[June 7, 2018] My subject today is not that kind of gray beard (shown in the thumbnail) but the kind you might find helping a military general work out a complex strategic problem. Graybeards is a term of endearment applied to retired U.S. military Flag officers who have returned to lend assistance to current, active duty Flag officers.
The first time I heard of this “mysterious” term was as a Lieutenant Colonel. I was a staff officer at the 1st Cavalry Division Headquarters in 2003 getting ready for combat. The commander, a two-star U.S. Army General, was getting ready for the division’s first operational deployment since Desert Storm.
Several graybeards were assigned to help his unit prepare. What I learned was that the graybeards provided a valuable addition to the unit; the experience they brought with them was honed through their senior-level experience and time in service.
A few years later, I was assigned a 3-star retired general who had held a position in South Korea. He was helping me understand my role by providing guidance and expertise to me as the senior wartime Engineer on the peninsula. I was able to ask any question I wanted on any subject.
My conversations with this graybeard were confidential and I very much appreciated his on-going assessment of the South Korean military, their political structure and culture, as well as how the U.S. military could best help in time of war. Our conversations were not limited to open-source material; much of it classified at the Top Secret level.
The concept of graybeards is also applied downward in the rank structure. For example, I’ve seen full Colonels fulfill those roles when they assist more junior officers. While this was not common because of costs to the military, their value was always recognized.
Graybeards are not restricted to the U.S. military. I meet and had long conversations with the equivalent in the South Korean, Australian, British, and Columbian armies. I’m sure they also exist in other military services. One of my favorite South Korean graybeards was Paik, Sun Yup (백선엽); a national hero.
The value added by having Graybeards can never be calculated but it is worth the investment whether they from the military or civilian sector.