Functional Designation Part 1: Choosing a New Career Path
This is the first in a multi-part series about officers who have chosen to transition into a functional area. These pieces will discuss some of the motivations behind transitioning to a functional area and the opportunities associated with such a move.
The purpose of this article is to provide insight into three U.S. Army Functional Areas from three separate officers who recently assessed into them. The respondents answer some very basic questions about their career choices. Their responses reflect their own opinions, experiences, and biases, and are not meant to be taken as official career advice. It is hoped however that future generations of officers will find this article useful when planning their own careers.
The opinions expressed here do not reflect the positions of any branch of the U.S. Army, Department of The Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.
Who are you? Talk about yourselves.
FA 48 — Foreign Area Officer (FAO): I commissioned from The Citadel as an Armor Officer (Branch Detail), and following that completed the Military Intelligence CCC. I was raised overseas in Europe and the Middle East, completed deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have served as a platoon leader, Battalion S-2, and SFAT advisor before joining the Foreign Area Officer corps.
FA 51 — Acquisition Corps Officer (AAC):
I am a former Infantry officer who commissioned through ROTC. I was a successful lieutenant (Ranger qualified, enumerated top 3) with deployed platoon leader time in Afghanistan. After the Maneuver CCC I was on a division staff and then a company commander in an infantry battalion.
FA 59 — Strategist:
I commissioned through ROTC as a Field Artillery Officer, and am a graduate of the Fires CCC. My time as a field artilleryman however was anything but standard — before switching to being a strategist, I had almost never worked with or around howitzers. I have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and have been a platoon leader, Assistant BDE FSO, AS3, and had two successful (though non-artillery) commands.
Why did you leave your basic branches? What is special or unique about your Functional Areas?
FA 48 — Foreign Area Officer (FAO): It would be easier to dispel the notion of leaving my basic branch upfront: I joined the Army to become a FAO. It was never a debate; it was never a choice I was going to have to mull over when the time came: my reasons for commissioning in the Army, for volunteering to Branch detail in exchange for an extended service obligation, for spending my key development time in detail and basic branch advising foreign militaries, was to become a FAO.
My time as a FAO so far has been rewarding. After spending two years learning Arabic at the Presidio of Monterey, I was given the opportunity to work in North Africa. The training pipeline has offered an incredible opportunity to travel within North Africa and the Middle East, and focus my research on gaps in my knowledge on parts of these regions. There are some talented individuals enacting U.S. foreign policy within this region, and I’m incredibly grateful that I have the chance to bring my experiences and skills to this environment.
FA 51 — Acquisition Corps Officer (AAC):
For me I had known from a very early point in my career that being a Company Commander, Battalion S3, and Battalion Commander were not the direction that I wanted to go. The infantry is a branch that is unmatched in pride and importance of mission. I am thankful for the initial development I received as an LT and wouldn’t trade it for anything. I had mostly good leadership that took mentorship seriously and I have been lucky in that I never really experienced any toxic leadership. But the constant social work of being a Company Commander completely removed any last ideas of staying in the infantry. After Company Command (ACOM, deployed) I was assigned to a recruiting command. That assignment was by far my least enjoyed and fully showed me the danger of being in a branch that is a bill payer for branch immaterial positions. Note for Company Commanders awaiting next assignment: you might not be excited about NTC or JRTC but they might be way better than the alternatives.
I have always had a general interest in the business side of the Army and some of the more economic decisions that I saw firsthand on a Division staff. I researched Force Management, Strategic Plans, Acquisition Corps, and read through all of the broadening opportunities. The Acquisition Corps offers a higher than Army average promotion rate, at least to major, almost certain Advanced Civil Schooling slots, and an environment where you work with senior federal employees on programs that have huge effects on the force over decades. Company Command in the operational Army is a care-taker position. You try to keep a unit of individuals together and moving towards an always moving end state of “trained and ready”. Functional areas, especially the more “business” oriented ones, allow a Captain/junior Major to punch way above their weight class and have effects that are lasting and valuable.
FA 59 — Strategist:
After the career course, but before I took command I knew that I wanted to do something different. The standard track did not have much appeal to me. In my mind, a more useful officer is one who has had a wide range of experiences such as certain broadening programs or attending ILE at a sister service, rather than one who has hit all the “right” milestones. I just wanted to do something outside the box, that I hoped would benefit the Army as much as it would benefit me. Coupled with this, I had the misfortune of having to deal with some toxic leaders and their effects on units. I reflected on how difficult it was being a commander, with little autonomy and dealing with a never-ending slew of problems, and I saw how stressed the field-grade officers and their families were. I did not want that for myself. Fortunately one of the good battalion commanders had spoken at length with me about becoming a strategist.
I have always been interested in military history, geopolitics, and trying to solve world problems. Becoming a strategist has, and may continue to provide me the opportunity to indulge those interests. Being at Carlisle Barracks for the Basic Strategic Arts Program (BSAP) was a real treat, with all the history and Army pride ingrained in the post, as were the staff rides to various Civil War battlefields that surround that area. The week long staff ride to Washington D.C. with high level access throughout the Pentagon and inter-agency, and having candid discussions with various scholars and senior officials was amazing. Finally, being a strategist at a major Army headquarters has given me the opportunity to learn about various high-level processes and plans, and to be part of teams crafting solutions to wicked problems.
A refreshing thing about the Strategist branch is that it encourages a breadth of experiences. There is no one track to success. Strategists are encouraged to seek broadening assignments, advanced degrees, and are employed throughout the inter-agency (DoS, NSC, you name it) — so there are numerous opportunities for personal and professional development. There is also a very strong network within the branch that keeps all strategists and associated leaders/scholars connected, which is of tremendous benefit because it keeps everyone informed and no one is ever without a mentor.
What advice would you give to other officers who are considering going into a functional area?
FA 48 — Foreign Area Officer (FAO):
Our situations will, and do vary. Many who have have “gone functional” have done so for differing reasons; come from different backgrounds; and have varying career goals. One consistency though is that they have all worked hard in their career. Our system for accessing individuals to a functional branch looks primarily at “cultured candidates”: service members who have completed their staff time, key development positions, broadening assignments, and additional education; individuals who have taken that extra initiative to better themselves and their organization, and adopted a longer strategic view on their part in the military.
Luckily our system is designed so that individuals have the opportunity to excel in a basic branch prior to assessing into a functional area. The idea of broadening an officer as much as possible prior to utilizing him a specialized function gives depth and validity to the functional programs; a strategy or foreign area officer who doesn’t understand basic troop leading procedures, or rudimentary staff processes will ultimately be a disservice to the functional area. A lot of officers who accessed into the FAO program understood this at an early point in their career; if accessing FAO was in their interest, they would have to become a “master of their craft” in order to present a competitive file for selection. It’s a system that promotes initiative and self-growth, but one where competing organizations run the risk of losing officers to each-other
FA 51 — Acquisition Corps Officer (AAC):
Deciding to enter into a functional area does not erase all the good experience an officer brings from the operational force. I had several leaders who have stayed on “the path” for and through Battalion Command that would tease and joke about going to a functional area, but they would always pull me aside later and tell me I was making a great decision they wish they had considered when they were younger. Being a career combat arms officer carries more weight in the civilian market than most people consider, but having actual civilian certifications and relatable experience can be invaluable.
There are two paths in the Acquisition Corps: Contracting and Program Management. Both tracks have specific skill sets that are developed and both provide access to certifications like Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, DAWIA Level III, and many others. Your time in uniform will go by faster than you think and eventually it will just be you in a suit and a resume. Make sure you consider what all you want to be on your resume.
FA 59 — Strategist:
Consider your options carefully. Assess the career you have had, the career you want, and the opportunities available at the time. If I had different leaders, life events, or assignments I very well could have stayed in my basic branch. There are a lot of very talented individuals who remain in their basic branch, and more than likely will end up being the Army’s top leaders because of it. To go into a functional area is to no longer be in the command track. Strategists are staff officers who give advice — they are not the ultimate decision-makers. As stressful as my commands were, there are some days where I yearn to have the unique responsibility and authority of being a commander again. It is a hard thing, to consciously make the decision to remove oneself from the possibility of ever commanding again.
Regardless, the Strategist career field is not for everyone and applicants need to be prepared. It is intellectually rigorous, and people do actually fail out of it. Applicants to a functional area should also be prepared to take a hit up front; most battalion/brigade commanders and branch managers do not understand or appreciate losing an officer to a functional area. But once you are in, you have a greater hand in your future within the branch so long as you continue to work hard and contribute in a positive way.
Conclusion — any closing comments?
We cannot agree with the idea that the best and brightest follow one or two specific career paths — it is not “either this, then that, or not at all”. There are great officers who continue to serve in their Basic branches, great officers who went into functional areas, and great officers who have left the military (for whatever reason). Whatever the reasons those who have moved on from military service have chosen is a subject for another discussion. But many who went functional, would have done so had the option been given at the start of their career, at least in hindsight. The Army identifies its best and brightest and chooses among them to fill the ranks of its functional zones. Yet this hardly culls basic branches of talented and excellent officers. What is important is that officers make a conscious choice to strive to be the best leader, follower, and whatever type of officer the Army needs them to be.