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