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How to Become a General

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Generals are the highest ranking officers in the U.S. military. When generals get promoted, they gain more stars. Typically, the highest ranking among them have earned four stars, although a handful, such as General MacArthur during World War II, have earned five. If you're interested in joining this elite group of military leaders, start out at the rank of second lieutenant and work your way up.

Officer Ranks in the Military

The U.S. military identifies officer ranks by title and pay grade. A pay grade of O-1 represents the lowest ranking junior officers. This position is held by second lieutenants in the Army, the Marines and the Air Force, and by ensigns in the Navy. Brigadier generals represent a pay grade of O-7, a position held by rear admiral lower half in the Navy. The top pay grade, O-10, goes to four-star generals. There is no pay grade assigned to five-star generals.

From Enlisted to Officer

It's possible to start an officer's career path out by enlisting. There are nine pay grades for enlisted service members. The first level of non-commissioned officers or enlisted leadership is at the pay grade of E-5. Many service members don't make the transition from non-commissioned officers to commissioned, but every general starts out as a commissioned officer. If taking this route, gain the support of a commanding officer to earn a recommendation for officer training. The next step is officer training school or reserved officer training corps.

Officer Training School

Each branch of the military has its own officer training schools or officer candidate schools. Three categories of service personnel attend these schools: service members who've already earned college degrees; enlisted personnel who've earned a commanding officer's recommendation; or direct commissioned officers, which are civilians recruited by the military due to highly specialized skills. These schools typically provide training on military subjects and leadership skills, in addition to physical training. (see ref 2)

Reserve Officer Training Corps

Rather than enlisting and aiming for the top, join the reserve officer training corps, or ROTC, to get a firm step on that first rung of the military officer career ladder. Through ROTC programs, military branches partner with universities. Students attending these programs earn college degrees in their chosen fields of study in addition to receiving training in military subjects, including combat techniques and leadership. Explore options with colleges and directly with a preferred military branch. (see ref 2)

Military Officer Promotions

U.S. Code Title 10 defines the military promotion process for commissioned officers based on time spent in service and time spent at a particular pay grade. Officers who meet the criteria defined in Title 10 must also receive a recommendation for promotion by their commanding officers. That's not the last step for generals, however. Officers recommended for promotion to the rank of general go before a promotion or selection board for a formal review. The board then authorizes the promotion based on a majority vote. (see ref 6 & 7)

  • George Armstrong Custer reached the rank of Brigadier General at age 23.
  • Rank does not necessarily reflect achievement. The "Father of the Nuclear Navy" Hyman Rickover was slow to reach flag rank. Chuck Yeager, war hero and the first to break the sound barrier, retired as a Brigadier General.
  • Commodore, the one-star Navy rank, is now classified as Rear Admiral, Lower Half.

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