The Army Officer Email Chain that Caused Pandemonium

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The 207th Regional Support Group of Fort Jackson, conducted a Command Post Exercise at its headquarters
The 207th Regional Support Group of Fort Jackson, S.C., conducted a Command Post Exercise at its headquarters May 17, 2019. (Gary A. Witte/U.S. Army)

The officer who wrote this editorial has been granted anonymity by Military.com and is being identified by rank and initials due to fear of retaliation for writing without permission from the U.S. Army. The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com.

It was the "reply-all" heard around the world.

Around 06:30 Eastern time Feb. 2, approximately 13,000 Army inboxes pinged with an email from an unfamiliar sender. It was from a U.S. Army captain, asking to be removed from a distribution list. It initially seemed as though some unfortunate soul had inadvertently hit "reply-all" and made an embarrassing mistake. What followed can really be described only as professional anarchy, as thousands of inboxes became buried in an avalanche of email replies.

Someone appears to have unwittingly edited an email distribution list, entitled "FA57 Voluntary Transfer Incentive Program," routing replies back to the entire list.

Most Army officers receive emails from human resources managers from time to time, usually sent using the blind copy (BCC) address line with replies routed to specific inboxes, preventing someone from accidentally triggering the mayhem that unfolded Feb. 2. The voluntary incentive program list, however, hadn't been so prudently designed and, in addition to 13,000 Army captains and some newly promoted majors, a single chief warrant officer, a Space Force captain and a specialist began to have their inboxes groan under the weight of inbound traffic.

Within a few short hours of the initial email, predictable hilarity ensued. Hundreds of Army captains were sending emails asking to be removed from the distro list. In short order, hundreds of other captains replied, demanding that everyone stop hitting "reply-all" and berating their peers' professionalism (oblivious to the fact that they were also part of the problem). Many others found humor in the event, writing poems, sending memes and adding snarky comments to the growing dumpster fire. Before long, the ever-popular U.S. Army WTF! Moments Facebook page picked up on the mayhem and posted one of the memes that had been circulating in the email thread.

By 7 p.m. Eastern time, more than 1,000 emails had been blasted out to this massive group of Army officers. Those in different time zones (like Hawaii) came into work and were quickly overwhelmed by the deluge of emails clogging their inboxes. Some of the humorless officers resorted to typing in all caps "PLEASE REMOVE ME FROM THIS DISTRO," prompting at least two to three sarcastic replies in return.

Other captains took the opportunity to blast out helpful (or not so helpful) instructions on how to properly create email sorting rules in Outlook. A few intrepid officers tried to Rickroll everyone, and one even wrote new lyrics to the tune of an Eminem song. A particularly funny officer wrote a Nigerian prince scheme email and blasted it out to the group.

Eventually, someone created and shared a Microsoft Teams group to move the devolving conversation to a new forum, quickly amassing more than 1,700 members. What started off as a gloriously chaotic email chain quickly turned into one the largest and most successful professional networking opportunities most of us have ever seen. Officers from multiple branches and functional areas across the globe took to the Microsoft Teams page, sharing useful products, making professional connections, and generally raising everyone's esprit de corps. The group's creator even started a petition to promote the one specialist who was inadvertently added to the distro list.

There were some who were clearly annoyed at the constant stream of emails (although it's very easy to sort them into their own folder if you know how to use Outlook) and complained about the maturity of others. Despite the pessimists, I can't help but feel encouraged and amused by my peers who don't take themselves too seriously and can make light of a clearly funny situation. The memes gave me new life and motivation as I sat through the day's bureaucratic grind of meetings and normal emails. Someone will inevitably figure out how to shut down this distribution list and stop our inboxes from being flooded, but there are a few clear lessons:

1. There are far too many technically illiterate captains who would benefit from learning how to properly use Microsoft Outlook (particularly how to set up sorting rules) instead of replying like boomers using new technology.

2. Army officers have the undeniable ability to create greatness out of chaos, creatively organizing and collaborating to make the best of any situation.

3. If the Functional Area 57 managers did this on purpose, this was some brilliant viral marketing.

4. The Army needs to leverage technology to create more networking opportunities for company-grade officers. While some love to reminisce about the old days of networking at the local officers' club, there are plenty of modern technology-enabled opportunities to connect.

5. Finally, this event proves the point that if you put a bunch of soldiers or officers of the same rank in one room (including generals), they will revert to acting like privates within 15 minutes.

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