July 1, 2007  

The Geezer Brigade

Wartime needs and military retirees

In these years of relentless stress on our understrength Army and Marine Corps, one pool of talent foolishly goes unexploited: military retirees, the “Geezer Brigade,” those of us who have career-long experience and retain the patriotic will to serve.

This isn’t about mobilizations from the Individual Ready Reserve or involuntary recalls of any kind, all of which constitute an unjust and selective draft from those who’ve already contributed their share. On the contrary, a your-country-needs-you appeal to capable retirees to return to an innovative category of uniformed service would capitalize on the willing.

It’s a contemporary cliché that “60 is the new 40” in terms of fitness, lifestyle and longevity. Although this may be something of an exaggeration intended to make baby boomers feel good about themselves (as if we aren’t sufficiently self-satisfied), there’s enough truth to the sound bite to merit a reconsideration of military personnel policies. At present, the personnel system’s mandatory retirement age and term-of-service limits assume that physical health still matches profiles from the 1940s, when some of the earliest casualties of World War II were over-age officers who went down with heart attacks — while others simply proved unfit to lead.

Times have changed. The chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking generations of officers have given way to fitness buffs wary of cholesterol. In purely physical terms — and physical fitness reflects mental readiness — today’s officers on the edge of retirement, as well as those who’ve already taken off their uniforms, are put out to pasture while they still have plenty of races left in them. At a time when we expect active-duty officers to serve ever-lengthening, successive tours of duty in combat zones, we’re ignoring a chance to give them at least some slight relief.

Consider a few practical examples of how we waste expertise: Foreign Area Officers, no matter how successful, are forced out just when the foreign peers beside whom they studied and served are becoming chiefs of staff or defense ministers (or presidents) in their home governments. Officers who’ve mastered the arcane details of acquisition and program management are given no choice but to flip over to the dark side and use their knowledge to benefit the defense industry, rather than the troops or the taxpayers. And there’s many a military intelligence colonel, lieutenant colonel or master sergeant at the mandatory retirement point who could help pull the overloaded coach in Iraq or Afghanistan. Combat-arms officers who are years beyond the current punch-out point could help us in countless wartime jobs.

Reinventing the way in which we regard retired or about-to-retire officers and senior NCOs could provide us with one means to relieve the pressures on staffs in war zones or on the training base. (I do not envision re-greened retirees in command positions, but only in supporting roles that ease the commander’s burden.) At present, skilled soldiers and Marines are lost to the system once their date of birth or years of service dictate. The manner in which we shrug off retirees as professionally dead and buried makes the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina look like a model of efficient management.

Easy to say. But how might a new system of voluntary military service for retirees and end-of-career officers and senior NCOs actually look?


As stated above, we would rely on volunteers, not on the double-jeopardy mistreatment of members of the IRR who have lost their taste for uniformed service or who cannot leave their new lives without making ruinous sacrifices. The goal is to attract those who retain the will and the ability to serve — a 21st-century version of FDR’s “dollar-a-year” men (although we’d have to pay them a bit more than that).

Step one: a new rank. Offer these officers and senior noncommissioned officers a chance to wear the uniform again. That’s the crucial bargaining chip. I cannot adequately stress my conviction that many who wouldn’t dream of doing defense-related work for a private corporation would welcome a chance to resume the dignity of uniformed service — at a fraction of the salary offered by “the suits.” At the same time, we don’t want to clog the system with aging officers who block the progress of those still on the rise: We need an innovative approach to a rank structure that hasn’t really changed since the 18th century.

At present, we assume that any officers brought back to active duty must be reinstated in their old rank (or in a higher rank, at the discretion of the president). Who says? What we need, rather, is a new sidecar rank specifically for retirees who volunteer for a year’s reactivation and for those officers and senior NCOs who elect — and deserve — to remain on duty beyond the present mandatory retirement limits. We may choose a different term, but, for now, let’s just call the new rank “auxiliary officer,” or (inevitably) the “ox.”

Congress would have to approve both the new 21st-century rank and the necessary funding. It seems reasonable to assume we could easily gain Capitol Hill’s backing for a $50 million pilot program (less than the cost of a single defense-conglomerate CEO’s retirement package) as long as we didn’t mind seeing it saddled with an earmark for a $500 million pogo-stick research facility to be located in, say, Johnstown, Pa.

The only way to make such a system work would be to create a single new rank to stand apart from the current promotion ladder. Whether the retired or about-to-retire volunteer was a master sergeant or a lieutenant colonel, a sergeant major or a major general, his ox rank would be identical to all others. Every ox would wear the standard duty uniform and the badge of his special rank but would be available for a wide range of responsibilities and missions — at the commander’s discretion and in accordance with unit needs.

Ox service should be in voluntary increments of one year, because those who have built successful civilian careers can be asked to serve no longer — although those who wish to continue to serve might remain in uniform if their performance merits it.

Ox officers would work on staffs or in specialized positions and take their orders from officers who hold the rank of lieutenant colonel or above, although their work might be managed by qualified majors or captains. They would not command, except in emergencies when no regular officers at the rank of captain or higher were present. Out of respect for their previous ranks, they would be required to salute only colonels and above, or lieutenant colonels in command positions, and would receive salutes from all other soldiers. And yes, that means that former senior NCOs would get the same treatment and returned-to-service rank as retired generals (knowing retirees of every eligible rank, I don’t think it would be a problem, because most retirees get over the active-service rank differentiations quickly — and those who don’t wouldn’t volunteer, anyway).

Why mention so minor a point as who salutes who so early in this proposal or make ox officers salute at all? Actually, it’s critical. You have to make these volunteers feel like soldiers and Marines again, to make it clear that they’re full-fledged members of the Corps or Army team. The pride and dignity of a return to military service would appeal to such men and women far more than money could, and the surest way to kill the program would be to treat those who’ve built (often remarkably) successful careers on the outside as Christmas help in Baghdad or Kabul.

Unlike those who sign up with private contractors, ox officers would be fully subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But it’s safe to assume they would create fewer disciplinary problems than any other class of service member (“OK, men — empty your pockets and dump your Viagra in the amnesty box.”). They would have to meet appropriate fitness standards and would have to look like soldiers. And we would need to be certain that personal health concerns would not cost the system more than an individual’s contributions merited. But forget age as the decisive indicator: Today, a 65-year-old who maintains pride in his person might be healthier and more energetic than a 45-year-old who stacked arms the day he took off his combat boots.

Speaking of costs: Just as there should be only one rank for all volunteers, pay should be identical for all. Maximum-rate O-5 pay is probably right, although O-6 pay would still give the nation an incredible bargain. And, recognizing that retirees who entered other service professions upon retirement from the military won’t have accumulated the same levels of wealth as those who went into the business world, don’t touch the retired pay they receive. This would still be one of the best deals the taxpayer would ever get. Except for a few weeks of in-processing and cram-course updates on new systems at use in their branch, there would be no training overhead. After just a month in the field, ox officers would be full contributors to the units in which they served.

Nor do I think we’d see many know-it-alls (“Back in my day, we used to …”); on the contrary, the sort of retired soldier or Marine who would volunteer would be humble in the face of today’s professionalism and, if anything, would go to excessive lengths to avoid the “And there I was …” syndrome. If anything, ox officers, with their long and varied experiences in and out of uniform, would be more likely to provide emotional ballast during periods of crisis (and given that they have no prospect of further promotion, they’d be inclined to tell the truth to the chain of command).

And if any ox officers fail to measure up, for any reason, out they go. A review at the six-month mark would determine whether their good intentions just weren’t enough to imbue their service with practical value.

Oh, and you wouldn’t have to force them into war zones. They’d volunteer — although, unlike more expensive contractors, they could be ordered to execute any required mission. There’s simply no one so useful in a combat zone as a real soldier or Marine who has taken his oath.

Again, I may be naïve. But I believe that if the country called such men and women, we would find that there are thousands of them and they would answer the call, at least at the rate of several hundred a year. Consider how useful even a few hundred experienced veterans might be, were they deployed to augment staffs and support units in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some active-duty officers or senior NCOs might get to spend a full 12 months at home with their families — and those who didn’t might at least get a little sleep.

We have so many skilled retirees going to waste in wartime — men and women with sophisticated skills in logistics, intelligence, planning, administration and security — that it only makes sense to ask them whether they’d be willing to give one more piece of their lives to our country’s military, to spend one more year away from their families in a time of national need. Some won’t answer, while others will find that, for personal reasons, they can’t answer. But we are foolish not to issue the call and find out.


Essential to making this work would be to give ox officers meaningful work and to involve them in serious missions. We don’t need retired colonels to make coffee or sergeant majors to sit around answering the phone. To borrow half of a term from our old enemies: “From each, according to his abilities.” If foolish staff principals regarded such men and women simply as duty bodies, the program would fall apart. They must be given appropriate levels of responsibility (not authority — responsibility). Put bluntly, they would need to be challenged, not treated as some well-meaning old coots. You can’t expect men or women to leave jobs in the private sector in which they’re making six-figure incomes and going home to the good life every night to sit on their butts in Baghdad drinking Gatorade and counting the days.

How could we make sure the program proved both worthwhile and efficient? First, don’t just assign these volunteers blindly or as individual replacements (with some exceptions — there are always exceptions). Form them into groups, from squad size to platoon size, destined for specific units. We all know that team spirit matters, that ineffable sense of belonging. Time their activation to coincide with scheduled unit deployments (most would serve at division level or higher, although some could be deployed down to brigade if their overall fitness and skill levels were suitable).

And don’t just ship them off to Unit X. Ask the deploying units if they actually want such augmentation and how they would use their oxen. Ask the unit what it believes it needs and make certain that the commander values this no-cost support (most commanders would view such an augmentation as a godsend). Then the unit should welcome them in as full members of the family — no matter how busy he might be, a wise CG would personally hand each re-greened retiree his unit patch. (In Baghdad last year, I was impressed by the way Col. Tom Vail, then commanding the 506th Brigade Combat Team, made all attached and supporting personnel feel that they were full-fledged Currahees — the heightened morale was worth an extra battalion.)

On a practical level, these teams of now-active retirees would be dispersed throughout the gaining unit’s staff and subordinate commands, and the ox officers would need a go-to guy or gal at the unit headquarters to oversee their utilization. So, acknowledging human vanity, anoint the officer who held the highest active-duty rank as the unit’s “Master Auxiliary Officer” (the “Big Ox,” but with no difference in pay). The highest-ranking NCO (or a volunteer from among the oxen) would serve as the team’s administrator (probably the toughest job of all, given the nature of our military’s bureaucracy).

I can’t believe that any commander in the field would turn down the opportunity to gain an additional 40 or 60 or 100 skilled and screened retirees that he could allocate across his corps or division or training effort to reduce the burdens his Marines and soldiers bear. And the importance of deploying most of these volunteers to war zones cannot be overstated: If you wish to persuade them to volunteer, such men and women would need to know they would contribute to the war effort in a direct and meaningful way that justified their personal sacrifices; paradoxically, promising them that they would not be deployed outside of the U.S. would be a disincentive for the very best retired officers.

Of course, such a program wouldn’t solve all of our personnel shortages or the system’s many woes — but it could help our troops, who deserve all the support they can get. Shouldn’t we at least try it? Even if such a program failed, the cost would be a tiny fraction of what we waste daily on hiring staff mercenaries from contractors.

Patriotism is alive and well among military retirees — although the system’s done its best to kill it.

Enlisting new soldiers or Marines for a single year would be an utter waste. But one additional year of service from still-qualified retirees could make a genuine contribution to our war effort. You don’t get just a year of service, but the skills and, yes, wisdom accumulated in 20 or 30 years of wearing the uniform. Imagine if a conscientious retiree, rather than an equal-opportunity hire, had been in charge of the Abu Ghraib facility in its fateful period.

For their part, the Army and Marine Corps would need to keep the program streamlined and efficient (and, for the love of Christ, Moses and Mohammed, don’t hire a contractor to manage it — which would be an insult to the entire concept). And we also would have to be willing to admit it, in four or five years, if the program turned out to be a bust. The entire effort would have to be cost-efficient and could not be allowed to become an employment option of last resort for retirees who regarded it as a glorified welfare ticket: The point would not be to serve retirees who need jobs — on the contrary, we need successful men and women, the sort who made things happen in uniform and continued to make things happen after they retired.

Far more details would need to be hammered out. But there is no practical reason why such a program could not be designed swiftly and inaugurated with sufficient speed to take at least a bit of the burden off our troops. Retirees aren’t going to win these conflicts for us. But given the chance to do their parts, they could help in fields ranging from staff planning and intelligence analysis, through automation management, to serving as impartial investigating officers, gathering lessons learned or representing the commander as a liaison with host-nation elements. The best retirees would rise to the missions assigned to them — and wouldn’t complain if those missions fell short of the prestige they enjoyed in their previous service.

Many of us would welcome the opportunity to serve our country in such a capacity. But the current system tells us that we’re worthless.

I would pose only one caveat: If the heraldry folks design a gray-on-gray Geezer Brigade patch with crossed crutches over a wheelchair, we ain’t coming.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of the forthcoming book “Wars of Blood and Faith: The Conflicts That Will Shape the 21st Century.”