Best Defense

To bridge the gap between the military and society, try this grass roots approach

Best Defense contributor asks what can be done to close the civ-mil gap.


By Lieutenant Colonel Chris Heatherly, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

What can be done to close the civ-mil gap? A return to the draft is a non-starter, politically and militarily. Lamenting the gap does nothing to solve the problem itself.

I think we should take a “grass roots” approach to the problem. During the Global War on Terror, military units adopted the strategic corporal concept, under which leadership is developed and empowered at the lowest level using a concept first espoused by USMC General Charles Krulak in 1999. In his piece titled “The Strategic Corporal” Leadership in the Three Block War,” General Krulak wrote future wars, including counterinsurgency, will require the military to remove the zero defect mindset and tendency for micromanagement, instead affording Marines, at every level, the opportunity to succeed.

I recommend the military adopt the same approach on the home front, namely empowering every soldier as an ambassador charged to routinely engage with their civilian counterparts on a local level.

How might a grass roots approach to civ-mil relations work? In the summer of 2014, I was assigned to Washington State University as the Army ROTC Professor of Military Science. The university is located in Pullman, a vibrant, small town of nearly 32,000 located in rural eastern Washington. There is no resident military unit or installation. The Army’s presence in the community is limited to a small recruiting station and the university’s longstanding ROTC program.

Shortly after arriving in Washington, I made it a priority to better ROTC integrate with the larger university and city. My first step was to work with the cadre team to develop a mission statement and plan to guide the program to commissioning success, but broader in scope to include what I believed to be an equally compelling task, namely developing a positive civilian-military relationship at the local level.

Our initial attempts to expand our civ-mil connections started small, often by simply introducing ourselves to WSU faculty and staff. Frequently, our civilian colleagues were surprised to have ROTC cadre introduce themselves, visit their offices or ask, “How may ROTC help?” The English Department’s administrative assistant once shared with me that I was the only soldier to introduce myself in her time at WSU. We invited faculty to lecture in military science classes and often guest taught in other departments.

I contacted my university supervisor to volunteer for any committee or board available. In short order, I found myself invited to serve on the WSU Student Conduct Appeals Board. I later volunteered to serve on the newly formed WSU Student Sexual Misconduct Board. My assistant professor of military science, Captain John Busuego, also joined both boards and represented ROTC at the Combined Community Response Team, a campus wide form that meets regularly to prevent violence at WSU. More recently, I was invited to join Pullman’s Historic Preservation Board.

Other initiatives followed. We expanded the invitation list to our annual Dining Out and Awards Dinner as well as the twice a year commissioning services. Recognizing that SHARP and EO education were priorities for the Army and ROTC, we developed key partnerships with the WSU Office of Equal Opportunity, Green Dot program, campus police and Alternatives to Violence on the Palouse. For the first time, ROTC sponsored a table at the yearly WSU Multicultural Dinner. In April, ROTC hosted our first ever Stomp Out Sexual Assault 5k run with assistance and participation from our WSU partners. We invited campus newspaper reporters to attend training events as embedded journalists and developed advertisements for regional radio stations. In addition to generating recruiting leads, I knew radio ads would inform listeners about the positive actions of WSU Army ROTC and hence the Army.

In short order, our cadets began to mirror our example in their own duties. Early in the spring semester, the cadets requested permission to host an ROTC event during the annual WSU Mom’s Day Weekend. The cadets’ primary reason for holding the event, which required several days of planning and a weekend to execute, was to share ROTC cadet life with their parents. An additional benefit, however, was the bonds built between our ROTC program and the cadets’ families. We anticipated that 20-30 moms would attend, but nearly 60 guests showed up. For most, this was their first visit to WSU Army ROTC headquarters. Many of them expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to experience a different aspect of ROTC.

I take heart reflecting on a story shared by one of my senior cadets, Cadet Steven Rosa, a student, ROTC cadet and Washington Army National Guard soldier whose unit recently completed a lengthy convoy exercise. During a scheduled movement halt at public rest stop, several naturally curious kids approached the soldiers. Cadet Rosa told me the first thing that came to mind was how this could be the first, and potentially only, interaction the youngsters might have with the military. He also recognized the importance of professional actions by military members in the public eye. Rather than ignore the kids or turn them away, Cadet Rosa’s men and women greeted the kids, showed them their equipment and even purchased snacks for them from the gas station. As Cadet Rosa shared his story, I immediately thought of the iconic image of the WWII American GI sharing candy with the liberated children of Europe or the Pacific. Cadet Rosa is proof the strategic corporal concept works to build bridges between civilians and the military.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army. Lieutenant Colonel Heatherly is an active duty US Army officer with deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali and Nigeria. He holds masters degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the Command and General Staff College, School of Advanced Military Studies.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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