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A Chronicle of an Army Personnel Fixer

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They’ve often claimed that Economics is the dreariest science, but for men in uniform you’d have to go some to match the drudgery of pouring over miles and miles of pages and pages of personnel files and the rules and regs that define them.

In the Army of the 60s-and 70s, before reorganization, it was called G-1, then DCSPER (Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel) and that was where they kept the records of every trooper. His 201-file, which he carried when he changed stations, and was flagged (frozen) if he got in trouble was kept there.

I usually got involved if a file was flagged, for I was the first person a troop would come see.

In an ordinary command, there would not be very many flags in a given week. The rest of the time it was drudgery, sort of like having to read the maintenance manual of a Ford pick-up…every day…or worse, listening to Barry Manilow on a never-ending loop.

What kind of person wants to do this job? Well, it seems the old Army knew that there were some out there who could open up a 201-file, or the limitless AR-635 regs, and it would be like reading the original sheet music of Beethoven. Or Chuck Berry.

The Army wanted at least one person in every personnel office like that.

When I was in Japan, I had a good friend, an MD. A few months before he was due to leave the Army he was accepted to Harvard Med School to study a specialty. But he had to report to the school a month before he was scheduled to leave Japan. He had made every early-out request he could through channels, and the personnel office always rejected it. “Regs”, they said. There was no provision that allowed them to do, although they were sympathetic to CPT Tseng. So I called our 3-star’s aide-de-camp, an LTC and another good friend, and Sam spoke to the General, who didn’t call the Chief of Personnel, but rather an E-7 in the G-1’s office, who was the command’s fixer. And in two weeks, Victor and Irene were winging their way to Boston, where he went onto become a nationally prominent limb-attachment surgeon.

The Army has ways to find these kinds of people, and even test to find them. I don’t know that the Army is that smart anymore, but remember SGM-(Ret) Frederic Barnett, who I introduced here as one of the witnesses to the firing of the Atomic Cannon in Nevada in 1953.

Fred Barnet would have done the same thing as that E-7 in G1. He believed that personnel regs were to be considered as guidance, not laws. If a soldier’s request was not specifically prohibited, then make your decision in favor of the soldiers  The only exception was requests for compassionate reaassignement. There the reg is boss. Fred says, more than once, it broke his heart to have to tell the soldier “no can do.”

 

As an E-3 Fred was tested and selected along with two others, an E-5 and E-6, to attend a special personnel management course. And the rest is history. He knew Diana Ross when he heard her.

A few years later, in 1963, while JFK was president, all we had in South Vietnam were advisers working with ARVN units, with a support staff, the MAAG Mission, in Saigon. Most were Army captains. Fred was a Spec-5 clerk there. The Vietnam War would not officially begin until after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August, 1964.

A problem came across Fred’s desk about the handling of OER’s of advisors in the field.

In SGM Barnett’s words:

“In 1963 research conducted by me and presented to Department of Army convinced DA to amend Commissioned Officer Evaluation Report (OER) requirements.

“At the time an OER was required on the following occasions if there were 60 days since the officer’s last OER:

  1. Upon Change of Duty 2. Upon change of Rater. 3. Once annually based on pay grade.

“DA was hung up on 60 days” calendar, duty, and ‘other days’, ‘other days’ meaning travel and vacation. If duty days exceeded 60 days, a written evaluation was to be done my the Rater (his boss), but if “other days” reduced that period below 60 days, only an Admin Report was required, requiring no written evaluation.

“In 1961 and 1962, DA almost doubled the number of officers assigned to ARVN units, and those officers’ closing date was Jan 31.

“So, then, an officer who was assigned to Vietnam in Nov, after 30 days leave, travel and in processing, would not receive that important written evaluation, as he would have had 47 duty days, and 41 “other days”.

Why all this mattered:

“Because these officers were carrying new categories, “counter-insurgency” and their missions classified, which were very important for promotion and additional schooling, and the assignment there relatively short, (one year) they were missing an important rating period without a written evaluation.”

(Don’t yawn, this stuff mattered to thousands of officers who’d come into the Army after that time, to do short-tours in SE Asia.)

This compelled Spec5 Barnett to suggest under the signature of BG Timmes, Chief of the Army section in MAAG Vietnam, who was away at the time, but who approved, so Spec5 Barnett signed the general’s name and forwarded it to DA.

This issue became something of a big deal at DA, because those “counter-insurgents-advisors” had begun getting killed, including 1st Lt William Frew Train, III, who was killed while with the 5th ARVN DIV. His name is in the first row of names on The Wall, the seventh advisor to die in Vietnam.

His father was Lt General William Frew Train II, then CG of the 4th Infantry Division. and it mattered that those who came home safe would have their records reflect the nature of their service.

When Spec5 Barnett came home, he got another stripe, and spent the next 20-plus years fixing things.

 

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About the Author:

Vietnam era Army JAG, Asia, 17-yr Cold Warrior in Soviet-China Bloc green zone, Been shot at and hit, but in crime, not war; twice-broken nose for lying (same fellow) hence good law school candidate; Could have been Somebody in Corporate world and politics, but at every crossroad chose to be a man with a tawdry past instead. Gave up law and am now a redeemed American.
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