Delta Company soldiers march to the field at Army Officer Candidate School. (Army)
Michael Heller knew that if he was going to move up, he had to get out.
As an Army sergeant, Heller had a successful career. But when he wanted to make the leap to officer in 2013, he found that door closed.
“I started to pursue a commission in the Army, but during that time they lowered the maximum commissioning age to 28, and I was already 31. So I started to look at other options,” he said.
The best option turned out to be the Air Force, where 2nd Lt. Heller now runs the test management office in that service’s personnel center.
For those looking to move from enlisted to officer, a change of service often can open doors — and it isn’t necessarily hard to do.
For those feeling stalled in their upward momentum, “the Navy might have opportunities in our officer programs that allow them to have that career progression, or they may just desire a change of service that best aligns with their skill sets or with their long-term career aspirations,” said Cmdr. Erik Horner, director of officer programs in the Navy Recruiting Command.
The first step in jumping to the Navy, or any other service, is a DD Form 368, a conditional release in which your commanding officer gives you the thumbs-up to leave before your current obligation ends. This document typically gives you a year to get accepted into another service, and the upper ranks generally are supportive, Horner said.
“When I have had sailors approach me to sign off on the DD 368, generally they have had a very strong reason for doing it, and I have been totally OK with them doing it. I would hope that other senior officers would give their soldiers that same level of respect and consideration,” he said.
You may need other waivers, too, say for traffic violations, misdemeanors or tattoos. The services generally want to see these waived before considering a crossover candidate for officer training.
You’ll need a four-year degree to make officer. Some will earn this before applying — that’s the surest route. Or a candidate can apply to pursue the degree via a service academy or ROTC program.
In some cases, it’s possible to get accepted into an officer candidate program even before the degree is wrapped up. The Coast Guard, for example, will consider a candidate as essentially degree-complete if he or she is wrapping up senior year academics in time for the next round of officer training classes.
“It’s a way for people to maintain their momentum without having to feel like they have to finish everything before they can go,” said Lt. Ashly Thomas, who runs officer accession programs in the Coast Guard Recruiting Command.
That academic aspect was a big part of Heller’s motivation to seek promotion. “I was older when I enlisted, and I already had a master’s degree before I joined. With my life experience and my age, I wanted more responsibility,” he said.
Academics are only one part of the process. Every officer accession program will put candidates through a series of evaluations, and while these apply to everyone, crossover candidates may have a slight edge.
“It is a ‘total person’ selection. We focus on leadership — that is 50 percent of the evaluation — and in that sense service is a good thing, in any form,” said Lt. Col. Chester L. McMillon, head of officer programs for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command. “hen we see someone who has served, that is something we want to reward.”
The same holds true in the Coast Guard. “We look for people who already align themselves with the core values, who have shown the values and traits that would make them successful,” Thomas said. “People coming from other services already incorporate that ethos in their lives.”
That doesn’t make the evaluation a slam-dunk, however. As in the other services, acceptance into the Coast Guard officer program involves a rigorous process, including an interview with officers to talk about professionalism, communication and leadership. Even those coming from other services need to go through the normal officer accession steps — no matter what service they’re entering.
While crossing over may give you an edge, there are a few factors to consider. First, your military job may not align directly with your destination. For instance, no enlisted job lines up with the role of Navy pilot. Certainly a straight line can make the transition easier, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to switch. It’s just something to be aware of when considering the options, Horner said.
Likewise, some may be surprised to find that their active-duty lifestyle isn’t good enough for a potential officer. An existing injury that passes muster on active duty as an enlisted member may preclude acceptance into an officer program, where a fresh evaluation may flag the issue as problematic.
Still, for those who make the leap, the rewards often will justify the efforts.
“The day I got the call notifying me that I had been selected, it was one of the happiest moments of my life,” Heller said. “This is just such a better fit for me.”