All who serve know an old, crusty sergeant, perhaps a bit salty and edgy, but who has a toughness and wisdom. These senior NCOs seem to have been in the service forever and have a wealth of experience in deployments, support of civil authorities, and training. The sad fact is that more and more of these heroes are retiring, leaving a huge knowledge gap. For those who would learn from the former generation, you’d better ask your questions while you can. Within a decade, there will be few left who remember how it used to be.
When I joined the service more than three decades ago, there were still a handful of Korean War veterans who could speak of their experiences, but it was mostly the Vietnam vets that raised me and showed me the ropes. The last of these retired not long after my 2012 deployment. They not only remembered the war; they also spoke about civil disturbances and race. They remembered when units first integrated and the real struggles they went through. Then there were the Cold War veterans, who remembered training in Korea, deploying to Europe, and preparing for nuclear conflict. Later, it was the Desert Storm veterans, who remembered the last great alliance defeating Iraq in less than a month after spending six months living in the desert while missiles rained down on them. Looking back on these men, I recall conversations with them about their experiences that have direct relevance to today, whether about riots, nuclear conflict, chemical threats, or a new Cold War. Their wisdom about how to train for and operate under these threats were formative for me.
For the new generation, the old NCOs are the ones who remember the beginning of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. They talk about their experiences with the surging patriotism after 9-11, about preparing for the first deployments in a generation, about counterinsurgency operations, and about the harsh climate of the Middle East. They may remember supporting civil authorities after Hurricane Katrina or the Tornadoes of 2011, providing police services for local communities, and helping to hand out food and water or clear debris. A handful may remember how it was before 9-11. They may reflect on the stable world order and the decline of the military and how reservists in particular had to ramp up their readiness rapidly. A few of us still remember the end of the Cold War and a divided world suddenly released from the grip of totalitarianism. These learned unique skills, fighting on the move, owning the night, tracking multiple moving parts, and establishing operating bases with heavily protected and camouflaged structures. While the wars of the future may have little in common with those in the desert, there are elements that transcend all operations. Those who are just entering the service can learn a lot from the older generation.
The sad fact is that the younger generation will eventually run out of time. The exodus is already beginning. Those who joined immediately after 9-11 have now passed their twenty-year mark, which is the date when most service members begin to retire. Already, many of the people I knew when we first deployed to the Middle East have retired. Large groups stepped down from lifelong positions or received medical discharges over the past year, worn out from decades of service. I expect the turnover to continue. As always, the struggle is how to prevent knowledge loss when this happens. Of course, the military has its doctrine and manuals to guide people, but there are things that can only be taught through example, such as patriotism, an attitude of service, dedication to the mission, treating others professionally, or being a leader. Likewise, manuals are no replacement for experience in running an operations center, how to counsel personnel, running a convoy, or personal safety. When those who have combat experience are gone, there will be far fewer people with this kind of experience to fill the ranks. Those who wish to learn from their experience and preserve their knowledge for the future only have a short time to do so.
In other words, people should be asking that old sergeant questions while they can. In a short time, the older generation will be gone, and it will be the new generation that young service members turn to for answers on how to lead personnel, train for operations, and be mission focused. We should learn from the experiences of the older generation while we still have time.
© 2022 J.D. Manders