Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Army Was Well-Served By Specialist Ranks

All that is left of specialist grades:
Specialist, formerly Spec. 4

The Army's lack of true specialty ranks goes back to the mid-1980s. It was then that the last of the soldiers who held the rank of specialist fifth class were converted to the rank of sergeant. At the time, I was a going through the Intelligence Analyst Course (Class 96B10-16) at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and Schools, in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Two of the students in the class were converted from SP5 to SGT (E-5).

   In my opinion, it was a mistake to wipe out an entire class of ranks, which gave good service to the Army. Does every enlisted military occupational specialty need leadership associated with its duty description? Well, certainly the combat arms and close combat support jobs do. However, where it involves logistical, intelligence, driving, aviation, personnel, food service, finance, administrative and medical military occupations, as an example, I think specialist ranks would serve the Army well again.


   The Army is not the Marines, where "every Marine is an infantryman, regardless of their job." The Army has a larger mission strategically. Its specialties are necessary would be better served by additional technical schools throughout soldier careers, as opposed to traditional leadership academies.

   Should a finance sergeant first class (E-7) have tactical oversight of an infantry corporal (E-4)? I don't believe so. Though, I have spoken to fellow veterans who served in this era, in the recent war in Afghanistan, and I've been told that  soldiers are sent on direct combat missions immaterial of their branch or training...if true a bad practice. Specialists could, as they had been from 1902-1986 (or so) the soldiers who keep the trains running, the force paid, and the immense administration of the Army running while combat units and combat soldiers perform the vital function of fighting America's enemies.
A Spec. 5 during the 1960s

   Whatever the Army does should be done well. Specializing soldiers again (specialist grades E4-E9) would focus many vital functions without superfluous training or assignments. A drill sergeant should come from the combat arms, ideally. Any NCO position involving tactical prowess should have candidates come from the combat arms. Meanwhile, a valued intelligence professional should be able to gain advancement even if they are not fluent in infantry leadership methodology. While every soldier should know how to shoot, move and communicate...not every soldier needs to learn how to run a fire team or an infantry platoon.


   Specialist ranks have their origin in the U.S. Army dating back to 1902, with the creation of the rank of technical sergeant.
A Spec. 7 during the Vietnam Era

   There was an overhaul of the rank structure in 1920 and the rank of "private/specialist" was created. Soldiers who qualified for this rank attended six classes and were paid the same as privates first class. However, this rank represented competence in certain tasks and did not convey any leadership abilities with it.

   On July 1, 1955, four grades of specialist were introduced in the Army, specialist third class (E-4), specialist second class (E-5), specialist first class (E-6) and master specialist (E-7). In 1958, the Army added two additional specialist ranks, recognizing six specialist ratings to provide career paths for those serving in these positions.

   Also during 1958, the specialist fourth class rating was assigned to those in pay grade E-4, which became the beginning step in a rank structure that concluded with the pay grade specialist 9, which was the pay equivalent of (E-9), or command sergeant major.

   Only the lowest specialist grade survives today after the more senior specialist grades were gradually phased out, concluding during the mid-1980s. During the late 1980s, specialists fourth class were converted to just "specialists," and remains so today. The force-wide prevalence of this pay grade led to the humorous characterization of the "E-4 specialist mafia."


   Was abolishing an entire class of specialist ratings a good idea? Feelings are mixed. Personally, I believe that specialized career fields would be well-served by a specialist rank structure. Good, competent specialists of certain jobs in the Army should be able to excel within the confines of their military occupational specialty from E-4 through E-9, without the expectation of leadership responsibilities.

   Everyone in the Army should know how to protect themselves and possess basic soldier skills. But, not everyone was born to lead in squads, platoons, companies or battalions.

(Jim Purcell is a former U.S. Army sergeant, who left the service and became a journalist for many years. He graduated with a Master's Degree from N.Y. Theological Seminary and retired to Western North Carolina with his wife, Lita.) 


  1. The title and patch on a sleeve meant little in the 2BN 56 ARTY 32AADCOM in the late 60's. I was promoted to SP5 and promptly made a Room Commander. Not a squad leader nope but but I still had 8 soldier to look after. I was made a foreman for the missile launcher rebuild program. This was and E6 slot. Still no NCO title or hard stripes. When I asked about this my command said " Well you are an E5 aren't you?" So titles and insignis really meant nothing


  2. I think hat if the Army is going to bring back a specialist rank then bring back the T ranks of WWII era where a TechSgt E-5 out ranks a Corporal but not a buck Sgt E-5. As a SP5 I was expected to act and perform as a NCO with no authority, unless my command supported any authority. I was also kicked out of a main NCO club by the post CSM since I was not an NCO and at the same time could not go to the enlisted club as that was restricted to E-4 and below at the time.

  3. Your ideas are worth thinking about. Here's a horror story I lived thru. As a Pvt in BCT/65,there was a SP5 head cook blasting his mouth off telling us that he was just like a SGT and will be addressed as "SGT" and if anyone called Specialist he would make our lives hell, being a not strip PVT I followed his advice, even knowing it was wrong. Fast forward to 3/67, I was promoted to Sp5 while at Ft Hood, was told the reason was that I had done my AIT at Knox in 65 and knew more about tanks than the current folks in the company (never mine I had been in 2ID Korea with a Mech Inf unit for a year and was rusty as hell on tanks), the CO knew I'd being a Act Jack while in Korea, so I was better suited for the SP5 slot....Forward my last month at Hood, we had run out of E7's, all went to Viet Nam as well as the E6's....Long story short, I was assigned to being the Plt Sgt (E7) position and I was in-charge of my Plt with no more leadership for folks that high in the NCO Chain. (Side Bar...I did do a 2 weeks Leadership school at Knox before start of AIT, but it was only small training for Plt's and some company guidance) I also did all the leadership jobs as a Acting Jack in Korea/ The Q/Head count/Squad leader Patrol in the DMZ/Op/Gp Ncoic and was still only a SP4...Fun times with the suck...MSG Retired, Me


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