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Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory (OVUM) stuff in the Army

Posted by John T. Reed on

Copyright John T. Reed

When I was an Army officer from 1968 to 1972, there was a lot of stuff that was Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory. I call it OVUM for short. I hated it. I fought it every inch and refused to do it. I caught hell for doing it. Here is the OVUM I encountered back then. I am sure the details of OVUM have changed since then, but I would be surprised if the overall quantity of OVUM has declined. I hope those who were in the Army more recently will update me on the more recent OVUM.

This kind of thing also exists, typically at a lower level of intensity, with civilian organizations. I wrote extensively about how to avoid this crap in my book Succeeding.

Succeeding book

Savings Bonds

When I was in the 101st Airborne Division for the month of July, 1966, the battalion commander of our artillery battalion decided he liked me and wanted to give me inside career advice.

One of the things he did was point to the Minuteman flag in front of his battalion headquarters building.

Battalion commander: You have to have one of those.

Lieutenant Reed: What is it, sir?

Battalion commander: It’s for getting 95% participation in the payroll deduction savings bond program.

Lieutenant Reed: How could I affect that, sir?

Battalion commander: Brigade commander told me I would be relieved if I did not get it. I told my battery commanders the same thing. They probably told their platoon leaders the same thing.

Lieutenant Reed: C’mon, sir. You’re just pulling my leg aren’t you?

Battalion commander: I’m dead serious.

Lieutenant Reed: Sir, are you saying that if you do an excellent job in every way except that your unit only gets 94% participation, that you would be relieved of your command?

Battalion commander: Absolutely.

I later told the battery commander about this saying I was not fooled by such a dumb story. The battery commander (West Point Class of ’61) assured me that the battalion commander had been telling me the truth.

He ended my plans to make a career of the Army
This battalion commander liked me and was trying to help me succeed as a career officer by giving me the inside scoop that they don’t teach at West Point but that you need to succeed. I appreciate his friendliness and assistance, but he accomplished the exact opposite of what he intended: He instantly turned me off to an Army officer career.

Until that moment, I had been planning a career in the Army. I decided right then that I would get out of the Army as soon as I could after graduating from West Point.

Ironically, when I was in Vietnam and refused to sign a false motor vehicle maintenance report, they punished me by sending me to an artillery unit. That unit made my platoon sergeant and I drive in a lone jeep 60 miles through indian coutry near the Parrot’s Beak area of Cambodia including the day we drove through a North Vienamese ambush that was triggered on a convoy we did not know was behind us. My brigade or corps artillery commander in that II Field Force unit in Vietnam was the guy who was my battalion commander four years earlier at the 101st when I was a cadet intern. I never communicated with him in Vietnam and I assume he had no idea his former pet was in his command and being tormented daily by one of his battalion commanders.

The U.S. Savings Bond protection racket

At that time, savings bonds paid a below-market interest rate. They were only marketed to out-of-it little old ladies and to employees of the government and government contractors. Those associated with the government were pressured into buying them by their bosses.

If you open a candy store in Manhattan, a couple of Mafia goons visit you, tell you that you have a nice place and they wouldn’t like to see it messed up and for $100 a week they’ll protect it for you.

If you joined the Army in the late sixties, a couple of NCOs or junior officers visit you, tell you that you have a nice position in the Army and they wouldn’t like to see it messed up and for $X a month in savings bonds purchases, they’ll protect you.

I did not go to West Point to be a bag man for the federal government’s savings bond protection racket. I refused to buy any bonds and I accompanied my men through the pay line on the first of every month telling them that they did not have to buy them. They had to run a gauntlet of sergeants and junior officers who would pressure them to buying or contributing to various things. My superiors were not pleased.

Open bar

The Army had a tradition of “work hard play hard” when I was in. One manifestation of that was that field-grade and higher-ranking commanders felt obligated to hold frequent parties for their subordinates. I was also introduced to this nonsense at the 101st Airborne in 1966.

The parties were invariably at the officers club. They had an open bar and later in the evening, everyone would be thrown in the pool one by one.

My dad was a drunk. I have never had a drink of alcohol in my life because I wanted to be “vaccinated against” becoming an alcoholic. The open bar was funded by splitting the bill among the officers. I would have two cokes and get a huge bill for all the alcohol the others drank. Plus, when the alcohol is “free,” you know how some people try to get the most for their money. After one such open bar bill, which I paid, I asked before going to any other parties if that was the deal. In the 82nd Airborne division in 1969, I was assured before a party that I would not have to pay for anyone’s drinks but my own. I attended the party. There was an open bar. After the party, I was told to pay my share of the open bar. I refused. The other officers were extremely unhappy. Tough.

On another occasion, I went into the officers club removing my hat as I did so. Some colonel at the bar said I had removed it too slowly and therefore had to buy a round for every one at the bar. I refused that, too. The officers at the bar were extremely unhappy about that.

Kiss my ass, gentlemen.

So I decided to stop going to the parties.

‘Command performance’ parties

Turns out you are not allowed to not go to the parties. In the Army, they call them “command performances.” “Command performance” is another phrase for OVUM.

In monarchies, when the king or queen “requests” that you perform for them or “invites” you to attend an event, saying “no thanks” is not an option. Military officers are, by and large, only a step or two above trailer trash in terms of how aristocratic their roots and upbringing were. For example, my dad was born and raised on a West Virginia farm and was an alcoholic as an adult. My mom was the daughter of Hungarian and Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. in steerage. But Army officers, notwithstanding similar backgrounds, consider themselves royalty and expected to be treated as such.

It must have something to do with the fact that hundreds of thousands of members of the military have to salute them and call them “Sir” and the officer corps habit of treating enlisted men as if they were something like the untouchables caste in India. And don’t you love all their titles? I have been “mister” all my non-officer life. The richest man in America, Bill Gates, is also mister, but the U.S. Army sounds like the House of Lords with everyone from privates to generals having a title.

Several hundred years ago, the officers truly were royalty and the enlisted men were the dregs of society. That’s how all this saluting and “sir” and rank and titles got started. Why it’s still in use in the twenty-first century is a mystery to me. The New England Patriots, to pick one of many examples, do not have rank and saluting and all that and they seem to manage without it.

So when I stopped going to parties hosted by the battalion and brigade commanders, I was told this was unacceptable. They said the parties were necessary for the camaraderie of the unit. I said “mandatory party” is a contradiction in terms and told them that I would only attend if I thought I would enjoy it and that that was unlikely ever to occur.

‘Bring her’

When asked what I would be doing instead—these parties were on Friday or Saturday nights after duty hours—I said I hoped I would be on a date. Bring her, they ordered. Like hell, I said. An attractive date of one officer at such parties would no doubt be hit on by the other single officers and some of the married ones.

Even if they were not, I would be mortified to have a woman think I thought such parties were how I liked to spend my time. The only other activities other than hitting on my date were drinking and sucking up to the officers who outranked you. I attended about one party per unit when I first became an officer. Seemed like I owed it to them to at least try one. But after a while it became apparent that if you‘ve been to one “command performance” party, you’ve been to them all.

Note: The faux aristocratic behavior of the Army officer corps does not extend to nights at the opera or ballet.

Later in my career, I would inform the boss that I refused to attend mandatory parties on principle as soon as I was told about the first one. At one assignment, that was what I did in my first meeting with my battalion commander.

There came a point where they ordered me to attend. I refused on the grounds that it was an unlawful order. They backed down on the order per se but retaliated against me with everything they had.

Brass did not want to be there either

Ironically, I suspect that many, if not most, of the brass who were hosting the “command performance” parties did not want to do so. They only hosted the parties because they felt, probably accurately, that it was expected of them as commanders. They were afraid that if they failed to comply with the Army officer group norm of holding many parties per year for their subordinates, that they might get a bad efficiency report for not “building camaraderie” or some similar accusation.

One reason I suspect that is that one of the reasons the parties were no fun was that many of the commanders were fuddy-duddy stiffs socially. Parties were not their thing. They were not being themselves when they hosted them. Rather, they were trying to conform to a group norm that few Army officers were probably comfortable in.

I believe my refusal to attend “command performance” parties and a few other social things like supper in the officer’s mess in my artillery unit in Vietnam was the main thing I did that outraged my superiors. Yet it may well be that they did not like the parties any more than I did? Of course, it wasn’t party attendance itself that was the issue. It was that I defied and insulted the host by refusing to attend. I wasn’t “playing the game.” They had to play the game. Who did I think I was that I was excused from playing the game? Plus their peers teased them about not being able to “control their lieutenants.”

Lèse majesté

My crime was the crime of lèse majesté.

Lese majesty, leze majesty, or lèse majesté (from the Latin Laesa maiestatis, injury to the Majesty) is the crime of violating majesty, an offense against the dignity of a reigning sovereign or against a state. Back in the days when royalty ruled, you could call your neighbor a jerk, but not your king. That was essentially my crime in the Army. I did nothing wrong by normal standards, but refusing to kow tow to the brass, like refusing to kow tow to ancient royalty, was a crime not because of what you did, but because of whom you did it to.

Joining the officers club

In Vietnam, shortly after I arrived at II Field Force Corps Artillery in June 1970, I went to the officers mess for supper like normal. It seemed like some big deal was happening that night. Turned out it was the monthly supper where the Corps Commander, General Julien J. Ewell, dined with the corps artillery guys. Although this was the same mess hall where I ate three meals a day, I was passed a note from the company commander that pointed out that the menu was steaks and that they had been paid for by the officers club, which I had refused to join.

I called the waitress over, told her in Vietnamese that I would not be having dinner there after all, and left. At that time, before supper had been served, officers were coming and going to the outhouse. Apparently my superiors, who could not understand the conversation I had in Vietnamese with the waitress, assumed that was where I went. (Hardly any Americans in Vietnam could speak more than a few words of Vietnamese.)

Nope. I went to my hooch, got something to read, then went to another nearby officers club that was just a pay-as-you-go restaurant. You did not have to be a member there. I would have joined that one if I had to. It was a nice restaurant—by the awful conditions of Vietnam, not by U.S. standards.

I later learned that I had freaked out my superiors. Turned out the corps commander had a tradition of welcoming new officers to the unit. I was a new officer that night so I was one of the ones to be welcomed. As the evening wore on, my superiors correctly figured out that I had not gone to the outhouse, but that I had just left and was not coming back. They had given the corps commander a little stack of cards with information about each new officer so he could make informed remarks about them. They barely got my card out of the stack before he was to welcome me. He would have welcomed me and called on me to stand up and acknowledge his welcome and would have gotten no response.

They tried to chew my ass the next day. I said I had no intention of leaving until I got the note and I had no knowledge that anything special was happening. I was new to the unit. I was not aware of the tradition and meant nothing by what I did. I figured the CO was telling me I was ripping them off if I ate the steak so I went to the other O club and paid for a steak that only cost the price of one steak, not the cost of a monthly membership. If they wanted me to stay, I said, they should have informed me that I was a part of the program, in which case I would have brought a couple of candy bars and a can of Coke in and ate them instead of the steak and duly smiled at Ewell when he told me how thrilled he was to have me in the unit.

Officers clubs in the military often suck. Maybe most of the time. One reason is they are Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory. So the people who run them do not have to do a good job to get your business. And they generally behave like the government bureaucrats they are. So many, if not most, officers clubs are not worth the monthly dues. They are also on base and I never lived on base other than in Vietnam. I shudder at the thought of living on a U.S. Army base. Rather, I lived in civilization and preferred to go to civilian pizza places and restaurants to hiking all the way to the on-base O club where the brass who hated me every day at work were hanging out. Also, as I said, I do not do alcohol. Back then, not only was there too much drinking by those over 21 on base, they allowed soldiers as young as 17 to drink on base. Not my scene.

I always refused to join the officers club unless there was a particular reason why I should. I joined one during summer because it had a pool and the trailer park where I lived did not. Usually, my apartment complex had its own pool. Once, on my first day at my new base, Fort Bragg, I was ordered to join the O club during in-processing. I refused. The captain across the desk told me that meant I would have to write a letter to the commanding general of the post explaining why. I took out my pen and said, “What’s his name?” and wrote the letter on the spot. The commanding general of that post knew who I was, and was mad at me, before my battalion commander had ever heard of me.

United Fund

United Fund was the same as the savings bonds. You had to give you “fair share” or you were in huge trouble. I always told them that my charitable contributions were made, if at all, anonymously through the mail. I never gave throuh the Army or any other employer and also accompanied my men through the pay line and told them they did not have to give their “fair share” as we went past that card table and its outraged captain.

Pressuring subordinates to buy Savings Bonds, give to United Fund, etc. are expressly prohibited by Army regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The UCMJ even expressly prohibits the making of charts showing each unit’s participation or contributions, charts exactly like those I saw at headquarters when I was in the 82nd Airborne Division.

Dinner with the colonel

When I was an artillery battalion communications officer (platoon leader) in Vietnam, the unit had a habit of all the officers eating at the same table. I had no probem with that for breakfast and lunch. Supper was around 6 PM for both the enlisted men in one part of the dining hall and the officers at the officers table. But we had to wait for the battalion commander before we could eat. Virtually every night, he would not blow in until around 7 PM and there was a mandatory briefing with all the officers and NCOs at 7:30 PM in another building.

Hot supper was ready at 6 PM. The enlisted men began eating at 6 PM. We officers twiddled our thumbs sitting at the mess table waiting, waiting, waiting. By the time Mr. Big arrived, the food was cold. And we had to eat in a rush because of the briefing.

One night, I got fed up, called a Vietnamese waitress over and asked for my food around six. I did this in Vietnamese, to show respect for the local culture and to delay my superiors at the table knowing what I was up to. I told her what I wanted. She urged me to wait for fear the colonel would be displeased with me. I insisted. The other officers did not know what we were talking about, but probably figured out when my hot food arrived and I ate it.

Long after I finished and the others’ food was cold, His Nibs grandly swept in and the nightly squat and gobble of cold leftovers began as usual, except that I just sipped my water.

Thereafter, I ate supper at a tiny officers club across the base by myself. It was so tiny they only had two items on the menu: steak and fried chicken. So I would take some reading material and eat steak one night and fried chicken the next, every night. Very pleasant if not very varied. At 7:30 PM every night, I would be at the briefing with bells on to give my part of it and hear the others.

Efficiency report

What happened to me as a result of my choice of where to eat supper? The colonel never said a word to me about it. His XO mentioned the Night of the Hot Meal unfavorably in my efficiency report. Basically, I established that where an officer ate supper was officially voluntary.

However, I suspected it must have been unofficially mandatory when I read my efficiency report. At that time, 100 or 99 were excellent ratings, 98 was good, 97 was weak, and anything below 97 was the end of your career. The battalion commander gave me a 6 and the XO gave me a 9. Those were percentile rankings.

Someone asked my why the XO’s rating was higher. I gave the same answer everyone always gave about kindness from a superior.

He liked me.

That was also the unit where the battalion commander made me drive to Loc Ninh on Route 13 in a lone jeep repeatedly until we drove through an untriggered ambush. When my platoon sergeant suddenly invoked Sole Surviving Son rights upon our return after the ambush drive, the colonel switched to taking me out there in his daily helicopter, but refusing to bring me back. Your tax dollars at work jerking a West Point airborne ranger radio officer satellite communications officer around for the amusement of the battalion commander. In todays dollars, my five years of West Point and the other training probably cost the taxpayers about $300,000.

Hitchhiking through Indian country

That forced me to hitchike back, which, by definition, did not require a sergeant to drive me and scream when he figured out what was being done to me and, therefore, to him. Hitchhiking back usually took three days because I first had to get to the nearest division base camp, spend the night, hitch a ride on some aircraft to Long Binh, spend the night, then hitch a ride to Phu Loi in a vehicle the next day. Again, your West Point tax dollars at work.

Sole Surviving Son rights enabled any soldier to avoid being sent to Vietnam or instantly get out of Vietnam at any time if his brother had been killed there and he was the only remaining son in the family. My platoon sergeant was elegible for that but had not invoked it. He was career and on his second tour in Vietnam, but he hit the ejection button right after we drove through that ambush. I suspect the colonel thought the sergeant suddenly doing that after having been eligible and not doing it for an extended period might reflect negatively on him. Well, duh.

No kowtow, no captain’s bars

And this was the unit where I was on the second anniversary of my graduating from West Point. Back then, officers were promoted to captain on the second anniversary of their commissioning—unless, apparently, they did not eat cold supper with the colonel.

Letting the colonel’s wife bully your wife

I was not married when I was an Army officer. I suspect that was a very good thing. Based on stories I heard from other young officers who were married, I probably would have been court martialed had I been married.

The problem is that some wives of higher-ranking officers believe they are entitled to boss around the wives of junior officers. Once, one such wife tried to boss me around in the base post office. I told her the matter—an argument between me and the postal clerk—was none of her business. I never heard anything about it, probably because she did not get enough identifying information on me or, if she did, was quickly told that I was not the usual obsequious officer who would be concerned about pissing off some brass hat’s wife.

At a West Point Founder’s Day dinner at the Presidio of San Francisco, there were a thousand or more grads and wives. A table full of older grads and their wives featured a bunch of wives who tried to shush us younger grads at my class’s table while a singing group was performing. The singing group included the granddaughter of one of them. We gave the old wives a “drop dead” look and ignored them. We came to the Founder’s Day dinner to reune with our classmates, not to listen to a local church choir. The old wives seemed quite taken aback and angry at us—decades-long habit of bossing around junior officers I surmised.

I am told that these wives adopt their husband’s rank and identify themselves with lines like,

This is Mrs. Colonel Woodruff.

They order the junior wives to bake cakes or serve at blood drives and all that sort of stuff.

Had I been married and that happened to me, I would have told the colonel or general or whomever in question something along the lines of:

Sir, your wife called my wife yesterday and ordered her to bake three cakes for Saturday. Sir, my wife is not in the Army. Neither is yours. Your wife is not “Mrs. Colonel Woodruff.” She is just Mrs. Woodruff. Neither my wife nor I will take orders from your wife, sir. If she calls again, my wife will politely refuse to do whatever she asks, so please tell your wife not to call. If she persists in calling, sir, I will file a formal complaint against her and you.

That would have gotten me another of the standard “counseling sessions” that I would have rejected. See my article on Military honor for the script of the Army’s standard “counseling session” for officers who refuse to compromise their integrity or dignity.
On 5/1/20 I got an email from a retired lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Army, He said they have the same stuff there. And he said he had been both victim of it and perpetrator, but that in his last years, he stopped making attendance at the parties hosted by the brass mandatory. He said his bosses frowned at some of the junior officers not attending. So apparently they have this stuff in all armies around the planet—by definition, when you give top brass too much power it manifests in the form of forcing the lower ranks to periodically “bow” or “kow tow” to the brass.
When they were in the process of throwing me out of the Army, my lawyer said I was Don Quixote tilting at windmills. “Wrong European legend,” I said. “I am William Tell, refusing to bow down to the local government tyrant’s hat.”

For a classic example of a colonel’s wife bullying based on her marriage to a colonel see A woman named Leslie Drinkwine is the wife of Colonel Brian Drinkwine, Brigade Commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team in the 82nd Airborne Division. The Fort Bragg, NC (home base of the 82nd Airborne Division) commander banned Leslie from nearly all interaction with her husband’s brigade and its families. As is normal, Colonel Drinkwine named his wife to head the brigade’s Family Readiness Group, which serves as a support group for the families when the soldiers are deployed to a combat zone. At the time of the order banning Leslie, the 82nd was deployed to Afghanistan.

The article quoted a retired colonel saying 40 or 50 years ago you did not cross a commander’s wife. That was true when I was in which was 38 years ago. I have no idea why it would have changed. The Drinkwine incident indicates it has not. Colonel Drinkwine reportedly told subordinates that when his wife speaks she speaks for him and that his rank and those of his subordinate officers dictated how the subordinate officers’ wives were to relate to Mrs. Drinkwine.

Lt. Col. Frank Jenio was relieved of his battalion command while they were in combat in Afghanistan. He alleges that Mrs. Drinkwine had threatened to get him fired and that he believed she was responsible for his being relieved. He is consulting with a lawyer. The Drinkwines deny that Jenio’s being fired is related to Mrs. Drinkwine.

‘They haf vays’

So, when you fail to comply with that which is Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory, the U.S. Army officer corps is quite capable of behaving in the way implied by the old, classic, Nazi SS movie line,

Ve haf vays to make you kooperrate.

Throughout my time as an officer, I never “kooperrated” with OVUM—or made Kapitan.

Illegitimi non carborundum

Here is an eamil I received on 5/24/08 on the subject:

Mr. Reed
Just a note, in response to the other junior O's assertion (in the posted email on your site) that OVUM is over.  It's not.  Ask almost any officer (except the one mentioned above) about AUSA, CFC, AER, hails-and-fairwells, battalion and/or brigade ball events, prop blast, and any other pet causes that the command has.  The first three I listed are fundraising drives for various charities, emergency funds, and a lobby group.  Commanders are under pressure to get 100% of their units signed up, to the point where it's become expected.  NCOs enforce this, one way or another.  
Don't even get me started on the stupid stuff that goes on with re-enlistment drives; it gets crazy.  It must be a large part of a senior O's OER.
And, per your suggestion, I got and read your book; it's worth the time.
Take care,

Name withheld because still in active duty

Here is another email from 2010:

I've written you a few times before, and figured now that I've been in ______ long enough to have a handle on how the army operates, I should send you another email.
Since I've been in ______, I've seen how the army really is - how the emphasis here has been more on partying (one party a week, on average), than on training for the possibility of war ________.  My battalion has failed one major inspection, destroyed two high profile pieces of property, and lost one _______ (this is what I know of - through the rumor mill I have heard that the _____ company commander lost over $1 million dollars worth of equipment - [and] was not fired, [the] officer's report card grade for that year was simply downgraded).  All this, and we are still performing "better" than the other [same branch] battalions in ______.

Your comment that the army is a way for drunk, posturing, arrogant blowhards to get the respect they feel they deserve is just as accurate today as it ever was.  Sadly, my own family (and it seems, a lot of the general public) still buy into the BS the army sells.

I have been informally approached by my company commander [repeatedly] because I have not attended OVUM events (one, [a formal dance], resulted in my battalion commander calling my company commander to express his "disappointment" that I would not be attending).  My command has told me several times that, "I too tried not to play the game, but it's just something you have to do."  So far I have not received as much negative feedback as you did, mainly a result, I think, of the fact that my battalion commander cares more about conducting his parties than about taking the time to deal with the one platoon leader bucking the system (he's also passive-aggressive, which seems to be common amongst the career officers).
As far as I can tell, it's extremely difficult to not violate ethical/moral principles while holding a company command level position or higher.  My own company commander lost the ______ I mentioned earlier, and, instead of being fired, a "drug deal" was swung to replace the _______ in the inventory (it was missing for over a year before it came to light that he had lost it).  The commander for my company has referenced his "tricks" for how to deal with property, and how to essentially lie about what you have and what you don't.  From what I've heard from other platoon leaders, it's standard practice in our battalion.
I know I probably haven't told you anything you didn't expect, but I hope this gives you more ammunition against critics who will cry, of course, "that doesn't happen anymore!"

Oh, one more thing I thought you might find amusing - there is an officer's [club] here in ______ where I'm stationed.  I have made it clear to the people I work with that I do not drink, period.  My commander still let me know that it was a "good idea," to join and pay support the command.  I still haven't joined.
Name withheld by me

Here is a link to a very candid and knowledgeable YouTube animation about how officers get promoted in the real world of the U.S. military.


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