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Green Berets, Blackhawks, Purple Hearts
Elite Units of the U.S. Military
By How Stuff Works, Inc.
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 How Stuff Works, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The army is a main branch of the U.S. military. With more than one million Americans serving in the U.S. Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve, and a 2012 budget of more than $200 billion, it's one of the largest military organizations in the world.
The army's primary purpose is to protect the United States and its interests. This means that it fights in armed conflicts when the need arises, participates in peacekeeping and security duties, and maintains a state of readiness for war. While the army does have units that use aircraft and watercraft, its main responsibility is land-based combat.
Two main branches make up the army: the operational branch and the institutional branch. The operational branch conducts the more visible aspects of the army's job, which involve combat and peacekeeping. The institutional branch of the army is responsible for training and maintaining soldiers and equipment so the operational branch can do its job effectively.
Within the operational branch, there are two divisions:
The regular army, also known as the active army. Its units may be deployed around the world at any given moment. Roughly 70 percent of the army's troops are in the regular army.
Reserve components, which comprise the U.S. Army Reserve and the Army National Guard. Soldiers (the official term for anyone in the army) in the reserve typically train one weekend per month, with a two-week training period occurring once each year. These part-time soldiers may be called up to full-time whenever the army needs them. Some are divided into units made wholly from reserves, while other reserve soldiers fill out the ranks of regular army units.
Today's army is an all-volunteer force. While this generally results in high-quality soldiers (because they all actually want to be in the army), it can be difficult to get enough recruits to keep the army fully manned. In 2005, the army fell short of recruiting goals, but met its recruiting benchmarks in 2006. The United States has used conscription (mandatory military service, also known as "the draft") several times in the past. Drafts were used in the War of 1812 and by both Union and Confederate forces during the American Civil War. The draft was instituted again during both World Wars, and was used during the Cold War in the late 1940s and early 1950s (the only time a peacetime draft was used). The last draft occurred in 1973, during the war in Vietnam. Since 1980, the United States has used the Selective Service System to register all males when they reach age eighteen. This system is designed to make it easier for the government to find and enlist soldiers if a draft is reinstated. However, no one has been prosecuted for failing to register since the mid-1980s.
To supplement the active army with reserves, Congress generally needs to have declared an emergency or a war, which gives the president the authority to call up those troops held in the reserves for the length of the situation plus six months. The president can also call up reserves without congressional authority for a limited amount of time. In addition, the president can activate members of the National Guard. The length of time a National Guardsman can serve in active duty overseas has increased from six months to twenty-four months because of personnel shortages caused by the war in Iraq.
Like all military organizations, the U.S. Army follows a strict hierarchy. This establishes the chain of command through which virtually all Army orders and procedures flow. The president is the commander in chief of all U.S. armed forces. In wartime, he makes decisions based on recommendations from the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs of staff, a committee of high-ranking officials from each branch of the armed forces.
The U.S. military is also divided into nine Unified Combatant Commands (UCCs). UCCs include forces from the army as well as other military branches. Three of these commands are functional:
United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)
United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM)
United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM)
The remaining six commands are large geographic regions that encompass the entire globe. Each regional UCC is led by a general and manned by a numbered field army. For example, the UCC responsible for North America, the United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), is manned by the Fifth Army. The rest of the regional commands include:
United States Central Command (USCENTCOM)
United States European Command (USEUCOM)
United States Pacific Command (USPACOM)
United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM)
United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM)
Within each field army there are several corps; the corps themselves are made up of divisions. Formerly, the divisions were the "building blocks" of most army deployments. When troops were needed somewhere in the world, the army would send one or more divisions to do the job. However, a division is made up of more than ten thousand troops (including support personnel), and many situations faced by the modern army don't require that many soldiers.
As a result, the army is underwent a restructuring that increased the flexibility of troop deployments. The brigade became the basic "Unit of Action" for the army. Made up of about three thousand troops, each brigade serves a specific purpose and is completely autonomous, containing all the support and command personnel needed for the mission. Brigade types include infantry, artillery, airborne, and sustainment brigades, as well as Stryker brigades that use the Army's versatile Stryker eight-wheeled combat vehicles.
Within each brigade, troops are further broken down into smaller groups:
Battalion: at least three hundred and up to one thousand soldiers
Company: between sixty-two and 190 soldiers
Platoon: at least sixteen and up to forty-four soldiers
Squad: nine to ten soldiers
Fire team: four soldiers
In peacetime, army leadership is more political than military. It is headed by the secretary of the army, a civilian position beneath the secretary of defense. The U.S. Army chief of staff advises the secretary. High-level army leadership is made up of commissioned officers (COs), men and women who graduated from officer school and have been specially trained to be leaders. Warrant officers make up a middle class, in between commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers. Warrant officers often have more specialized roles than COs, and are afforded many of the same privileges of rank as COs. Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) are enlisted soldiers who have moved up through the ranks by virtue of their experience, demonstrated abilities, or simply time served in the army. Most units are led in the field by sergeants.
Signing Up and Training
If you want to join the army, you have a number of decisions to make. The first is whether to join the U.S. Army, the Army Reserve, or the National Guard. Within the regular army, a potential soldier can opt to become an enlisted soldier, a warrant officer, or a commissioned officer:
Enlisted Soldier: The bulk of all soldiers (roughly 84 percent) are enlisted, usually through a local recruiting office. United States citizens between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five years old with a high school diploma (or the equivalent) and good physical health and fitness are eligible for enlistment. They must also receive such as a minimum score of 31 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test.
Warrant Officer: Warrant officers need to demonstrate a certain degree of technical skill, indicated by a minimum score of 110 on the General Technical portion of the ASVAB. They must also be U.S. citizens between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three with high school diplomas. The physical screening for warrant officers is more rigorous than the screening for regular enlistment. Potential warrant officers must attend Warrant Officer Candidate School after completing basic training. Those who want to become helicopter pilots will attend Warrant Officer Flight Training in addition to Warrant Officer Candidate School.
Commissioned Officer: Commissioned officers are the top-ranking leaders in the army. There are several paths to becoming a commissioned officer. First, you can join the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). The ROTC is a set of leadership courses that are taken in conjunction with regular college courses. Graduation from the ROTC program earns the soldier the rank of second lieutenant. Students can also attend West Point, an elite military academy with stringent entrance requirements and a very rigorous training and learning program. Graduating from West Point is a prestigious honor.
Potential soldiers between the ages of nineteen and twenty-eight with college degrees can attend Officer Candidate School, an intense twelve-week training program at Fort Benning in Georgia. Officer Candidate School leads to service as an officer for a three-year minimum in the regular army or six years in the reserves. Civilians with professional degrees may be eligible for a commissioned rank based on their levels of skill and experience.
All army recruits except West Point cadets (who go through a longer, even more grueling training program) experience basic training, a nine-week program that hones a soldier's mental and physical abilities and teaches him or her how to function within the army. Recruits learn to respect and obey higher-ranking soldiers, build their endurance through obstacle courses and long runs in heavy gear, maintain and fire military weapons, and execute army basics like map reading and first aid. Basic training is run by drill sergeants, specially trained NCOs who motivate and teach recruits. No one would describe basic training as "fun," but most soldiers are proud to have gone through the experience. The fact that almost everyone in the army has experienced basic training also serves to forge a bond between soldiers.
After basic training, soldiers move on to Advanced Individual Training (AIT). Here soldiers choose their career paths within the army. Options include Infantry School, Engineer School, Field Artillery Center, and Military Police School.
A soldier's training is never completely finished. In the modern army, mundane tasks formerly used as punishment or busy work for soldiers, such as preparing food for mess service or basic cleaning, are often performed by civilians under contract with the army. This frees up soldiers' time, allowing them to take ongoing training courses. They may go through additional AIT schools to diversify their training or take leadership courses. Entire units can take special training courses together. The army's goal is to keep soldiers focused on improving their skills and abilities so they can perform their jobs perfectly when people's lives are on the line.
While a soldier's assignment ultimately depends on the needs of the army, his or her area of expertise, training, family situation, and specific requests may be taken into account. The army also has special programs for married couples who are both in the military and for other special situations, such as family hardships, that may require specific assignments. Other than these special cases, a soldier goes where the army tells him or her to go.
All single enlisted soldiers live in barracks on an army base when they first complete their training. Life in a barracks is similar to living in a college dorm: Each soldier has at least one roommate and uses a communal bathroom and shower. Higher-ranked soldiers have the option of living off base, using a military housing allowance. Married soldiers also have this option, although 24 percent of all military families live on base in U.S. Army–provided housing. The base itself includes enough provisions for daily life that soldiers and their families never need to leave the base if they don't want to.
Army bases are scattered throughout the United States, along with bases in South Korea, Japan, Belgium, Germany, and Italy. Soldiers typically receive a new assignment every two or three years, so chances are they will eventually get to experience life outside the United States if they stay in the army long enough.
From 2003 to 2011, for example, the U.S. military was involved in a long-term war in Iraq. During this time period, although many soldiers trained in non-combat specialties or requested assignments to places other than Iraq, there were never enough combat troops available. Therefore, every enlisted soldier had a chance of being sent to a combat zone. Once there, soldiers could be sent on combat missions as the need arose, regardless of their specialty. Make no mistake—when you join the Army, there is a very real chance that you will see combat and face the possibility of injury or death.
Life After the Army
Soldiers typically leave the army through a discharge. The type of discharge a soldier receives depends on his conduct and the circumstances surrounding his departure from the army. Some veterans' benefits depend on the type of discharge as well. Soldiers may voluntarily leave the army when their terms of enlistment have ended, though they may also sign contracts for additional terms of service. If a soldier is disabled or suffers a serious family hardship (for example, if the soldier is needed to care for a sick family member), he may also be discharged voluntarily. A soldier who completes his term of service and receives a good or better rating on his service from the discharge review board will receive an honorable discharge.
Soldiers can also receive a general discharge (under honorable conditions). This type of discharge is considered less desirable than an honorable discharge. It is for soldiers who may have performed well but did not finish their term of service for a reason other than a disability. Soldiers with minor disciplinary problems may also receive this type of discharge.
An other than honorable (OTH) discharge is given to soldiers with more serious misconduct. While not as bad as a court-martial (see below), an OTH discharge is not a good way to leave the military.
Finally, soldiers can receive a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge. These are involuntary discharges resulting from a court-martial, which is a military trial held when someone is accused of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
When a soldier enlists, he signs a contract for a certain period of active duty—usually two, four, or six years. However, everyone who joins the army signs on for an eight-year obligation. When a soldier's active duty tour has finished, the soldier may finish out the remaining time in the reserves or as an Individual Ready Reservist (IRR). IRRs do not train or drill regularly, but they may be called to active duty at any time during their eight-year term. At the end of his eight years, a soldier can sign on for an additional eight-year term of service. To retire from the army, a soldier must have served for twenty years. Some retired soldiers can be recalled to active duty, especially if they are under age sixty and less than five years have passed since they retired.
Soldiers have access to an Army Career and Alumni Program (ACAP) center on each base. ACAP has career counselors that can help soldiers make the move into the civilian world when they are nearing the end of their term of service. There are also programs that allow soldiers to acquire professional training certificates, become teachers, or even secure a guaranteed job with certain companies when they enlist.
The U.S. Army traces its history to the American Revolutionary War. The formation of the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, is considered its official "birthday." The Continental Army was disbanded in 1784, at the end of the Revolution. However, conflicts between western settlers and Native Americans led to the creation of the First American Regiment. After fighting several battles with Native Americans in the ensuing decades, the unit became the Regiment of Infantry in 1789 and then, in 1791, the 1st Infantry. In 1815, several units, including the 1st Infantry, were combined to form the 3rd Infantry. Therefore, the modern 3rd Infantry is the only unit that can trace its lineage directly back to the formation of the U.S. Army.
The army was heavily involved in every U.S. military conflict in the nineteenth century. During the American Civil War, the U.S. Army became the Union army. In the twentieth century, U.S. Army soldiers took part in both of the World Wars, the Korean War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the first Persian Gulf War, as well as numerous smaller scale conflicts. Terrorist attacks and threats in the twenty-first century led the army into Afghanistan and Iraq.
Excerpted from Green Berets, Blackhawks, Purple Hearts by How Stuff Works, Inc.. Copyright © 2013 How Stuff Works, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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