Under the Radar

Why Corporal Is the 'Worst Rank in the Army'

"All of the work, none of the pay."

For those who aren't familiar with the Army rank structure, there are three directions an Army specialist can go in terms of rank change. They can be demoted to private first class, losing responsibilities and pay. They can be promoted to sergeant, gaining responsibilities and pay.

Or, a third direction, they can be "laterally promoted" to corporal, where they gain lots of responsibilities but no pay.

This is why corporal is the worst rank in the Army.

An Army corporal is sent to roll up ratchet straps near trees while an Army specialist is paid the same to take a photo of them doing it. (U.S. Army Spc. Andrew J. Washington)

See, corporal is an enlisted level-4 rank, equal in pay to a specialist. This is a holdover from back in the day when the Army had two enlisted rank structures that ran side-by-side. There were specialists-4, specialists-5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. Specialists got the same pay as their noncommissioned officer equivalents. So, a specialist-9 got paid the same as a sergeant major.

Specialists were expected to be experts in a specific job, but weren't expected to necessarily lead other soldiers. So, it was unlikely that they would pull duties like sergeant of the guard, and they were only rarely appointed to real leadership positions. The rest of the time, they just did their jobs well and got left alone.

But specialists were slowly whittled down in the 1960s-80s. After 1985, only one specialist rank remained. It was paid at the E-4 level, same as a corporal.

Today, specialist is the most common rank in the Army.

But some specialists are so high-speed, so good at their jobs, so inspiring to their fellow troops, that the Army decides it must have them as leaders now. And, if they aren't eligible for promotion to E-5 just yet, then we'll just laterally promote them to corporal and get them into the rotation anyway.

So, the soldier gets added to the NCO duty rosters, gets tapped for all sorts of work details that pop up, and gets held to a higher standard than their peers, even though they're drawing the same paycheck every month.

They can even be assigned to positions which would normally go to a sergeant, like senior team leader.

"All of the work, none of the pay."

Meanwhile, their specialist peers are so well known for cutting up that the symbol of their rank is known as the "sham shield," a play on the Army slang of "shamming" (skipping work, known as skating in the Navy).

The Army needed someone to go out and take photos of a bunch of guys getting hit with CS gas in the middle of the desert. They, of course, turned to a corporal. (U.S. Army Cpl. Hannah Baker)

But, hey, how bad can life actually be?

Well, first, Army enlisted soldier is already one of the most stressful jobs in the nation according to yearly surveys. One widely reported every year comes from CareerCast which ranked enlisted military as the single most stressful position in the country in 2018.

(Side note: the rest of the occupations in the top 5 most stressful jobs have an average salary of $65,562. E-4s pull in about $30,000 depending on their time in service.)

A U.S. Army specialist is "promoted" to corporal, a promotion that he will never regret. (U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Christina Turnipseed)

Next, when corporals are laterally promoted, they only move up the feeding chain a tiny amount, moving from specialists to guys who are ostensibly in charge of specialist, but still below all other NCO, officers, and warrant officers.

And we said ostensibly for a reason. Specialists aren't known for always caring what a corporal says. Or what anyone else says, but corporals get particularly short shrift. And this is especially bad for corporals who are appointed to that rank in the same unit they were specialists in. After all, that means they have to now direct the guys they were hanging out with just a few days or weeks before, all without the benefit of a more concrete promotion.

Army Cpl. Quantavius Carter works as a movement noncommissioned officer, logging all the measurements necessary for the paperwork to ship the vehicle. (U.S. Army Sgt. Elizabeth White)

But their job is important, and most corporals are appointed to that rank because higher leadership knows that they'll take it seriously. Like we mentioned, corporals can be assigned to jobs that would normally require a sergeant. They sent to supervise everything from crap details to automatic weapons teams.

They are, truthfully, part of the backbone of the Army, but they still often have to share barracks rooms with drunk specialists.

So, yeah, buy your local corporal a drink when you get a chance, because they're stuck in a tough job with no extra pay and little extra respect. Worst rank in the Army.

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