosen to extend this ban to mobilization stations. In the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne says, “I think a man workin’ outdoors feels more like a man if he can have a bottle of suds.” Amid the rigors of being separated from friends and family, and hours of long work, many soldiers would benefit from Andy’s wisdom, enjoying a nice cold one with their buddies at the end of the day. Restricting alcohol consumption during mobilization makes sense. Banning it outright does not.  

Like all who have commanded Army units, I understand the perils of hard-charging, American soldiers and uncontrolled drinking. But years of experience in the Army has also given me, and every other leader, an understanding of how basic human social activities can be conducted safely. The Army knows how to have unit social events, how to limit alcohol consumption to reasonable levels, how to ensure that younger soldiers are supervised by their chain of command and drink responsibly. Yet there is no community club at most mobilization stations (Camp Shelby was the exception), and alcohol consumption is completely forbidden even in the event mobilizing soldiers should be allowed to leave the post. Frankly, I am surprised that the soldiers are still allowed to smoke, chew, and dip.

Here at the Fort Hood mobilization center, there is a small “morale welfare and recreation” center, where soldiers can have access to the internet, play video games, and watch television. There is an equally small USO location where certain essentials and a kind word are also available. There is a chapel. There is a small gym and a running track. The quality and quantity of the food has been good. These facilities are designed in line with what one might expect at a good, minimum security prison facility. But that is not the point.

According to a 2015 document from the National Commission on the Future of the Army, only 2 MFGIs are currently in operation, down from twenty-two at the height of the Long War. A recent War college paper summarized some recent work on the Army’s ability to make more “warm” MFGI’s active as well as standing up certain mothballed “cold” sites.

It is, of course, possible that there is well thought-out and relevant rationale for the lower standards at the MFGIs. Perhaps a psychological study exists that suggests, based on the Army’s many years of experience in mobilizing ground combat units, that separating soldiers from the creature comforts of the world, isolating their freedom of movement, and subjecting them to relatively austere conditions in garrison is necessary to allow the psychological transformation of the soldier – perhaps especially the reservist – from productive and autonomous civilian into a disciplined and effective part of a lethal killing machine. If such research exists, please share it. In the absence of such findings, my own experience suggests that the Army’s current approach has exactly the opposite effect: it kills morale. Recent Army efforts to examine MFGIs appear focused on capacity and throughput, without any apparent consideration of the philosophy underlying facility construction or the effect of the current system on morale. It is, in all likelihood, just about the money, on the one hand, and, on the other, a risk-averse culture that takes an extraordinarily narrow view of mission accomplishment, without accounting for the combat multiplier that high morale and unit cohesion bring to the fight.

There is a standard – an Army standard. But not here. Why?

 

 

Garri Hendell is a major in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and strategic planner with the 28th Infantry Division. He is also a former branch chief in the Army National Guard G-1. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

Photo: Soldiers and airmen from the Arizona National Guard assemble in a mass formation during the Arizona National Guard Muster in 2014. 

Photo Credit: U.S. Army National Guard Photo by Staff Sgt. Brian A. Barbour

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  • Jim Glenn

    The writers observations are not new. These questions have been asked before. If the policy (which is First Army’s) is still in effect then the questions should emanate to the CDR, 1st Army. Right or wrong, every policy we have in effect with respect to mobilization has a past, present and future story and in some cases a story that can best be categorized as a hard lesson learned. As a retired Army officer who has worked in this domain for awhile now, I empathize with respect to unit morale and the potential hypocrisy when compared to the Active Component Soldiers road to war. If FORSCOM, 1st Army and IMCOM are reading this, perhaps they can address the questions directly.

    • Tom McNew

      @ Jim Glenn & @ Garri Hendell –

      No the writer’s observations are not new…and not much above a well worded whine! The Reservists and Guardsmen who mobilize through North Fort Hood are coming here to mobilize….nothing more, nothing less. You’re not here to worry about coffee and internet. As a FG Officer, you SHOULD be worried about your unit getting the necessary last minute training that is required, so that your unit can do it’s mission down-range. There is a time and place for creature comforts – and during your mobilization period is not the time or the place.
      Your soldiers need to be concerned with getting the last of their shots and medical documents in place; focusing on qualifying “Expert” on their personal weapon; achieving high training standards during theater specific training tasks – individual and collective. They shouldn’t be worried about going to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks; or when they will get a chance to play video games.
      Maybe if FG leaders like yourself led by example, and was focused on the right things, your unit wouldn’t have to spend so many days here (or at any other MFGI). Then maybe the Army wouldn’t have to spend money on getting your unit ready and could spend money on some of the “nice things to have”.

      • Michael Krogh

        @ Tom McNew,

        Your comment strikes me as callous as it is hollow. You seem to give a false dichotomy. I am not sure that Soldiers are either treated poorly and are strong or are treated well and are weak. I think that Soldiers can both be treated well and be strong.

        E.g. when I mobilized before my deployment, our CG purchased with his own money personal internet hotspots because our barracks at Fort Bliss didn’t have them. Rather than this “creature comfort” making us effete and forcing us to focus on non-fundamentalia thus becoming less mission focused, we were refreshed that during our off time we had a connection to the world and, namely, our families. This in turn made us want to work harder for him because he had shown such kindness and trust in us.

        We were a cobbled-together unit, 60% cross-leveled, and within 6 weeks we were validated, and we deployed.

        Your answer is the simple approach, the uncritical one, and it seems masked in the ever-so-comfortable “mission first” mindset.

      • Blue

        Lighten up Francis.

      • Retired CSM

        Tom McNew – Did you completely forget where you came from? Instead of actually listening to what is a very valid (and obviously well known) point, you act callous and hollow (as Mr. Krogh states) and your comments smack right to the point of why we have issues with active vs reserve, not to mention the morale of those around you which you seem to fail to LISTEN to their concerns.

        You can’t relate because you don’t live the Reserve experience. You live the AD experience, which the OP is pointing out a huge difference. During your own pre-mob, you get to go home at night (and, presumably, consume alcohol at will), get to sample the various amenities of Fort Hood (try going up to North Fort once and shadow the troops for a day), and get to be relaxed and prepared instead of treated like some third-world detainee. That’s the point.

        As Blue mentions, lighten up.

  • Chris Mason

    The writer should have written about the awful training that was provided at MOB station. In many cases we became our own instructors or had to later correct the First Army instruction. To put it plainly it was a goat rope. The entire MOB process from home station to MOB station to country is painful and exhausting to say the least. For example, why do states have to rob Peter to pay Paul, 2 years before we MOB’ed we were handing over weapons to units headed out before us, why? I can never understand why the National Guard never gets the equipment issued by its own state we have to get it through an RFI at MOB station. We would be spend endless drills going over briefings and CTT tasks only to have to do them all over again at MOB, a complete waste of time and energy. One of the worst thing was the ever changing training plan that literally changed as we were loading trucks for that days training.
    Training that was of value was the latest enemy TTP’s and training on new equipment that was being deployed in theater. But, for the most part, most of the training received at MOB station was thrown out when we got on the ground and ripped with the units we were replacing. Most soldiers thought the training we got at MOB was just so the Army could check the box.

    • Timur N

      It is just to check the box. The purpose of these places is two fold: Admin and Training. Admin is Admin…gotta get your shots and fillings, and it’s got jack to do with discipline or anything else “Army”. The main training objective of these MOB station training plans SHOULD be to validate AMETLs that are not already part of the MTOE METL for the mobilizing units and transfer theater-specific knowledge and TTPs. The CTC rotation at the back end of MOB is to validate all these have been trained to standard. Instead, the MOB stations start at an absurdly basic warrior task level, instead of leading with AMETLs the units would not otherwise be familiar with. There should be MTOE METL training there…don’t get me wrong, but it should be unit not mob station led, with mob station providing coaching and observer controller and white cell support. And it should be the unit’s own COMMAND that sets discipline policies, not MOB station.

      I have experienced both rapid deployment and the RC idiocy at mob stations. My most enduring memory is the obscene amount of time I spent idle at these RC mob stations because our Commander’s (and my hands) were tied and we just waited for the gods on high to issue frago 5001 to the training schedule.

  • Harry

    Retired Reservist here. Yes, everything you write is true. Always has been, always will be. Here is my advice soldier – suck it up! You are more than half way to retirement. Keep your head down, your mouth shut, and your bowels open. You made it this far, you can tough it out and make it to retirement. Let me assure you, retirement is better than you can imagine. Your Retired ID card will not say Reserve on it! The monthly check is awesome. When you reach Medicare age, Tricare for Life covers all deductibles and co-pays. As a wise old retiree counseled me at mid-career, “Take 2 salt tablets and keep marching!”

    • Harry

      To fortify my position: For any deployment, the overriding objective is to maximize damage to the enemy, and to minimize our own losses. Survival and return home is the goal, whether it’s your first tour or your last tour. You will fight the way you train. Military retirement is the ultimate prize for lifers. Along the way, we do our best to maximize damage to the enemy, comfort the survivors of the men we lost, and mentor the next generation of men who are strong enough to defend our way of life. If you have a problem with that, don’t even bother telling me about it. For further insight, see Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3, or Joel 3:10.

  • Henry

    Larger issues not addressed: Way too often units do not mobilize as intact units. Hard to succeed when you meet half or more of your unit at MOB station. Other facets: AC often refer to inbound units as “just Reservists or just the NG.” Shots which should have been part of preMob (many take 30 days to 60 days for effectiveness) given within days of mob may check the box on some form, but misses the point. Who is entitled to combat pay sometimes applies to AC but not attached RC or NG units in the same situation. Payroll issues often cannot get solved by AC paymaster making commanders think even less to the RC/NG. in one situation in the Balkans, the AC in Europe could send anything as large as a refrigerator downfield whereas RC/NG had no allowance. When mission completed, RC/NG had to pay to have duffel bags sent home but AC leaving Europe could send new cars home. In two deployments all RC/NG awards were downgraded because “you are just reservists.” My answer: “Maybe, but when you called we came, and we will do it again, even if you do not understand why.”

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