FORT KNOX, Ky. (May 13, 2013) -- As a civil affairs officer at Fort Bragg, N.C., Capt. Will Wardwell will spend his days interacting with leaders and citizens in communities neighboring the post. He'll be charged with developing, planning and coordinating Army activities during both times of peace and war.
It's a role Wardwell, who is undergoing training as part of a reclassification from quartermaster, expects to enjoy, he says. But he wasn't so sure his service would bring satisfaction when he commissioned three years ago.
Quartermaster wasn't the Texas A&M University graduate's first branch choice. Or his second. In fact, quartermaster was last on his list.
"Civil affairs has many personal development perks, like language training, cross-specialty training, top secret clearance, extra pay and master's courses," said Wardwell, who had hoped for infantry, armor or military intelligence. "Quartermaster has no programs like that, and you have little option on where you can be stationed."
Every year, scores of Cadets fill out "dream sheets" ranking the branches of which they most want to be part. And every year, the reality is that only a small number of the 5,000-plus graduating Army ROTC seniors nationwide get their wish.
Changes to the order of merit and branching processes taking effect this fall won't guarantee a Cadet his or her branch of choice, but it will give them an additional chance at landing the job field they want -- something they haven't had before.
"I was in the 26th percentile and worked hard academically, physically and tactically," said Wardwell, adding that he wishes the new system had been in place when he commissioned. "I was never worried about not getting an active duty slot; my branch was my only concern."
The way the system worked in the past, Cadet Command filled a specific number of branch allocations from the top half of the order of merit list and from the bottom half of the order of merit list based on Cadet preference and standing on the order of merit list. Then, to ensure quality and diversity distribution across the force, a certain number of branch allocations were filled by the Department of the Army Branching Model.
Those Cadets ranking between the 20th and 50th percentiles had no opportunity to compete for popular branches such as infantry, armor, military intelligence or aviation as those allocations were already filled by Cadets higher on the order of merit list, or OML. This is what is referred to as the "dead zone," said Cliff Hefner, chief of the Accessions and Security Division for Cadet Command.
But under the new branching model, the command will fill 55 percent of the total allocations for each branch by order of merit list ranking and Cadet branch preferences first. This includes Cadets who elect to execute a branch for active duty service obligation, or ADSO, contract.
If Cadets do not receive a branch through this process, they will go to the Department of the Army branching model, which will consider them for their top three branch preferences a second time. The model is a linear optimization approach that considers Cadet branch preference, where the Cadet fell on the order of merit list (quality), the Cadet's gender and the Cadet's ethnicity when filling the remaining 45 percent of each branches allocation.
This process ensures each Cadet has ample opportunity to compete for his or her top three branch preferences where this was not the case previously, Hefner said.
"This model is the best way of getting quality and diversity distribution across the force," he said. "If we conducted branching just by OML order and Cadet branch preference, branches like infantry, armor, aviation and military intelligence would receive the majority of the Cadets from the top of the order of merit list. Other less popular branches wouldn't get that same quality."
The new branching process will be set up by an order of merit list that puts more emphasis on a Cadet's on-campus performance and less weight on their achievement at the Leader Development and Assessment Course attended between their junior and senior years.
In the existing and revamped models, academics account for 40 percent of a Cadet's rating. The differences come in the leadership program that covers the other 60 percent. The professor of military science's evaluation of a student's third-year performance now counts for 11.25 percent, 4.5 percent more than previous years, and the land navigation score at LDAC, which was 4.5 percent, has been eliminated from the order of merit list model.
In addition, physical fitness tests done on campus during a Cadet's junior year in the program now are worth 7 percent, up from 4.05 percent. Weight for the PT test at LDAC was lowered to 6.5 percent from 9.45 percent.
The merit list changes are being spurred by Maj. Gen. Jeff Smith, Cadet Command's commanding general, who wants more focus on the personal and professional development of Cadets and less on assessment. As a result, LDAC, still the capstone event of Cadets' ROTC experience, centers on development of critical skills needed to become quality officers instead of simply grading them on select events within the four-week training program at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
The shift also puts more weight in the hands of professors of military science who personally work with Cadets throughout their time in ROTC and yet found themselves in positions where their evaluations weren't as significant, Hefner said.
"When you look at it, what the professor of military science could do for a Cadet was minimal," he said.
Some professors of military science welcome the increased role they play in the accessions process.
Lt. Col. John Tao of Santa Clara University, the Cadet Command 2011-12 Professor of Military Science of the Year, said the merit list restructuring makes for a fairer assessment. He pointed to how situations like a weaker performance on the PT test at LDAC because a Cadet was not acclimated to the environment can greatly penalize a student who might otherwise be a greater standout.
"It's a great thing when you see someone for three years, and I can assess them," Tao said. "That's a step in the right direction."
The order or merit list that was traditionally released in early fall will not be made public now until after branching is complete in November. Delaying the release gives schools an additional month to gather Cadets' branch choices and input data on each of them into the command's network, rather than having to scurry to ensure all the information was in by Labor Day in time for consideration for producing the list.
What an earlier merit list release did as well was trigger disappointment among some Cadets, particularly those who fell within the so-called "dead zone," and foster feelings of wanting to be either at the top or bottom of the list.
"The OML would come out and if someone was in the 46th percentile, they knew they couldn't ask for certain branches," Hefner said. "It forced Cadets to look at other options."
Tao knows the feeling. Each year, the program holds a celebratory dinner in recognition of senior Cadets receiving their branch selections. Last year, he had one student who fell in the "dead zone" and ended up branching transportation. He wanted combat arms.
"He was where he should be (on the merit list), but he said, 'I wish you would've ranked me lower. I would've got what I wanted,'" Tao said. "It wasn't much of a celebration for him."
Because Cadets will not know where they stack up on the merit list until after being selected for a branch, the hope is they will educate themselves about all branches and the opportunities through each when devising their list of choices.
Those like Tao encourage Cadets to practice "expectation management," telling them to understand not everyone is going to receive the branch they want and that hard work, regardless of one's field, leads to success.
"If you work hard, people will notice and you'll move up," he said. "We stress that ROTC is a four-year marathon, not a 29-day sprint. There are general officers in every branch. It's about the hard work you put in, and you'll get a return on your investment. You do the best job you can do when you get into that branch."