Best Defense

Hey Tom, I read all your columns about the military bleeding talent, but I didn’t realize you were talking about me!

I've followed your columns on why the military is bleeding talent. Then the Navy O-4 list just came out (72 percent promotion rate), and I wasn't on it.



By Lt. Danny Kuriluk, U.S. Navy
Best Defense guest columnist

I’ve followed your columns on why the military is bleeding talent.  Then the Navy O-4 list just came out (72 percent promotion rate), and I wasn’t on it.

However, I recognized a lot of names one there. One guy, among others who have no business leading anybody in uniform, got a DUI in flight school! Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of folks on there who deserved it, but it really feels like that’s due to the old axiom, even a broken clock is right twice a day. The one thing that really confuses me is that the Navy spent over $300,000 (tuition plus salary) to send me to Harvard for two years to get a master’s degree and become a Naval strategist. Upon completing the very competitive Pol-Mil program (I was the only officer, O-3 to O-5, selected out of over 100 applicants for the two-year fellowship) they tell me I won’t be competitive to screen for department head, and am not going to make O-4.

Now, after spending that money, in about a year, they will be paying me severance to leave the Navy.  It’s even more frustrating that they cut the two-year program, instead of trying to fix the system to allow for the highly educated strategists they deem necessary.

In the Army and Air Force, they have at least developed mechanisms to identify, promote, and retain folks who take an unconventional path, and it may not be perfect, but at least they are trying. In the Navy, your actual leadership capabilities are meaningless. It’s amazing how bad the Navy is at selecting good leaders. Personally, while at HKS, I was selected to be a representative at the Harvard Graduate Student Leadership Institute (about a 10 percent selection rate), and was selected to captain the HBS rugby team. In those instances, my peers selected me to lead, and in the case of HBS, peers that will probably go on to become foreign leaders and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. The Navy has no method to allow peers to identify or even influence the people that they see as standouts. I’m not ready to stop serving, but I’m going to go where I have an opportunity to advance based on my merits, rather then based on strict timelines and what billet I take. I would say, of the dozens of people that I would have gladly worked for, and followed to the ends of the earth, only about 10 percent have decided to stay in. What’s left are the handful of rock stars who will take the odds at promotion boards, and the mediocre officers who stay in because they have no options on the outside.

Just my two cents, but I figured you wouldn’t mind another example of how the military is still trying to figure out how to fit square pegs into round holes.

Lt. Danny “Hurricane” Kuriluk has served as a P-3 instructor pilot and mission commander over the course of three deployments spread across six continents. He recently finished his stint as the Navy’s two-year Politico-Military Masters Fellow at Harvard’’ Kennedy School of Government, and works at the Pentagon in the Navy’s Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment.

Image credit: Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, New York Public Library

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 @tomricks1

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