Army Combat arms branches lack diversity

Petrice McKey-Reese
WIESBADEN, Germany -- Chief Warrant Officer 4 Petrice McKey-Reese salutes during her retirement ceremony held here, Dec. 17. Her retirement ceremony marked the final page in her 30-year career as a parachute rigger, 21 of those years as a warrant officer and the only African American female to ever be designated a rigger warrant. Photo Credit: Sgt. Daniel Cole, U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (April 3, 2015) — Officer combat arms and operational branches do not reflect the diversity of the larger Army, Maj. Thomas Williams told Gen. David C. Perkins.

Perkins, who serves as commander of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, met with and heard the opinions of 84 majors here, during Colloquium 2015, March 30.

More needs to be done at the ROTC and high school level to promote diversity in those branches, Williams said. He suggested having captains, not lieutenants, handle ROTC recruiting.

“The captains have more branch experience and they fully understand what the branches are and the roles officers have in them,” Williams said. He said that more experienced captains can more effectively convey that information. “We also want to allocate ROTC scholarships to cadets who agree to be branched in operations upon graduation.”

Maj. Jennifer Venghaus argued that top leadership positions, including general officers, are picked predominately from Soldiers with combat arms experience.

Venghaus said that the general officer population is significantly less diverse than the rest of the Army. Among all Army officers, about 28 percent are minorities. Among general officers, only 16 percent are minorities. Among female Army officers, only 17 percent are minorities. While among female general officers, only six percent are minorities.

While combat arms opportunities are now opening to women, it will take 16 years before the first female infantry or armor officer moves through the ranks to become eligible for general officer, she said.

Venghaus said part of the problem is that the Army dips too heavily into combat arms to select its top leaders. For instance, the director of the Army staff and the G-1 are traditionally allotted to those with combat arms experience.

“Any general officer should be able to fill most general officer positions,” she said. That is why the word “general” is used in the title general officer. They are expected to be generalists, able to move fluidly among top positions because they have the general knowledge and expertise required to do so.

Perkins said he heard their concerns loud and clear. He said diversity is a topic the Army is wrestling with and taking seriously.

Perkins then peeled back the onion to try to get at the root cause of the diversity issue. He said there is an algorithm that goes into the “order of merit list” that is used for placing cadets into branches upon getting their lieutenant bars pinned on. Tweaking the algorithm could affect different outcomes, he said.

The algorithm does not just select for diversity. It also takes into account such things as cadets’ majors and percentages of branch placement based on other factors, he said.

Perkins said he had a discussion with ROTC cadets about the order of merit list, or OML. Those cadets, about 300 of them, were on Fort Leavenworth for a different event. Perkins said that of those cadets, had said they got their first choice of branch assignment and loved the OML. Others, he said, had not gotten their first choice, and so they did not think much of it.

“Should we or should we not have an OML,” he asked the majors.

This sparked a debate with most saying yes and a few no.

Of the latter group, one major said to throw the OML out and use psychometric testing in “assessing attributes we want in leaders and what they’re good at. Bring them in with more scrutiny.”

Most said OML was good because the algorithm took into account cadets’ preferences, although not everyone got what he or she wanted. And, although it was not a perfect system, it was the best out there.

The pro-OML group thought that rather than do away with OML, it could be tweaked to get more desirable results.

Perkins said the pros and cons of OML come up all the time. The chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a big proponent of it, Perkins said, because most officers selected through the system have a civil engineering certification and that is something desirable in that branch.

On the other hand, Perkins said, the Cyber Center of Excellence chief on Fort Gordon, Georgia, told him recently that it is not necessarily computer science officers he needs. Rather, it is good leaders. “We’ll teach them what they need to know. I just want good leaders,” Perkins said, recounting what the cyber chief had said. He said he found that insight “very interesting.”

The discussion then pivoted back to why combat arms is lacking in diversity.

Williams thought cadets were making branch preference decisions based on peer influence as well as limited information. If none of their buddies are going combat arms, neither would they.

Maj. Carper McMillan provided his personal thoughts on the topic after the briefing. Career counselors often entice young minority men and women to come into the Army for job and skills training. A job in logistics could equate more easily with a civilian job than, say, infantry, he said.

Another factor is institutional, Williams told Perkins. Some minorities actually do go combat arms, and they love it, he said. Then they get detailed out.

“We have one minority in our group who was branch detailed, forced to leave artillery and branched to adjutant general,” Venghaus said.

Getting detailed out of a branch is a concern for everyone, not just minorities, Perkins said.

“It’s a life-changing decision that the Army takes too lightly,” Williams said.

Perkins said it is possible to remain in one’s branch. But it might take some fancy footwork, including working the chain of command, to get it done.

The topic then swung back to general officers.

Perkins said to make brigadier general, the only ones eligible to do so are colonels. If the pool of colonels is not diverse, then the group selected for one-star will not be diverse. The same concept applies for other ranks. The Army is actually doing a good job at minority selection, Perkins said, the problem is the pool of applicants it has is not as diverse as it should be.

The reason for the lack of diversity in the selection pool is two-fold. The numbers of minorities are not being assessed in the right mixture of branches and the retention rate for minorities is lower.

“The Army is the victim of its own success,” he said, saying that minority officers often leave the military for the private sector.

“We’re competing against corporate America. They want squared-away people, who are self-motivated,” he said. “We give them leadership and technical skills and that makes their marketability very, very high because they’re very, very qualified.”

“We do want the Army as diverse as our nation,” Perkins said. “If we get the input [to the pool of applicants] right, the output will be right.”


Colloquium is similar to the recently-held chief of staff of the Army’s captain’s “Solarium,” in that seven topics of high importance to the Army were discussed in a candid forum. Majors were encouraged to provide their thoughts, even if it went against current Army thinking or doctrine.

Colloquium was conducted by the Center for Army Leadership on behalf of the Combined Arms Center and was the first-ever colloquium for majors. All 84 majors were students enrolled in the Command and General Staff College or the School of Advanced Military Studies.

(This article is part in a series of Colloquium 2015 topics.)

By David Vergun


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