Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler said more specialties will be designated overstrength as the service continues to cut the force by tens of thousands of soldiers. (Sgt. Daniel Luksan / Army)
- Filed Under
Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler has less than six months left on the job, but he’s still pushing hard on several key soldier issues.
In a wide-ranging interview Aug. 1 with Army Times, Chandler discussed what’s new, what’s changing and what’s in the works. He even tackled some hot-button topics of late (sleeve-rolling) as well as the search for his successor.
Shrinking the force
The ongoing drawdown affects everyone in uniform, Chandler said.
“I think some folks, up until this last year, kind of had their heads in the sand, saying, ‘Hey, I am not going to be affected by this,’ ” he said. “This affects every single person that is in the Army.”
So far this fiscal year, about 44,600 soldiers have left the Army through normal attrition, but about 13,200 have been separated for not meeting Army standards. This could be for misconduct or unsatisfactory performance. The goal is to drop to 490,000 by the end of fiscal 2015 and drop to 450,000, or as low as 420,00 if sequestration returns in 2016.
Within the noncommissioned officer corps, involuntary separation boards have resulted in the release or early retirement of 160 staff-sergeants and above in 2012 and 506 in 2013 because they were assigned to military occupational specialties that are projected to become overstrength as the Army gets smaller.
The same culling process, called the Qualitative Service Program, is being used again this year in conjunction with senior NCO promotion boards and is expected to result in involuntary separation or early retirement of 880 soldiers.
Chandler said it’s likely that more specialties will become designated as overstrength and subject to QSP cuts.
“As we continue to reduce the size of the force, we will actually grow the number of people that are specifically in the QSP categories because we have got to meet a minimum level of manning each year,” Chandler said. “When you make force structure changes because you have a smaller Army, there are going to be MOSs that we need less of. That is just reality.”
One unknown remains sequestration, Chandler said. This would require not only a bigger cut of the active force, but also the Army National Guard and Reserve.
There’s still a chance the Army will offer voluntary separations for soldiers, but that will only occur if they cannot cut the force fast enough. It seems unlikely they will be needed, Chandler said.
The Army has completed its review of its hairstyle policies included in Army Regulation 670-1, the service’s grooming and appearance standards, and some changes to the hairstyle section appear likely, Chandler said.
The review was directed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, after a controversy erupted over the Army’s new rules on female hairstyles. A number of black female soldiers spoke out, saying the reg used discriminatory language and essentially outlawed their natural hair. The soldiers received support from the Congressional Black Caucus, who petitioned Hagel. The SECDEF then directed all services to review their hairstyle rules to ensure they are fair and appropriate.
“Our portion of the review has been forwarded to the Secretary of Defense,” Chandler said, referring further queries to the Defense Department.
Chandler added that the Army intends to make some changes.
“Some folks felt the language that we had was offensive, and it was recommended we change the language to use different words and phrases, which is what we did,” he said.
The Black Caucus, in their letter, criticized the Army for using words such as “matted” and “unkempt” to describe a woman’s natural hairstyle.
When asked if certain banned hairstyles may soon be allowed, Chandler said: “I’m not ready to go there yet. All I know is that the Army’s recommendation has been forwarded, and it will be consolidated with the rest.”
The latest revision to AR 670-1, published March 31, bans most twists, dreadlocks and large cornrows — styles predominantly worn by black women.
All services have reported back to the SECDEF and the final review is expected soon, said Navy Lt. Cdr. Nate Christensen, a DoD spokesman.
Tough tattoo rules
Unrest within Army Cyber Command over the service’s tougher tattoo rules has led some soldiers to wonder if the Army might reverse course and relax some of them.
Chandler said changes are not under consideration at this time — but he’s not totally ruling it out.
At Cyber Command, which aims to quickly add many skilled soldiers to its ranks, there has been debate over whether to waive tattoo and other appearance requirements as it recruits them. There was also concern the rules would make it difficult for enlisted soldiers with ink to make warrant officer.
According to the rules, soldiers are prohibited from having tattoos on their head, face, neck, wrists, hands and fingers. Soldiers may have no more than four visible tattoos below the elbow or below the knee, and these tattoos must be smaller than the size of the wearer’s hand.
Soldiers who were compliant with previous policies were grandfathered in under these rules, but have to get a waiver in order to go warrant or be an officer.
If there is clearly a problem with recruiting soldiers for cyber because of the tattoo policy, Chandler said leaders would keep an open mind.
“Sometimes you have a strategy, and if it does not work, you have to figure out why the strategy does not work,” he said. “You know, one of them could be tattoos, and I am sure that we would take a hard look at what that would mean, or if there is another way to try and achieve the goal of recruiting folks into a new MOS.”
That being said, he cautioned that making exceptions for one job would be a “very slippery slope.”
The Army is making “huge progress” processing soldiers in the Integrated Disability Evaluation System, with up to 7,000 soldiers set to be separated from the force in the coming months, Chandler said.
“We made some great headway on this,” he said. “It is good for soldiers. I can completely sympathize if you’re waiting around for a bureaucratic process. If I was in their shoes, I would not be happy about it, either.”
The system, known as IDES, was first launched in 2007. It combined the separate Defense Department and Veterans Affairs systems into one and was intended to make the evaluation process simpler and quicker for wounded, ill or injured troops leaving the service. Instead, the program was sluggish and was failing to meet its goals for processing times and inventory management.
Cases were taking more than 14 months, on average, to get through the system, far above the goal of 295 days for active-duty troops and 305 days for reservists.
Last year, the Army was having the most trouble of all the services, with cases taking an average of 437 days. DoD and the VA got together and launched a multi-year effort to fix the backlog, and “our collaboration with them has helped us to move forward,” Chandler said.
These efforts mean the Army expects a “surge of separations from IDES in September,” according to information from Chandler’s office.
At the end of June, there were 13,400 active-duty soldiers in IDES. Of those, about 4,000 were in the transition phase and about 3,000 were in the disposition phase. Soldiers in these phases — there are five phases in the IDES process — typically are able to separate within four months.
The Army also has been able to cut the number of days it’s taking for the medical evaluation board phase of the IDES. As of July, 90 percent of all MEB phase cases were completed on time, compared with 82 percent in January and just 35 percent in September 2012.
The Army expects to meet the 295-day IDES goal by December.
It seems highly unlikely soldiers will get a chance to roll the sleeves of their Army Combat Uniform.
“I do not believe there is any reason to change,” he said. “I do not believe rolling sleeves up are appropriate. The uniform was never designed to have sleeves rolled up and that was really because you train as you fight, OK?”
Sleeves must be worn down and buttoned, “for your personal safety,” to protect against sunburn and flashovers, in the event of a fire or explosion, Chandler said.
In response to an Army Times article about soldiers wanting to roll sleeves, Chandler had little sympathy for troops at hot and humid Fort Polk, Louisiana.
“I was stationed at Fort Polk,” he said. “I know how it is in Fort Polk. And I also know that you adapt to your environment, OK?”
His sympathy instead lay with muscular soldiers.
“[For] the guys that have the big arms, it is extremely painful,” he said.
The next SMA
Chandler said his successor will be sworn in on Jan. 30.
That ceremony will mark the end of an almost 34-year Army career for Chandler. He will officially retire Aug. 1, 2015.
The search for the next SMA begins with the Army’s top officer.
“The chief of staff of the Army, through the Army G-1, asks three- and four-star generals in the Army if they would like to nominate their sergeant major to compete,” Chandler said. “
A board consisting of three- and four-star generals then convenes to look at the list of nominees. Chandler will serve as a non-voting member of that board.
The board submits finalists to the Army chief of staff, who then conducts his own interviews before making a decision.
When asked what type of senior enlisted soldier the Army needs, Chandler was blunt.
“It is not my decision,” he said. “I am not there to tell him what to do. All I am there to do, whenever that selection is made, is to help them to transition into this job, which is unlike any other for an enlisted person in the Army.”
After retirement, Chandler said he and his wife, Jeanne, plan to hit the road in their travel trailer and spend a couple months visiting family and seeing parts of the country they haven’t had a chance to visit.
“And I will start looking around at that time and have a couple of suits with me if I need to do some interviews,” he said.