Bloggers Note: In 1996 Maj. Gen. Robert Brandt, commander of the California Army National Guard, gave Brig. Gen. Edmund Zysk a mandate to “Save the Division!” The nearly 8,000-person 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized) was at risk of losing manpower and equipment with Army restructuring. Zysk organized a dynamic staff to fulfil this mandate. My perspective arises from Zysk’s decision to volunteer me to be his public affairs officer not long after he assumed command. He tasked me with designing and managing the execution of his strategic communications plan.
The Army Components are again facing the downsizing challenge, in the form of 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) restrictions. History can provide guidance. In this post, I recount Zysk’s key message in his plan—candor– and how it:
- emerged as the cornerstone of the communications strategy;
- broke down communication barriers between the Active Component and the National Guard;
- exposed and fixed a dysfunctional bureaucratic paradigm;
- caused reform of Army policy, training practices, and reporting habits;
- relates to the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) paradigm; and
- reusing the message tactics when the Congress debates and amends the NDAA later this year.
The 1997 Active Duty-National Guard Fight
Maj. Gen. Edmund C. Zysk(deceased), 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized) and former Army Chief Gen. (Retired) Dennis J. Reimer, arguably drafted a blueprint that can guide the Army Active Component, Reserves, and National Guard in their quest for Congressional appropriations.
Similar to today’s budgetary challenges, the Department of Defense (DoD) was between the Soviet Union’s breakup and ramping up for missions in the Balkan states. Many Active Duty Army , National Guard (the only component under a state Governor’s Command), and Reserve component commands were perhaps fudging on their Unit Status Reports (USR), understanding that reporting anything less than “ready status” in any of the key USR reporting categories meant reduced operating budgets for the following fiscal year.
Candor was both Zysk’s strength and his Achilles’ Heel. He preferred that his officers manage their USRs, not manipulate the reports. His demand for honesty exposed systematic Army-wide flaws in logistics, spare part flow, and training. Flaws that Zysk understood were beyond his soldiers’ control, but tempting for commanders to hide in Unit Status Reports (USRs) for fear of the budget axe.
“How can I fix the Division if I can’t understand the root of the problem?” Zysk asked after a battalion commander chided a subordinate company commander for briefing his unit’s deficiencies at the 132nd Engineer Battalion in Sacramento, CA in 1997.
Zysk was a risk taker–a calculated risk taker. The general had a tendency to recruit staffs loaded with talent, rich in intellect, and gifted with varied perspectives that often clashed in spirited discussion during staff meetings, but produced bold, aggressive, “outside the box thinking” plans. The 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized) Strategic Communications Plan, for which I was responsible, fit his personality. The plan set the stage for the sound bite that was heard in the halls of Congress and initiated a relationship between Zysk and four-star general Dennis J. Reimer climaxing with their co-authoring “One Team, One Fight, One Future.”
The Sound Bite
It was during the execution of one of the tactics in Division’s strategic communications plan–an editorial board with the Los Angeles Times–when Zysk would say, “They will vote with the heels of their boots.” Zysk said this in the context of explaining that the Division’s operating budget had declined to levels so low that soldiers were, in essence, subsidizing training shortfalls with their own money or equipment. A burden, he believed, his troops could not sustain indefinitely.”
“They will vote with the heels of their boots”–BG Edmund Zysk
Zysk was cognizant of the potential ridicule from National Guard peers and possible
reprimand by NGB for breaking ranks with the party line. His guts to gamble his command and promotion to a second star played a pivotal role in permitting “unescorted” media visits to armories. The public heard what his soldiers were saying, and his soldiers could speak free of command intimidation. Zysk confidently permitted unescorted visits because he was in tune with his troops down to the lowest rank–A practice with which the current California National Guard Command (and other commands) are understandably reluctant to implement.
When members of Congress read the ensuing LA Times story in 1998, they were enraged. The public reacted with a conflagration of media and public inquiries that overwhelmed the California National Guard headquarters’ public affairs office in Sacramento. Media were requesting interviews with Zysk. Higher Commands were demanding his head. The general felt the pressure and at one point called me from his office at Los Alamitos musing whether his career was over.
“Stan'” Zysk said, “I believe I have to accept the cost of this risk.” Zysk then explained that Army peers, from all command levels, were emailing notes labeling him “a maverick,” a “rebel, “and” a loose cannon.”
“Sir,” I said, “you’re hearing from internal audiences. We’re talking to the press and public who are calling you a soldier’s soldier, a general who tells it like it is, a general with guts. Give it a couple of more days and the public’s mood will overtake the internal attitudes.”
Zysk trusted us, but I’m unsure whether we reassured him or ourselves at the time. As I handed the phone to Staff Sgt. Gerome Sims, a public affairs assistant, I jokingly said, “Well, there goes my career.”
Breaking Communication Barriers
It wasn’t even a week later when I found myself on a flight to NGB Headquarters near Washington D.C. with Zysk, his Chief of Staff–then Colonel, now Brig. Gen. (retired) James Combs, and key staff to explain the public outcry. Zysk later recounted his feelings about this meeting in a LA Times Interview following his retirement in 1999. Zysk told the newspaper that when, “he was summoned to National Guard headquarters in Washington, he expected to be berated for his candor.”
But it turned out that Zysk was the central figure at the higher headquarters meeting. Eight National Guard Division Commanding generals, the NGB Chief, adjutant generals and their staffs huddled inside a sound proof vault tackling the thesis: “How can we do what Ed Zysk did without losing credibility?
The National Guard found itself trapped in a bureaucratic paradigm that penalized commanders for their honesty on readiness reports; and rewarded those commanders with less than honest reporting. That the Active Component had been partially responsible for creating this paradigm to the extent that it was the principle component compiling the annual Department of Defense (DoD) Program Objective Memorandum (POM). Until National Guard Division funding requirements appeared in the POM, National Guard generals reasoned, they would doubt the Active Component’s sincerity to promote the National Guard’s readiness.
Many National Guard generals were skeptical of Reimer’s pending meeting with Zysk in California. Some recommended that he cancel or postpone the meeting. Others encouraged him to use the newly acquired communication tools as a weapon to publically pressure Reimer. Zysk listened without comment. When the meeting broke for lunch, Zysk gathered his personal staff for their feedback and analysis.
It was staff consensus that canceling or postponing the Reimer visit was not an option. It was obvious that Zysk had the credibility to speak to Reimer about the National Guard General’s anxieties about the POM. Harboring any hidden agendas from Reimer, the staff agreed, would prove fatal to the Division’s communication strategy. Zysk concurred and, following lunch, he proceeded to win his NGB peers’ confidence and support him as the lead for speaking with Reimer.
“It’s very unusual for a four-star [general] to ask to meet with a division commander, especially a National Guard commander,” Zysk said in a Los Angeles Times interview in 1999. “But he [Reimer] wanted to know about the funding shortage and equipment problems.”
March to the Total Army: One Team, One Fight, One Future
Reimer came to California, observed Division units field training at Camp Roberts and Ft Hunter-Liggett, and talked with 40th Infantry Division soldiers. Reimer’s conversations with Division troops revealed a number of concerns. Troops were concerned that the distribution of force structure among the components favored the Active Duty career officer and NCO advancement, but limited National Guard and Reserve career the advancement. Reimer learned of inequities in training and school policies for Guard and Reserve.
The four-star General engineered a more flexible force structure in which National Guard Officers could advance upward into Active Duty Command positions through “round-out brigades,” (Active Component Brigades that include National Guard battalions), and opened the door for active duty commanders to command National Guard Brigades during peace time. Then Colonel, now Maj. Gen. (retired) Mark Graham was Reimer’s and Zysk’s choice to command the 40th Infantry Division Artillery. Graham’s assignment dispelled myths that the part-time soldier was not as proficient, or as ready, as his full-time counterparts. He integrated, synchronized, and consolidated Division Artillery (DIVARTY) training timelines and drill assemblies with Active Duty counterparts at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. Most important–he broke the USR paradigm.
“Same standards, different time lines,” Graham once told me during an interview.
Reimer’s remedies eradicated inequities by clarifying Army regulations and policies. He removed administrative barriers that often sent Guardsmen home prematurely from Army residency schools while allowing active component troops to continue, provided they cleared those same administrative obstacles before graduating. He created a level training field in which Guardsmen and units no longer had to choose between attending either required schools or annual training within the same training. Reimer clarified policy so that Guardsmen could attend both schools and annual training in the same year–improving reserve component’s unit integrity, collective training readiness, and individual preparedness–translation: reliable USRs.
The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Paradigm
The sequestration spending caps in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), appear to have pushed the Army Components into organizational budgetary war not experienced since Zysk’s sound bite rocked the halls of Congress in 1998.
Despite the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Army, National Guard, and Reserve components will most likely need to sustain current force structure levels to accomplish their missions. While the Afghanistan drawdown signals the end of combat operations, U.S. military readiness will be needed so Russia, China, and other adversaries prefer diplomacy over aggression thus reducing the risk of war.
Russia’s recent annexation of the Ukraine, its testing of nuclear weapons, China’s flexing of military muscle in the Pacific, and both totalitarian governments’ growing influence in Africa will arguably require new change in the National Security Strategy (NSS). The Active component and Guard must plan for these missions not only for current soldiers, but the future soldiers. The NDAA arguably strips resources required for these missions.
The NDAA hobbles the military’s mission by partitioning monies for programs unrelated to NSS missions. Monies that DoD could use to equip, train, and man forces necessary to defend the nation. For example, the 2015 NDAA fences off $55 million for the National Guard Grizzly Youth Challenge and Starbase programs.
Although these programs are popular and have merit, argument can be made that these programs should more appropriately be delegated to another federal agency, and funding carved from that agency’s budget. DoD could use the $55 million to finance combat structure at the tip of the spear,” so to speak, decreasing vulnerability for those troops most at risk of facing enemy fire such as those depicted in the upcoming documentary, the Hornet’s Nest.
“We could have a larger [defense] budget if we had the courage to vote for it,” said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., member, House Armed Service Committee, according to National Guard magazine in its April edition.
Absent an unexpected show of Congressional courage, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Frank J Grass, Chief, National Guard Bureau, and Lt. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley, the Army Reserve Chief might consider taking a chapter from Reimer’s and Zysk’s book One Team, one Fight, one Future. The Reimer-Zysk formula supported the high-tempo peacekeeping deployments to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo while simultaneously using combat support and logistic structure to respond to the floods, fires, and disasters after 1998.
Odierno is on target when he argues the Active Component has to take some of the combat assets out of the Guard in order for the active-component side to carry out the national defense strategy (NDS). Most combat structure should be allocated to active component units at most risk of combat operations. The residents of Guerneville, CA had little need for an Army Apache Attack Helicopters or Infantry Fighting Vehicles (ITV) during the 1986 Northern California Floods. They were in more desperate need of the CH-47 and UH-60 cargo and utility helicopters to lift hundreds of stranded residents, their pets, and cherished personnel belongings when their city was being marooned by flooding waters.
During a budgetary fight, it is always important to keep lines, roles, and mandates clearly defined. Here, it might be productive to stress the need to avoid pubic perception of Active Component mission creep into Domestic Operations–a historical Guard mission–under the Dual Status Command (DSC). If the California’s and the civilian emergency planners in the 50 states and territories plan, train and are poised to execute the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) incident command system (ICS) as it’s designed–there will be no need for active duty units as part of a DSC in the next super catastrophe. Active Component involvement only distracts from NDS priorities and flirts with violating the Posse Comitatus Act.
The Army’s Active, National Guard, and Reserve components are facing a difficult challenge. The NDAA will unavoidably play a significant role in whether the challenge can me met. The emerging issue isn’t whether soldiers “will vote with the heels of their boots,” but whether an increasingly shrinking pool of volunteers–currently below one percent–will even volunteer if not properly equipped, paid, and trained. How many parents will encourage their offspring to serve in the military understanding their sons and daughters are ill-equipped or undermanned to face the Nation’s threats?
The DoD has little control over sequestration that restricts preparation of forces for NSS missions–Congress has the power to do as it will. Today’s generals, however, do have the option to:
work as a team;
agree to feasible force structure distribution mix among the components
flush out and revise antiquated regulations and policy;
streamline training processes; and
work with Congress to slice non-mission essential programs from the NDAA.
Reimer and Zysk did this, but then again, they were willing to assume the risk that comes with being soldiers’ generals, generals who tell it like it is, generals with guts to speak with candor, and candidly with each other.
Sometimes history provides guidance.