U.S. Military Officer: Demotion = Career Over

I was reading some of the news reports regarding General Karpinski being demoted from Brig. General to Colonel over the Abu Gharib prison case.

There was one line in one of the stories that interested me. It stated:

Is that really the case? An officer who is demoted can never be promoted again? I’m not arguing for or against Karpinsky – the question is not really about her anyway. But is there no way for an officer to “redeem” him/herself after a suitable period of time at reduced rank to earn promotion again?

And does the same apply to enlisted folk?

Zev Steinhardt

If a general officer, in peace-time, is demoted for cause, they are history. Up or out is the rule. Since it requires a board and Senate approval to be promoted to General Officer, and Karpinsky has been found wanting…

Enlisted is different. Lesser responsibilities means more chance of redemption. Lots of soldiers go up and down the ranks repeatedly. Officers are different.

The rule, up until lately at least, has been that you must make steady progress in your career or you are not asked back. That is true for both officers and enlisted. For officers, a certain number of pass-overs (three I think) for promotion and you retire.

What with the difficulty in meeting enlistment goals, it might have eased some for enlisted grades.

Is that a “rule” as in a written regulation, or a “rule” as in a rule of thumb that everyone adheres to?

If you are passed over three times for promotion, you are involuntarily released from active duty. It’s a reg, or at least used to be. I’ll try to find the exact wording.

Chalk it up to an unwritten rule, I think. The military has enough competition for senior slots that if you screw up once somewhere along the way someone else who hasn’t is going to get that next rank rather than you.

Found it! :smiley:

Is this true of professional support officers, like medical doctors, engineers, JAGs, and so on? You’d think the military would be happy enough to have these people when they could earn better salaries on the outside. For some types of work, just being able to do it at all is the accomplishment, not necessarily having to lead others.

I have two friends, both former Air Force captains. One was a transport pilot, the other a lawyer in the JAG office. Both had been passed over twice for promotion to major. One retired with 18 years, the other with 19 years. Since 20 years is the Holy Grail for military service (a full pension) I had to guess they gotten the word to retire voluntarily rather than get passed over a third time.

So is being passed over the third time, and then involuntarily deactivated, in any way akin to a less-than-honorable discharge for an enlisted soldier? If your friends had stayed in and waited for that third pass-over, would they have lost pension benefits when they were kicked out? Otherwise you’d think your friend with 19 years seniority might have had a shot at making 20.

Check the link I provided. It’s all in there, if you dig. :smiley:

Silenus, AFAICT, the “failure of selection for promotion” gig is only for lower officers, up to O-4. Officers of higher rank, like colonels, must retire after 28 years of service if they are not currently on the list recommended for promotion. Karpinksi has served as a commissioned officer, active and reserve, since 1977, so her time is up.

Readers should also know that your link is for a section covering reserve officers (Which Karpinksi is, having left active duty after 10 years. Active duty officers are covered by this section.

I love this place. Always somebody covering your back!

Thanks, Nametag! :smiley:

Neither of them would go too deeply into details, but I got the impression that because they were voluntarily leaving when their current tour ended, they were able to negotiate a sort of “early retirement” package that was better than if they had simply been let go.

For the record, I’m pretty sure they would have received an honorable discharge, just not a voluntary one.

It might seem that way, but it’s really not. Being passed over for promotion indicates a lack of promotability, but it does not indicate incompetence or less-than-honorable service. There are many requirements for promotion. Officers have Squadron Officer School, Air War College, and a couple of other schools that they must attend before they can go to the next step. There are some officers that just don’t want the responsibility of leadership, so they might intentionally not go to one of those schools. I’ve seen it happen in both the enlisted and officer ranks. That doers not mean that they are not excellent pilots/operators/maintainers, it just means that that is all they want to do.

The Captain with 19 years almost certainly could have stayed for his 20. An officer does not have to re-enlist, so there was no obstacle to him getting his 20 years (However, every officer pay grade has a maximum time in service. If you are not beyond a certain rank at a certain time you are then involuntarily retired from active duty. This is not the case in the Reserves or Guard, though.) In my very own unit we have more than a few 20-year Captains and they’re all very competent.

WRT the OP, and speaking from a naval officer’s perspective, your career is effectively over if you so much as get a less-than-stellar fitness report at the wrong time (usually your last report before leaving a command). A bad fitrep will preclude you from screening for leadership positions (either within a command, or leader of the command itself). If that happens, you will in all likelihood not be promoted, which will end your career. If you are an O-3 (Lieutenant), you may make the next rank, but you won’t promote after that. If you actually got a negative fitrep, you probably will not make the next rank and will probably be forced to get out once you fail to promote for the second time. If you are an O-4, you may or may not be forced out–people used to think making O-4 was like tenure, but there is not rule that I’m aware of that can keep the service from forcing you out if they want you out.

All this is to say that a bad fitrep is nothing comapred to a demotion for an officer. Getting a demotion is almost unheard of, and will immediately kill your career. I’m pretty sure this applies to all the other services.

Ages ago when I was getting advanced training, I noticed a CPO (E-7) with a distinctive appearance. Three days later when I saw him again, he had the uniform and insignia of a seaman recruit (E-1). I’ve often wondered what he did to piss off the Navy so much, it knocked him down six pegs but didn’t . . . quite cashier him entirely. I’m guessing he was very close to retirement and it was done so he’d get something for his career.

I didn’t dare ask, of course.


when Captain W.D. Brown ran the USS Missouri aground in Chesapeake Bay in Jan. 1950 he was sentenced to be reduced 250 places in the seniority list, which effectively meant his career was at an end. He was given a ‘tombstone promotion’ to Rear Admiral on the day before retirement in 1955.