- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Emerson Brooking
Best Defense guest columnist
Although the drawdown has left scars across every level of the armed services, it poses some of its biggest challenges for those at the start of the commissioning pipeline. Rapidly decreasing numbers of slots, a surplus of qualified candidates, and a universal lack of information have combined to make today’s application process deeply uncertain. Many strong applicants — shoo-ins just a few years ago — must now try repeatedly for a ticket to OCS, effectively putting their lives on hold. Many still will not make it. The situation raises tough questions without good answers.
I’ve watched this process unfold as both a Marine Corps applicant and an active observer to discussions surrounding defense budget reductions. Officer wannabes struggle to stay free of doubt as they put their spirits into commissioning programs that could abruptly cease to exist. Meanwhile, grim numbers thrown around by policymakers suggest that the situation will likely get worse before it gets better. While my experience is specific to the Marine Corps, I suspect the story is similar for folks on the Army side.
Anonymous forum boards like Marine Corps OCS provide a window into the mindset of today’s aspiring candidates. Amid standard topics like pull up techniques and essay tips can be found a growing number of discussion threads that reflect more fundamental concerns: Could my application ever make it? Will there even be slots available? At what point should I stop trying — and what could I possibly do instead?
When applicants’ final packets have been submitted for consideration, they often post their "stats": their school of graduation, their PFT, their GPA, number of waivers, and status of their recommenders. This is done both for the benefit of the community and for the aspiring candidate’s own peace of mind. It’s difficult to read these posts and not think immediately of sites like College Confidential, where stat-filled "chances" threads provide elite college applicants an opportunity to measure themselves against the competition. Between each of these worlds, the same earnest motivation bleeds through. So does the same numb despair when word of rejection arrives.
While the college analogy provides a good fit for today’s officer selection process, there’s a crucial difference. This is an admissions process in which even basic information like average scores and acceptance rates remain hidden from view, and where the number (and even existence) of some commissioning program slots can change overnight. Only the broad trend is clear: steeply rising standards and rapidly shrinking odds.
There are numbers of truly qualified candidates — exemplary leaders, fitness gods — who have now thrown themselves several times through the application cycle without success. In the interim, many effectively put their lives on pause, drifting from one job to the next while reserving the start of their real career for the Corps. With the defense budget continuing to deflate, they may never get a shot. It’s an open question what these "could-have-beens" will pursue in place of service. In any case, one suspects the really serious ones won’t talk about it much.
Emerson Brooking has worked as a journalist and is currently a DC-based defense researcher. He’s just signed up for his first marathon and would welcome training tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Graham to put hold on Hagel, Brennan noms; A mini drawdown from Afghanistan this spring; Dunford Afg. speech short and sweet; Russell Rumbaugh: time for a war tax; and a little more.Gordon Lubold
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.| Situation Report |
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at email@example.com.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C.| The Cable |