The Sound Bite Heard in the Halls of Congress

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.

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Gen. Dennis Reimer, The Chief of Staff of the Army in 1998, collaborated with Maj. Gen. Edmund Zysk, commander  of  the 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized) on an Active Duty-National Guard Reserve Concept Paper: One team, One Fight, One future." Following Zysk's public revelations that the  California National  Guard's 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized) was unprepared for its state mission  due  to  below par  operational funding, Reimer  met with Zysk to find ways to improve Army  systems, stretch funding, and upgrade  Army-wide readiness.
Gen. Dennis Reimer, The Chief of Staff of the Army in 1998, collaborated with Maj. Gen. Edmund Zysk, commander of the 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized) on an Active Duty-National Guard Reserve Concept Paper: One team, One Fight, One future.” Following Zysk’s public revelations that the California National Guard’s 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized) was unprepared for its state mission due to below par operational funding, Reimer met with Zysk to find ways to improve Army systems, stretch funding, and upgrade Army-wide readiness.
Maj. Gen. Edmund Zysk risked a second star, or promotion to Major General (two star general) by going public with his soldiers' concerns of being unable to perform their state emergency mission if DoD funding continued to decline.  Soldiers at the time recognized him as a "Soldier's General." California National Guard, 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Public Affairs Photo.
Maj. Gen. Edmund Zysk risked a second star, or promotion to Major General (two star general) by going public with his soldiers’ concerns of being unable to perform their state emergency mission if DoD funding continued to decline. Soldiers at the time recognized him as a “Soldier’s General.” California National Guard, 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Public Affairs Photo.

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The 1997 Active Duty-National Guard Fight

Maj. Gen. Edmund Zysk listed to his troops. He was the  first California National Guard  General in recent history to actually  direct his public affairs officer to survey his  troops  to understand  what they were saying in lieu of using Surveys to  arguably refute  what his forces were saying.  In 1999, Zysk directed his  public  affairs  officer to conduct a survey of more than 8,000 person  40th Infantry  Division (mechanized), using the  results  to establish a commercially funded newspaper. The National Guard Association of California used after 9-11 to lobby the State Legislature for the  current state tuition assistance program for  National Guardsmen.
Maj. Gen. Edmund Zysk had the reputation f hearing  what his troops were saying.

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.”

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“They will vote with the heels of their boots”–BG Edmund Zysk

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Zysk was  cognizant of  the potential ridicule from  National  Guard  peers and possible

Brig. Gen. (Retired) James P. Combs, was Maj. Gen. Edmund Zysk's Chief  of Staff in 1998. Zysk  publically  praised Combs on a frequent  basis.  Zysk designated Combs  to  brief the Los Angeles  Times in 1998  on the  overview of the  40th Infantry Division (Mechanized) readiness issues. Combs presented an informative,  pithy, and  sometimes "theatrical" brief that set the stage for the Times post  brief questions. It's at this time when Zysk  delivered a succinct, but truthful,  summary of what  his  soldiers were saying to him: "They will vote  with the heels of their booth."
Brig. Gen. (Retired) James P. Combs, was Maj. Gen. Edmund Zysk’s Chief of Staff in 1998. Zysk publically praised Combs on a frequent basis. Zysk designated Combs to brief the Los Angeles Times in 1998 on the overview of the 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized) readiness issues. Combs presented an informative, pithy, and sometimes “theatrical” brief that set Zysk up  for the sound bite heard in the Halls of Congress: “They will vote with the heels of their boots.”

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

 General (Retired) Dennis Reimer is also currently serving as the Chairman of the Board for VirtualAgility, Inc. (VA), a software development firm that provides browser-based environments that support interoperation among disparate groups and organizations. VA systems resolve several of the most urgent challenges currently facing emergency, disaster and business continuity planners. He is currently the President of Army Emergency Relief.
General (Retired) Dennis Reimer is also currently serving as the Chairman of the Board for VirtualAgility, Inc. (VA), a software development firm that provides browser-based environments that support interoperation among disparate groups and organizations. VA systems resolve several of the most urgent challenges currently facing emergency, disaster and business continuity planners. He is currently the President of Army Emergency Relief.

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.

Maj. Gen. Edmund  Zysk’s and Gen.  Dennis Reimer’s choice to command a National Guard brigade in peacetime in Los Angeles, California was Maj. Gen. (Ret) Mark Graham.  Maj. Gen.  Graham served as Commander, 40th Infantry Division Artillery, California Army National Guard, from August 1998-July 2000. Graham and his wife, Carol, are advocates for suicide prevention in order to diminish the public stigma associated with behavioral health.
Maj. Gen. Edmund Zysk’s and Gen. Dennis Reimer’s choice to command a National Guard brigade in peacetime in Los Angeles, California was Maj. Gen. (Ret) Mark Graham. Maj. Gen. Graham served as Commander, 40th Infantry Division Artillery, California Army National Guard, from August 1998-July 2000. Graham and his wife, Carol, are advocates for suicide prevention in order to diminish the public stigma associated with behavioral health.

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.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, left, Army Gen. Frank J. Grass, middle, chief of the National Guard Bureau, and Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley, commanding general of the Army Reserve Command, testify on the Army's force mix before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C., April 8, 2014.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, left, Army Gen. Frank J. Grass, middle, chief of the National Guard Bureau, and Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley, commanding general of the Army Reserve Command, testify on the Army’s force mix before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C., April 8, 2014.

NDAA Priorities

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.

 

 

 

 

6 comments

  1. I was in the 40th for seven years, Enlisted hard to make rank, Had drills without pay no points. Poor or no leadership most of the Officers did not show up or care (other that flights).
    Units that are deployed, have no idea what they do, no real training
    U.S. should shut down all guard units, One country one leader one service.

    Like

    1. Sorry for your bad experience. I know subsequent 40th ID Commanders did not follow Zysk’s example–following back into a paradigm of fighting with the Army.

      Like

  2. This is a well presented paper showing how the Active Army and the National Guard (NG) found a balance between supporting the active ccomponent missions and at the same time maintained the NG state mission capabilities. While this place was developed many years ago, the U.S. Military has come full circle with a reduction in force. The youth challenge findings should come from other sources and the NG budgets should stay at their funding level to support the federal and state missions.

    Like

  3. A motivating discussion is worth comment. I do think that you ought to publish
    more on this issue, it may not be a taboo subject but usually people do
    not speak about these issues. To the next! All the best!!

    Like

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