Defense Media Network

Oops! Kicking a Complaint Upstairs – And Getting Kicked Back

“We are going to take care of the troops first, last, and all the time.”

—Gen. George C. Marshall

Of all the many priorities on Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall’s list, care of the troops ranked at the top. He backed up his words with countless deeds big and small, willing to listen to the complaints of even the newest recruit and correct them if justified—and upbraid or discipline the offender if they were not.

During his first year as Army Chief of Staff, while conducting a winter inspection at Fort Benning, Ga., one of the first sergeants told his orderly Sgt. James W. Powder that there was a severe shortage of blankets and quilts for the men, a problem made acute by the unusually severe winter that year. Powder notified Marshall who promised to have the problem taken care of. Several weeks later, during another visit to Fort Benning, that first sergeant walked up to Powder and sarcastically said, “We are still waiting for them quilts.” As Marshall was going to dinner that evening, Powder informed him that the problem hadn’t been fixed. Marshall’s face went red and he growled, “We’ll find out why they weren’t sent.”

Upon discovering that the order was lost in bureaucratic red tape, Marshall exploded, “Get these blankets and stoves and every other damn thing that’s needed out tonight, not tomorrow morning, and not two weeks from now. I don’t care what regulations are upset or anything of that character. We are going to take care of the troops first, last, and all the time.”

Marshall made it known that anyone could write to him on any subject concerning the Army. He set aside twenty minutes of each working day in the prewar years to read letters of complaint from his soldiers, and tried to personally answer at least six of them. In one instance, a soldier mailed him a tough steak as evidence to support the soldier’s complaint of bad cooking his company had to endure. Marshall forwarded the complaint to the soldier’s division commander, adding that he could not also send the steak as it had “to be disposed of” but that it hinted at a poorly run mess “for which I find few excuses.” Recognizing that, since the complaining soldier’s name was revealed in the correspondence, Marshall reiterated that the soldier might have grounds for complaint, “So do not kill him until you have looked into it.”

But, if the complaint proved unjustified—look out! Pvt. Frank W. Clay discovered exactly that after he had written to the general complaining about the poor medical care he was receiving. In his response, dated April 7, 1941, Marshall wrote:

My dear Clay:

Since the receipt of your letter, complaining about the lack of attention you have received, your case has been investigated by the Commanding General at Fort Bragg. I am told you believe you are suffering from arthritis, but that the surgeon has been unable to make a definite diagnosis. But what is more to the point, I am told that prior to December 31, 1940, your service was satisfactory, but since that date it has not been satisfactory. You married without permission; you were absent without leave on January 6th and again for three days from 15th; you entered the hospital on January 18, and were absent without leave on January 19th.

There are more than one million young men in the Army today. If conduct such as yours was a frequent occurrence, it would be impossible to build up an efficient army and utterly impossible to administer it. The fact that the Chief of Staff of the Army has taken the time to write to you directly should indicate to you the harm done by unjustifiable complaints such as yours. It is your job now as a citizen and soldier in this great emergency to do your duty without further derelictions.

Yet, even with this reprimand, Marshall retained some compassion. Maj. Gen. Jacob L. Devers was the commanding general of Fort Bragg during this period. Marshall forwarded to Devers a copy of his correspondence with Clay together with a note, “Entirely informally and off the record I am sending you the attached rather pathetic letter. Please do not have this fellow hazed, but have the surgeons see what the trouble is.”


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-6079">

    Officers such as Marshell and Patton were few and far between. From what I am hearing on a daily basis from friends and the news services willing to still cover the wars we are in, the troops are being looked upon more as police officers and less as combat soldiers. Officers are becoming more concerned with promotions than they are with winning and dping what it tales to make the wars a success.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-6205">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Marshall and Patton were in some ways lucky. The free countries of the world were in an obvious fight for their lives and we had clear enemies who had clearly shown their intentions to conquer the world. The press was on the side of the government (and was heavily censored anyway), and military leadership weren’t asked to do anything beyond kill people and win battles, by and large. These days a CINC has to be able to kill Taliban while making friends with villagers and shmoozing with Karzai. I’m sure they would rather, at times, be fighting the Battle of the Bulge than the war they’ve been handed.

    But even Patton stepped in it at times politically, even in that war.