13 Surprising Facts About the U.S. Army

How much do you know about the Army?

The army is older than our country

Congress officially established the Army in September 1789, but since the Continental Army was formed in 1775, the U.S. Army is technically older than the country it serves. Today, the Army has nearly half a million active-duty troops and another 200,000 in reserve, which makes it the second-biggest employer in the United States (after Walmart).

You need to be strong to join

All Army recruits must pass the ­Basic Training Physical Fitness Test to complete boot camp, but to join the Army Rangers you must also run five miles in under 40 minutes, hike 16 miles—while toting an extra 65 pounds—in less than five hours and 20 minutes, and swim 15 meters in full Ranger gear. The swim isn’t timed, however—this isn’t the Navy.

You receive a class ranking

West Point cadets receive a class ranking based on their academic and athletic performance. George Custer, class of 1861, graduated last in his year. Rankings don’t always determine military success or failure. Robert E. Lee graduated second in his class. By contrast, Dwight D. Eisenhower was 61st.

Some members wear a Native American symbol

Prior to 1933, members of the 45th Infantry Division wore a Native American symbol of good luck as a nod to the many Native Americans who served in that ­division. Now commonly referred to as a swastika, the original insignia was abandoned as the Nazi Party rose to power. Today, members wear a different Native American symbol: a thunderbird.

There have been only five five-star generals in the Army

The rank didn’t exist until 1944 and was retired in 1981, when the last living one, Omar Bradley, died. Only one president held the title: Eisenhower (though George Washington was promoted post­humously to the higher rank of six-star general). The other three were Douglas Mac­Arthur, George C. Marshall, and Henry “Hap” Arnold, who is also the only person to earn the five-star rank in two branches of the U.S. Military: the Army and the Air Force.

Marshall had a sweet spot for his soldiers

On behalf of Eisenhower, he sent a telegram in 1943 from Allied headquarters in North Africa to the Coca-Cola Company, requesting the soft drink for the troops. Within months, 148 Coke representatives filled the ranks with the official title of technical observer, though they were nicknamed Coca-Cola ­Colonels. They wore fatigues and were paid as commissioned officers, but they had one responsibility: getting Cokes to American GIs.

JFK started the green beret

The green beret wasn’t part of the Special Forces uniform until 1961, after President John F. Kennedy visited Fort Bragg in North Carolina and noticed an officer wearing one. Kennedy thought that members of this elite team needed something to distinguish them from other soldiers and made the green covering their official headgear. At Kennedy’s funeral, Command Sergeant Major Francis Ruddy placed his beret on the president’s grave, a tradition that Green Berets visiting Arlington National Cemetery continue today.

Kennedy’s death also affected the 1963 Army-Navy football game

The nation was officially in mourning for 30 days, and a game would have been deemed dis­respectful. But the president himself had been scheduled to attend, and the Kennedy family personally requested that it go on. (JFK’s beloved Navy won.)

The first woman to serve posed as a man

The first woman to serve in the Army, Deborah Sampson, posed as a man in order to enlist in 1781. She sustained multiple injuries in battle but often treated them herself to avoid detection—­including removing a pistol ball from her own thigh. When her identity was finally revealed after she’d been hospitalized and lost consciousness, General Henry Knox authorized her honorable discharge. After Sampson’s death, Congress granted her husband a widow’s pension.

They’ve had many official songs

Over the years, the Army has adopted many official songs, including one written by John Philip Sousa, “The Field Artillery Song.” The Army held a contest in 1948 to replace it, but no winner was selected. In 1952, they tried again, this time asking the music industry to submit songs. The winner, “The ­Army’s Always There,” lasted only four years. Many people thought it sounded too much like “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.”

Red Teamers are trained in “groupthink mitigation”

The Army encourages some dissonance, at least at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Students there are trained in “groupthink mitigation”—playing devil’s advocate—to improve military planning and decision-making processes. Graduates of the program are called Red Teamers.

Germany has more Army bases than any U.S. state

Germany is home to eight U.S. Army bases (more than any single U.S. state), including the largest overseas garrison in the world, USAG Bavaria. Stateside, Virginia has the most bases, including the home of the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army. Fort Bragg is the country’s largest Army base.

There are lots of dogs in the Army

There are hundreds of dogs in the Army, and they are all noncommissioned officers. The Army also still uses horses, which last saw combat in 2001, during the invasion of Afghanistan. More recently, the Army has been using equine-assisted therapy to help returning soldiers and their families reconnect post-deployment.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest