Even though they don’t wear uniforms, Defense Department civilians can supervise U.S. troops. One need look no further than the Pentagon to find officers toiling away for their civilian masters.
But can Defense Department civilians actually outrank troops? That’s what Dan Coakley wanted to know during his deployment to Iraq in 2008 with a brigade from Army Materiel Command.
The battalion commander had a civilian deputy who was a GS-14, Coakley told The Rumor Doctor. Although this civilian was not Coakley’s supervisor, he assumed he outranked Coakley because he was the civilian equivalent of a lieutenant colonel.
There was constantly an underlying tension between the two, and it got the point where the civilian was outraged that Coakley assumed command when the battalion commander went on leave.
“He was very upset, absolutely said he had rank and he should be in charge, but I assumed command because it was a military organization and that’s how it works,” Coakley said.
Despite what this strong-willed civilian might have thought, civilians cannot pull rank on troops, according to experts.
Civilians only have authority over troops who work directly for them, Defense Department spokeswoman Maj. Monica Matoush said in an email. Even then military commanders have final authority over servicemembers.
Furthermore, civilians are not in command of the troops they supervise, said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, who served as Air Force deputy Judge Advocate General from 2006 to 2010 and now teaches law at Duke University.
“The only civilians in the operational chain of military command are the president and the secretary of defense,” Dunlap said in an email. “Service secretaries also have certain authorities, but not in the same operational sense.”
While civilians in higher pay grades may get the same benefits entitled to general officers, that is “a matter of protocol and comity, not because they are legally equivalent,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Geoff Corn, a former judge advocate officer who now teaches at South Texas College of Law in Houston.
Civilian supervisors still have lots of authority over troops, Corn said in an email. For example, they can assign tasks, and assess troops’ performance.
“But they cannot perform functions of command, such as process disciplinary actions,” Corn said in an email. “Instead, they are supposed to recommend such actions to the soldier’s commander. When the commander is not available, a subordinate military officer assumes command, not the civilian.”
THE RUMOR DOCTOR’S DIAGNOSIS: Most civilians are not in the chain of command so they cannot pull rank on troops. For the record, The Rumor Doctor’s civilian paygrade is NF-4, meaning he couldn’t even command troops in the Salvation Army.