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Experience before education in military [Commentary]

Promoting the best officers is essential to having the most powerful military force on the planet. The de facto requirement for officers in the U.S. Air Force to obtain a master's degree in order to be promoted is blatantly ridiculous because it hinders the organization from properly valuing professional experience to identify its best and brightest for leadership.

Starting at the first competitive promotion from captain to major, there is no "official" requirement to have a master's degree. Nevertheless, due to a reversal of policy in 2008 that changed the officer promotion process to once again provide commanders and selection boards information on all academic degrees earned, it is likely you will not be promoted without one. This is because commanders are essentially blackballing officers who fail to pursue the degree. How? The board relies heavily on the commanders for promotion recommendations and ranking among competing officers. These are the two most influential factors for promotion. Without a master's, an unfavorable promotion recommendation and poor ranking is now expected, despite actual work performance or abilities. This makes promotion chances slim. If this doesn't seem like a bad idea just yet, here are a few things to consider:

Like assuming Dumbo can't fly without a feather, commanders are assuming that an officer can't lead without a master's, casting experience, skill, position, achievements, personality, performance and anything else that should matter aside. Even a guy who kills Osama bin Laden, saves women and children in Afghanistan, earns a Medal of Honor and brokers a peace deal with the Taliban over mint shisha and tea could still be told "no" to a promotion without a master's. Negating real work and skill ensures only the best bureaucrats and careerists, not truly skilled military leaders, will earn promotion.

Let's just assume that a master's degree automatically makes them a better officer. Still, requiring a master's continues to escape logic as the school, your grades and the subject you supposedly "mastered" isn't taken into consideration. You can get one from IDGAFU (I Don't Give a Flip University) online, make a 2.0 GPA and study the fine art of duck call engineering and would be considered ripe to lead the Air Force.

Officers are instructed and expected to advance their education in their free time. But officers are typically driven, hard-working individuals. Unless you believe that they are playing video games and eating Cheetos in their spare time, adding the additional workload of a master's has a cost. It either takes away effort from their official job, leads to burn out by trying to do well at both or forces them to sacrifice more precious time with their families. As if they haven't sacrificed enough time with them after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. Do we even want to be led by officers who are devoid of family or willing to sacrifice it all for their careers? I hope not.

Let's consider a sports team picking its starting lineup using anything other than actual performance on the field. Could a team win if the coach turned a blind eye to skill? Of course not. The Air Force requiring a generic degree to pick who leads is equivalent to a team choosing only those who went to an off-season clinic or seminar. Ridiculous right? You may be benching some of your best players. Whoever shows up playing the best during pre-season should get the job regardless. The military should be no different. We want the best leaders and thinkers. If a degree helps an officer perform, then so be it. But there is no need to consider it above job performance.

It's not absurd that a master's is being considered, but rather that actual work performance is overshadowed by it. What kind of business or organization could be competitive or even survive under these premises? Yet the military gets away with it because, let's be honest, as a government organization, it can hand out promotions by conducting one intense Farkle tournament, and it would still get funded and survive. It's important that we have the best officers possible to lead it. We are not the DMV. If they perform poorly, then you just wait in a longer line. But if we perform poorly, there is much more at stake. This is an organization that helps keep America free and should be expected to adhere to its own core value of "Excellence in All We Do."

Sean Cullen is a captain and a senior pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. His email is cullenperspective@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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