Empowering the Early Commission Program

On a clear summer’s day in August 2021, a singular Blackhawk helicopter landed on Fort Knox’s Brooks Field. Volleys of cannon fire rang out, campaign streamers rose, and the band played their rhythmic battle calls. As the smoke lifted and the Blackhawk’s rotors ceased movement, the well-rehearsed Change of Command Ceremony began. Speeches from the head of the United States Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, General Paul Funk, and Cadet Command’s Commanding General, Major General John Evans Jr., filled those in the crowded bleachers with optimism and joy. However, this momentous occasion was not simply for show but a symbolic representation of the organization’s progression and evolution. As the band concluded with The Army Song, a new Commanding General was introduced to lead Cadet Command: Major General Johnny Davis.

Major General Davis’ career has been nothing short of exceptional. In his 33 years of uniformed service, he has served as The Old Guard’s Commander, Commanding General of the Army’s Joint Modernization Command, and most recently, Chief of Staff at the Army’s Future Command. As a steward of military professionalism, Major General Davis’ service record has vaulted him into one of the most crucial roles in the Army: the training of all future Army officers commissioning through Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs across the United States. These ROTC programs are the largest single source of newly commissioned officers; A study from the Congressional Research Service found in fiscal year 2019 alone, ROTC programs produced more than 6,000 Active Duty military officers. This study does not account for the number of ROTC officers entering reserve components or those in the National Guard. To say Major General Davis’ role is critical to national defense as the Commanding General of Cadet Command would be an understatement. Anyone reviewing Major General Davis’ resume will find his awards and accomplishments dazzling. However, many will subconsciously gloss over how he started and his first accomplishment as an Army officer.

In 1989, Major General Johnny Davis received his commission from a small Military Junior College (MJC) in Roswell, New Mexico. Established in 1891, New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI) is one of four MJCs still in existence today. Similar to Senior Military Colleges such as The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute, MJCs offer a unique environment for prospective military leaders. Cadets are expected to follow rigorous schedules for academics and physical fitness while balancing leadership roles formed within the strict internal structures of the Corps of Cadets. These institutional standards are exacting and must be consistently upheld.

Unlike Senior Military Colleges, however, MJCs are two-year Associate degree programs. MJC cadets are expected to reach training standards established by Cadet Command within a two-year timeframe compared to the traditional four-year track at Senior Military Colleges or other four-year universities. Upon completing their training, MJC graduates are contractually bound to continue their education at a follow-on school to complete their baccalaureate degree. While continuing their studies, these officers are integrated into Army Reserve or National Guard units. Separation action is initiated if officers do not complete their degree within 36 months.

This little-known program is called the Early Commissioning Program (ECP), the origins of which are rooted in the Vietnam War. In 1966, Congress approved legislation that allowed MJC cadets who had completed the ROTC Advanced Course training to be commissioned as second lieutenants. However, anti-war sentiment grew, and the Selective Service ended its draft program in 1973. As the conflict dragged on, more and more Americans believed the U.S. military presence in Vietnam was unjustified. By 1976, public trust in officials responsible for the military fell to 24%, and as this support dwindled, the Department of Defense faced difficulties recruiting officers. In 1978, the ECP as we know it today was introduced. This permitted MJC graduates who had not yet completed their baccalaureate program to be commissioned into a reserve component while they continued their four-year degrees. This proved to be an effective program for Army officer development. Throughout the 1980s, newly-commissioned officers from the ECP made up over 60% of all ROTC officers. In 1984 alone, ECP officers made up 95% of the California National Guard’s ROTC intake. The ECP did what it was designed to do: produce officers comparable in quality to traditional ROTC officers in half the time.

However, in 1990, Cadet Command conducted a Change of Command ceremony much like the one for Major General Davis. This time, Major General Wallace Arnold stepped into the role of Commanding General. Having served in the Vietnam War and commanded an array of Army units, Major General Arnold assumed Cadet Command’s leadership and prepared to make significant changes. The 1990s saw a downshift in military resourcing. In 1990, the Pentagon moved to reduce the total number of uniformed service men and women by 25,000, roughly half of which was supposed to be cut from the Army. From 1990 to 1995, Army Active Duty personnel was reduced by 30%. The end of the Cold War signaled the downshift in both servicemembers and resources. In 1991, Major General Arnold followed this strategic downsizing by nearly eliminating the ECP, leaving only six MJCs untouched.

The ECP had faced significant criticism before the cuts made by Major General Arnold. Tracking the educational progress of ECP officers proved difficult for university and military administrators. For example, ECP officers must finish their four-year degrees within an established period. Those MJC graduates who decided to pursue STEM disciplines generally took longer than the specified timeframe as these fields can be more intensive. Additionally, rising university tuition costs resulted in many MJC graduates working through college to maintain financial stability, which postponed degree completion. As a result of these difficulties, the ECP seemed an ideal target for liquidation.

When implemented, the program successfully produced newly commissioned officers that continued their studies at four-year universities. Upon completion, these officers are considered qualified for Active Duty status and sent to their respective follow-on training assignments. However, many of these prospective military leaders often slip through the cracks in their transition to their four-year university. The current transition process is ultimately held at the institutional level. Officials from both schools are expected to contact each other and coordinate with Cadet Command to ensure the outlined guidance is upheld. Instead, the Army should use its Gold Bar Recruiters to ensure smoother transitions occur. Gold Bar Recruiter is a position held by newly commissioned Second Lieutenants before their job-specific training to assist their assigned school with recruiting and administrative assignments. The ECP as it exists would greatly benefit from Gold Bar Recruiters being further invested within the MJCs and managing these transitions in a more solidified role with oversight and assistance from the ROTC department and staff.

The potential pitfalls of this program are well documented by its critics. However, many fail to see the tremendous benefits ECP officers bring to the Army. Generally, ECP officers gain experience faster than officers who enter a traditional four-year program. This is a result of the program structuring, not necessarily the quality of the candidate. After commissioning from this advanced track, ECP officers are quickly embedded into reserve components near their follow-on schools. As they complete their degrees, they actively gain practical military training and knowledge that can’t be taught in a classroom environment. This responsibility greatly benefits these officers as they acquire more experience in administrative and job-specific tasks. These officers can aid and teach their colleagues by passing on their knowledge and increasing the proficiency of all junior officers and enlisted members.

Additionally, MJCs create an accessible option for a student who wants to attain a college degree. The fear of student loan debt and an unstable job market frightens many Americans thinking about their future after high school. Like other ROTC programs, ECP offers its students financial aid and tuition assistance throughout their educational careers. However, ECP officers can also access state and federal tuition assistance once stationed with their reserve component. This creates an opportunity for officers to continue their education while accruing job skills in the military, allowing these students to come out of college debt-free and with two years of leadership and military experience.

Finally, ECP graduates are versatile for Army staffing and personnel resourcing. These newly commissioned officers come from MJCs ready to serve and lead. However, this comes with the understanding that they will not be considered fully qualified until they have finished their job-specific Basic Officer Leadership Course (BOLC), orders for which are not received until their four-year degree is completed. This training gives an officer their established occupation and branch within the Army. An ECP officer’s position for their first two years can seem like a needless slot at face value; why would a unit accept a new officer knowing the candidate will be considered unqualified for job-specific tasks? For many units, this can be a blessing in disguise. Any organizational leader would rather be over-staffed than under-staffed, as having the requisite amount of personnel can stretch resources and responsibilities. ECP officers can be a versatile tool for these units looking to free up the duties and schedules of other job-qualified officers. Although they do not have specific job qualifications, ECP officers can still complete many daily administrative tasks that often impede military organizations. They are able to act as a free resource for commanders. Then once an ECP officer completes their four-year degree, they can work with their reserve component to fill whatever role the Army deems fit and necessary. This program helps fill positions effectively as more reserve components take on these ECP officers.

Since Major General Arnold’s cuts to the ECP in 1991, only four MJCs remain: NMMI, Georgia Military College, Marion Military Institute, and Valley Force Military Academy. These institutions continue to produce quality leaders that are required to meet the same standards as their counterparts enrolled in four-year ROTC programs. A Gallup poll from July 2022 found Americans who trust the military a “great deal/quite a lot” has fallen from 69% to 64% in just one year. This year, the Department of Defense has found difficulty in recruitment across all branches of service. To respond to this challenge, service branches have started implementing cash bonuses as high as $50,000.

The ECP offers a solution to the Army’s recruiting problem. Although there are other contributing factors to the Army’s low recruiting numbers, reintroducing the ECP would be a step in the right direction. This program offers legitimate incentives to cadets and makes a more compelling offer to those considering military service or college. Expanding the ECP with increased oversight and funding would improve the military’s recruiting situation. Major General Davis’s career proves that the MJC system and the ECP produce quality military leaders. As with any high-ranking officer, he is an extraordinary exception to the standard. However, he continues to be an example to Army ECP officers and all uniformed service members. After commissioning from a small military college in southeast New Mexico, Major General Davis holds an incredible amount of influence concerning the future of national security and the United States Army. The machine works. Given more energy, however, this program could be the recruiting powerhouse the Army needs.

This article was guest written for GSSR by Ian Whitfield, a second semester student in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.