For many years, I’ve known a young man who is an expert on all things related to the National Guard’s 26th “Yankee” Infantry Division. With a graduate degree in U.S. history, he’s a valuable resource concerning the weapons, campaign histories and even the long-forgotten legends of the division in which I once served. There’s nothing he likes better than to spend a weekend riding through reenactor encampments in a restored Willys Jeep while wearing an authentic World War II uniform with the division’s “YD” patch on his shoulder, cradling an M1 carbine across his lap.
I’ve often thought how valuable his vast knowledge and passion for history could be for professional development in the 26th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, the holder of the Yankee Division’s heritage. I know he would love to make his contribution to the security of our nation. I also know his greatest dream would be to serve his country while wearing the Army uniform. However, there’s no current organization through which this talented historian can be part of the Army family. Because, unfortunately, this scholar and patriot suffers from a degenerative muscle disease that confines him to a wheelchair.
The Army must maintain high enlistment standards to ensure those who join the ranks are able to meet the rigorous physical and mental demands of military service. However, the Pentagon reported in 2017 that 71% of America’s young adults were unable to meet enlistment standards. While there are many reasons why young people are unable to enlist, Mission: Readiness, part of the Council for a Strong America, estimates that 32% of this group are unable to meet medical standards because of health complications like asthma, poor eyesight or a history of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
This 32% includes many patriotic Americans, like the military historian I know, who would be eager to serve. Moreover, this population certainly includes individuals who hold valuable expertise in medical, computer technology, legal, mental health, administrative, public affairs and military history specialties. Why should these citizens forfeit the honor of serving their country in the military?
The U.S. Army can broaden the Army community and expand the range of available expertise by establishing the U.S. Army Auxiliary. For more than 80 years, the Air Force and the Coast Guard have benefited from their auxiliary forces—the Civil Air Patrol and the Coast Guard Auxiliary. The Marine Corps launched the Cyber Auxiliary in 2019 to include civilians with computer technology expertise in the Marine Corps community.
The Civil Air Patrol and Coast Guard Auxiliary are similar in that they do not bar candidates from membership for any medical condition or disability. After completing a security background check, members serve in an unpaid capacity. Both organizations allow members to wear modified service uniforms and earn ranks within a specialized rank structure. The Marine Corps’ Cyber Auxiliary is limited to computer technology professionals, and there are no uniform provisions or rank structure. But all three auxiliary forces provide vital support to their parent services—from strengthening cyber security to conducting search patrols to providing community training in maritime safety.
Because of the wide range of Army missions, the potential for Army Auxiliary members to support active and reserve forces is vast. Musicians could augment military bands. Translators could provide cultural awareness for units deploying overseas. Reporters could promote media coverage for individual and unit accomplishments. The possibilities are almost endless.
Army Auxiliary members could be organized in regional mission-focused battalions. Battalions could be further configured into companies that align with Army branches and additional special skill indicators such as cyber, linguist, medical, judge advocate general, military history or band. A corps of experienced instructors would be useful for professional development in noncombat subject areas, which would free up active and reserve officers and NCOs to concentrate on operational tasks. Branch-qualified cadre would be assigned from the reserve component to command and manage auxiliary units.
Army Auxiliary training and even unit formations could be facilitated at minimal cost through virtual platforms. To promote esprit de corps, auxiliary members should be authorized to wear distinct civilian attire or a modified Army uniform and rank, along the lines of the Coast Guard Auxiliary and Civil Air Patrol. Training and service hours would be credited but unpaid. Eventually, active and reserve commanders may wish to explore systems to bring uniquely skilled Army Auxiliary personnel onto paid duty. This could be particularly useful as the Army adapts to new cyber threats and incursions.
In addition to those who are unable to meet enlistment standards, honorably discharged soldiers separating from active duty or the reserve component would be encouraged to consider continued service in the Army Auxiliary. Unlike participation in the Individual Ready Reserve, this would allow separating soldiers to continue accruing pension and retirement benefits. It also would enable them to continue to serve and maintain their connection to the Army community.
Closing the Gap
The Army Auxiliary would provide one other benefit to American society. It would help close the civil-military gap. We know that the military’s presence in the U.S. is shrinking. Today, there are fewer veterans, fewer elected officials with military experience and fewer families who have members serving in uniform. In fact, The New York Times reported in 2020 that 79% of recruits already come from military families. As the military’s footprint recedes in society, there is less understanding of military culture and less appreciation for military values.
Army Auxiliary members will inevitably become unofficial representatives, advocates and ambassadors for the Army and its culture within thousands of communities across the nation. They will expand person-to-person engagement throughout the country, promoting understanding of Army values, support for deployed soldiers and advocacy for the unique needs of military families.
As the Army’s presence in American society withers, leaders have two choices. The first is to accept the decline in civil-military relations as inevitable. The second is to adopt innovative, creative strategies to increase the Army’s visibility and impact in American communities. The Army Auxiliary concept is an innovative strategy that addresses the civil-military gap while reaching out to include a population of patriotic Americans previously barred from military service.
By welcoming new members, we can grow the Army family and become even more Army Strong.
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Brig. Gen. Paul “Greg” Smith, Massachusetts Army National Guard retired, served as dual-status commander during Superstorm Sandy and joint task force commander during the Boston Marathon bombings response. He teaches counterterrorism and leadership at colleges in Massachusetts and has served as an instructor at the U.S. Army War College.