Friday, February 5, 2016

Demystifying Military Ranks: A Primer for PR Pros

I was a war bride, married to an Army sergeant in 2001, and the only word to describe the first year of my former marriage was chaotic. My then-husband was at the scene of the WTC three days after the Towers fell and shortly after that, deployed to Afghanistan.

So I was thrust headlong into a military culture along with the rest of Fort Bragg, NC. I had to learn very quickly about the rank and file as I navigated how to get information about my spouse's welfare in the war against the Taliban.

I tell you this so you'll understand that I fully sympathize (and empathize), if you are  intimidated by representing a military outfit or service person to the media. Today, I am a freelance journalist for three military magazines, and the terminology, acronyms and the military's way of doing things are like breathing for me.

But it wasn't always that way.

In fact, I can remember one instance when I had to call my then-husband's unit one day when he was in Bagram. A gruff voice picked up the phone and shouted into my ear, "Hello-Sir-or-Ma'am-First-Sergeant-Smith-249th-Engineer-Battalion-Fort-Bragg-How-Can-I-Help-You!" The words tumbled from his mouth like the staccato machine gun blast.

I took a breath, "Hello Sergeant. This is Sergeant Rafferty's wife."


I paused. "No, I don't think you understand. He's not the first sergeant on duty today. He's in Afghanistan."

He groaned. Then he said again, "FIRST SERGEANT! I AM A FIRST SERGEANT!"

"Oh! I see, I'm sorry, you're the first sergeant there today, thank you. OK, Sergeant, I am looking for information for my --"

He interrupted again, "NO! I AM A FIRST SERGEANT!"

Now I was really confused, because I honestly had no idea why this person was yelling at me and how I could stop him from yelling at me, I just wanted to find out if he had word about my husband's whereabouts.

"Thank you," I continued, ignoring the loud angry breathing in the earpiece. I told him what I wanted to know, he gave me the information, and then as I hung up, I said, "You have been so helpful, Sergeant. Thank you."

I heard a growl, a loud click, and the line went dead.

This week, the memory of that happy conversation came tumbling back after I put out a query on Profnet, seeking military officers to interview for an upcoming feature story.

I became very exasperated (and sent out a snarky tweet, I admit it), when one PR person after another replied to the query with, "I have a great Sergeant!" or, "I have an Airman First Class!" or, "I have a Chief Petty Officer!" or, "I have a Green Beret!"

"Didn't these people read my query specs??? I said, 'Officer!'" I huffed to myself.

Then I started getting phone calls, and everyone was saying the same thing:

" I have a wonderful non-commissioned officer. Does a non-commissioned officer count as an officer?"

Suddenly the light dawned. Bless their hearts, they were as ignorant as I had been back in 2001.

So here is a little primer, for the uninitiated to the military, about how to understand the ranking system, and it won't take long for me to break this down for you. I'm focusing this blog entry primarily on Army ranks, because I'm most familiar with them and also because I write for a publication for the Army National Guard.

But bear with me while I walk you through this:


The military members (and this pertains to all branches) are divided into two tiers: Enlisted and Officers.

The enlisted people sign up for duty, or, "enlist." These are your lower ranks. Everyone in an enlisted rank reports to an officer.

To be an officer, you either have to complete ROTC in college or graduate from a military academy with a bachelor's degree. There is a second way to become an officer, too. An enlisted person can enter an officers' training school and earn the rank -- or become a "commissioned officer."


Most people get very confused about the term, "non-commissioned officer," or NCO.

Basically, these are the higher-enlisted ranks. Think of them in civilian terms as an employee that oversees a team of employees. They report to a manager in the management ranks. Does that make sense? So in the military world, you'd have an NCO over a team on a mission, and he or she would report to a lieutenant or a captain (a junior officer).

If you look at charts of military ranks, you will see these ranks divided by "E" and "O" (Enlisted and Officer) ... and you will also see numbers, from 1 to 9.

Everyone who is numbers 1-4 is of the lower rank, reporting to leaders. So E-1 to E-4, across all the branches, reports to non-commissioned officers, which are E-5 to E-9.

If you flip over to the Officer side, O-1 to O-4 are your junior officers, reporting to the officers that make the top decisions and are the top ranks -- O-5 to O-9. (We also have an O-10, but I'll explain that one later.)

The best way to sort this out is to take a look at one of my pins on Pinterest. You will see all of the branches listed. Each rank corresponds to the number. For example, an E-5 in the Army is a Sergeant, or the lowest of the non-commissioned officer ranks. An E-1 in the Army is a Private, the lowest of the ranks. An O-1 in the Army is a lieutenant, the lowest of the officer ranks, and an O-9 in the Army is a Five-Star General.

Are you confused yet? Don't worry ... It takes time. Just take a look at this Pinterest board, and take a deep breath:


Now I'm really going to throw a monkey wrench into this, because we also have "Chief Warrant Officers." I still get confused about these guys, to be honest, because they are a category all by themselves.

The best way to explain it is to quote the U.S. Army's definition:

"Warrant Officers are the technical experts in the Army. They have specific technical or tactical specialties (e.g., helicopter pilots), and manage and maintain many of the Army’s combat systems, vehicles and networks. Once they reach the rank of Chief Warrant Officer Two (CW2), the President of the United States gives them the same status as a Commissioned Officer."


Here's a little trick to remember the differences between General that my ex-husband taught me, and it's this.

Ready? You'll love it. It's so easy:


That's all you have to remember.

Now let's break this down:

B = Brigadier General (O-7)

M = Major General (O-8)

L= Lieutenant General (O-9)

G= General (O-10)

And then you have a "General of the Army," which is a Five-Star General. Think of Eisenhower. Top of the heap, and by the time you hit that rank, your next step is probably the White House.

I hope I didn't mangle these ranks too badly for you.

Don't feel intimidated by the military ranks. It takes a long time to understand them, but if you keep these basic guidelines in mind, you'll be able to weather any conversation with a journalist who covers the Pentagon.

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