How do the officer ranks stack up? Is one rank better than another? It’s not just about perks – parking spaces, pay, and big offices – it’s also about what matters to you. Every rank has its ups and downs.

It’s common to hear an officer refer to company-level command as the best time of their career. Even people who lament the headaches of command – a recent Reddit post offers a great example of the pains of leadership – typically acknowledge that it’s “the best time in my career.” As a company-level commander, you’re still close to the troops, young enough to appreciate (and tolerate) the challenges of the job, yet mature enough to have some seasoning under your belt.

But how does the rank of captain – generally when someone assumes company-level command – stack up in the grand scheme of the officer ranks?

Breaking Rank and Doing it MY WAY

My path through the officer rank gave me plenty of opportunities to reflect on this question. For some reason, my promotion sequence number always seemed to fall on April 1. The jokes wrote themselves, let me tell you. But it was more than that.

Probably from the first day I put on the uniform, I was consistently told that I wouldn’t see the next rank. I still remember the time a spouse laughed when I mentioned a personal goal of attending the School of Advanced Military Studies. “You shouldn’t get your hopes up,” she said, trying not to spit out her drink. “The Army just isn’t for everyone.” She wasn’t the last person to tell me that, either.

I did things my way. I tended to speak my mind, even when silence would have been the wiser option. I had an independent streak that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. My early mentoring came from my platoon sergeant and senior maintenance warrant rather than more senior leaders. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it my way or go down trying. As a result, every promotion offered an opportunity to reflect at length on the good, the bad, and the ugly.

CLIMBING THE LADDER

Every rank is different. That might seem like a blinding flash of the obvious, but it’s true. Your perspective changes. Your level of maturity changes (or at least should). Your understanding changes. And every change in rank brings new challenges and opportunities.

Second Lieutenant

Despite all the jokes about second lieutenants and land navigation, life as a butterbar really isn’t all that bad. You only know enough to be dangerous, and fumble-f@cking your way through each day is generally expected and (hopefully) accepted. You spend your days among your troops, which is a pretty great place to be. And you learn a lot, assuming you take the time to pay attention to what’s happing around you.

First Lieutenant

Still, it was a relief to earn what is essentially an automatic promotion. The expectations for a first lieutenant are higher, the tolerance for mistakes a bit lower, and the opportunities to separate yourself from your peers (for good or bad) greater. Unfortunately, first lieutenant tends to be where you get your first taste of staff life, and the misery that follows with it.

Captain

Promotion to captain offers two things: an opportunity to command and be with troops again, and a return to some form of staff life. For all the challenges command presents, there’s something to be said for being in a position to influence positive change and set a winning organizational climate. But once you hand off that guidon, you start that downhill slide. Staff (or something like it) is going to follow, and you get your first real taste of what the next several years will bring.

Major

By the time promotion to major arrives, you are cresting a career hill. You’re invested. You’re in your 30s. Families are involved. Career decisions – especially those involving major career changes – are increasingly difficult to make. But you’re still a field grade, and that feels good. The return to staff life, though. They call you an Iron Major for a reason: you’re carrying a lot of weight on your shoulders at this point.

Lieutenant Colonel

Promotion to lieutenant colonel is, in a strange way, a lot like becoming a captain, but with a lot more pay and lot higher expectations. On one hand, it offers (for some) a new opportunity to command. On the other, it presents (for most) an extension of the staff life. For many, cynicism has set in and the seemingly endless encounters with annoying colonels makes retirement look really good. My thinking had reached that point as a lieutenant colonel, and I was prepared to transition to civilian life when I received word of my selection to colonel.

When my last promotion list posted, I was on my way to greet the news when a seagull crapped in my face. Someone once told me that a bird pooping on you is a sign of good luck. In this case, a lot of good luck. In my eyes, in my mouth, and all over my uniform. It was a memorable day, to say the least. I took a shower, changed uniforms, and received the news (as unbelievable as it was at the time).

Colonel

My promotion to colonel was both unexpected and unique. My sequence number posted during redeployment. Me being me, I simply stopped by the exchange at Ali Al Salem airbase, purchased my rank insignia, and promoted myself on the way to breakfast. No need for a lot of ceremony, sausage and eggs were waiting.

The Best Army Rank

General Dave Perkins used to say that colonel was the best rank in the Army, and he wasn’t wrong. He said it was like earning tenure. You can pretty much say or do whatever you want as long as you don’t break the law, and no one can do anything about it. If you want to use your rank for good, you can make a significant difference for the better. When your fun meter is pegged, you can simply exit stage left on your own terms. Which is what I did, never looking back and never once regretting the decision.

The only ranks left are those of the General officer variety. For those aspiring to rise to those ranks and wishing to continue to serve their country, I have nothing but respect. But I’ve never once met a general whose eyes didn’t have the weary look of a horse that’s been rode hard and put away wet. As a currently serving four-star general told me on the eve of their promotion to brigadier general, “I just signed away the next ten years of my life.” It’s a hard-knock life, to be sure.

 

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.