In Defense of First Sergeants
WHAT does the first sergeant do for a living? According to Private Hargrove, the public’s ambassador to the military, his principal duty is to cruise the company area with black book and pencil in hand, appointing every other yardbird he meets to some noisome occupation. As a matter of fact, our dubious hero rarely stirs from his orderly room from reveille to retreat. He gets less ultraviolet than Grandma, and his chronic dyspeptic look is born of the noxious chemical mixture that passes for air within his sanctum.
Imprisoned in this little cell sits the first sergeant from 6.00 A.M. to 6.00 P.M., six days a week. He even works on Sunday when he cannot maneuver his faithful tool, the company clerk, into doing so.
His principal duty is to supervise the clerical machinations that make his company tick. He winds the primary red tape about the private’s official being by all manner of accounts, correspondence, and records. He connives to make the company correspond, on paper, to its ever changing status in actuality.
The three chief means to this end bear the innocent names of morning report, sick book, and duty roster. The morning report contains a record of the events of the previous twenty-four hours. The Army Clerk says the record is “both analytical and historical ”— which is about as lucid as The Army Clerk ever gets.
Once upon a time, when armies still fought with spear and broadsword, a record of events gave a clear and even readable summary of the day’s events. An entry—professionally called a “remark" — might read that " Pvt. G. I. Joseph, who used to be over in A Company, was assigned to our outfit and arrived for duty a little while before noon chow. Capt. Mole, down at Personnel, sent him to us because he knew we needed a good general mechanic.”
As the years went on, the Army found that such a remark was too clear and simple for its tastes in fact, that any old fool could compile a record like that. In fright at such an unmilitary denouement, it decided to make the morning report as cryptic and mystifying as possible. This was done, first, by inventing an ironbound phraseology for the remark; second, by designating an inviolable sequence for the various elements in it; and third, by abbreviating every other word.
The modern remark on the said Joseph would therefore be: —
Joseph Geronimo I 30987654 Pvt
Asgd & jd 1100 Co A 987th Sig Obsn Bn Post
par 89 SO 124 B & SC ASFTC MOS 325
There is thus only one way to remark on an experieneed mechanic’s being switched to one’s own company from a similar organization on the same Army post. If he were a recruit mechanic, or a recruit carpenter, or an unskilled recruit, or a specialist, or an officer; or if he were coming in on trial; or if his last station had been a military prison, a hospital, an induction station, or an Army post somewhere else in the country, the remark would be entirely different.
If the top sergeant booking the said G. I. Joseph was old and wise, he would immediately pluck the correct remark from the files of his elephantine memory. If a little less experienced, he would telephone personnel and battalion headquarters and at least three other top sergeants, read the pertinent Army Regulation at least ten times, and analyze his proposed remark word by word, syllable by syllable, and eventually letter by letter.
During all this hocus-pocus, of course, he would be fallingout the company, explaining a line legal detail to the company commander, overseeing the clerk’s preparation of a transmittak form, bestowing company punishment on an unhappy drunk who had missed bed check, announcing the uniform of the day to four barracks chiefs who, naturally, would appear before him separately and at the most awkward moments. He would also be discussing with Lt. Hammerhead the whereabouts of the halfempty fifth formerly reposing at the bottom of Lt. Hammerhead’s locker; expressing doubt to Pvt. Goldbriek that the latter’s mother now lay on her deathbed only three weeks since his last emergency furlough; and expostulating to the sergeant major that he could not possibly spare twenty-five men for six days to weed the garden at battalion headquarters.
Come hell, high water, or the Inspector General, he would have finished his morning report at 8.00, lest battalion, regimental, and personnel headquarters ring up to beat down his ears at 8.03.
By 7.30, he would have completed his sick-book entries for the day. Thus he must have been compiling the sick record at the same time he was slaving over the morning report, telephoning, commanding, wheedling, and supervising. The traditional one-armed paperhanger is a sluggard compared to a first sergeant from 6.00 to 8.00 A.M.
The sick book, the second most important company document, is as simple as Superman compared to the morning report. It merely pretends to be a record of the visionaries applying to the infirmary for medical aid, and the men presently confined to the station hospital. But, as with any other record dealing with the activities of 200 men, it can become snafu while one blinks his eye.
For the sick book is the most meticulous of documents. The Army Medical Corps is more cautious than Aunt Carrie’s cat in a water-front dive. If Pvt. Harry Epidermis suddenly develops gangrene, there is a dislinct possibility—to the Medical Corps alone, of course— that a perfectly healthy Harry Epidermis, somewhere else in the vast cantonment, may manage to get his leg sawed off.
When Harry Epidermis goes to the hospital, therefore, his name is promptly set down in the sick book with such interesting memorabilia as his rank, serial number, and the moral status of his injury — that is, its reception or nonreception in the line of fluty.
Anywhere but. in the Army, it would be sufficient, to record the data on Harry Epidermis when he entered the hospital, and again when he left its precincts. The Army, however, fearing he may be lured from his cool white bed to return unannounced to his former duties as latrine orderly, meticulously annals his case in the sick report every day, whether he remains hospitalized a week, a month, or forever.
If a company has 20 men in the hospital for the whole month of June, it follows that there are 000 entries in the book. To them are added the names of the men vain enough to apply to the infirmary for relief from minor ills.
It is because of his interminable hospital list that the first sergeant is impatient with the unhappy Joes who stumble into the orderly room, by the dawn’s early light, to report their headaches, blisters, and dysentery. To the overburdened top kick, such audacity is the equivalent of digging a divot at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The topper finds it inconceivable that a soldier can be really annoyed by anything less than a fractured skull.
Of course, our many-striped dervish has a few things on his mind while making out his sick report. He must explain to Pvt. Perldiver why his government insurance does not pay for damages suffered by his car in a hurricane in East Cornbelt, Iowa; tell Pvt. Brownnose that he cannot possibly have a blister for the seventeenth day in a row; remind Cpl. Hupp that he will be happy to listen to his experiences at the harvest frolic when he has an idle moment; find a now barracks orderly to replace Pvt. Overhill, who went happily AWOL during the night; crank the creaky legal engine that will bring Pvt. Overhill back to the toils and terrors of a summary court-martial; apply for a GI auto registration for Pvt. Goldust; make sure that all his 200 men fall out in helmet liners, leggings, fatigues, and cartridge belts instead of the garrison caps and suntans announced five minutes ago; compute the number of shots the infirmary can give his men in the only fifteen minutes available during the day; wonder, with Lt. Hammerhead, if his dissolute supply men could have made off with the rest of that fifth; telephone regiment about OCS application forms for Sgt. Beaver; and admonish Orders and Billeting that he knows far better than they whether he has a Pvt. Julius Sinkstacker in his company.
That done, and having summoned the company clerk back from the mess hall, where he has practically exhausted the supply of tomato juice and black coffee, — he turns to the duty roster.
The duty roster is the most detailed commentary in the Army’s famed system of double-checking records. It proposes to show that every single man in the outfit has been busy at some definite assignment every day of his tour of duty with the company; and to prove that, the company’s work has been equitably divided among its personnel. This is done by writing tiny numbers in a pageful of blank squares. It is something like playing chess without the chessmen.
Even then the duty roster might be relatively simple if it were not being continually kicked around by the eternal change inherent in mortal institutions — by departures, by promotions, by sicknesses, by furloughs, by special assignments, by limited-duty statuses, by changes in schedule, and by plain errors or omissions.
But in all this the old Army rule holds true: by however complicated a procedure a first sergeant arrives at a mistake, the discrepancy is as apparent to a casual observer as if it had been branded on his hide. The eagle-eyed lieutenant from the inspector’s office can spend five minutes on the first sergeant’s records and then acidly opine that Pvt. Jerck could not possibly have been AWOL on 29 June as the morning report stated in its mystic way, if, as the sick book had it, he was groaning on a hospital bed, or, as the duty roster implied, he was blithely scrubbing pans in the mess hall.
While he is preparing the duty roster, naturally, the top kick wrestles, one-handed, with a few other gripping problems. He discovers that, he detailed Pvt. Jughead to do KP in both his own and the officers’ mess, and that neither mess sergeant is willing to relinquish the excellent Jughead’s services. With his men scattered from here to Helingone, he is requested by Payroll Section to pick up the month’s roll and have it completely signed by 1500 that afternoon. The new medical officer, completely taken in by the guile of the company’s ace sick-book rider, decrees that that obvious faker shall have “fight duty” for six weeks. A heated argument arises from the circumstance that Cpl. Tuff stood CQ for Sgt. Nasti on the 26t h, that Cpl. Tuff understood that he was properly recorded as serving that detail, while Sgt. Nasti understood that the corporal took his place merely out of the goodness of his heart, and that subsequently Cpl. Lowd took CQ for Cpl. Tuff under the impression that he was serving the interests of Sgt. Nasti. Since none of the combatants will budge an inch, the first sergeant, with judicial impartiality, must study out a decision that will be equally unpopular with all.
There may be more thankless jobs than the first sergeant’s, but not on Planet Earth. There is harder work than his, but it is done by horses and machines. There are, perhaps, brave, sturdy soldiers who aspire to be first sergeants sometime. These should consult the post psychiatrist without delay.