Up Through the Ranks

"I was still in the jungle green of the Far East, which, judging by their reactions, nobody here had ever seen before. The colonel, a wise kindly old man with the face of a benevolent vulture, looked me up and down and said:
"'You've been in the ranks. Good. And you've seen action. That...' he pointed to my Burma Star 'and that should spare you some of the more obvious try-ons from the Jocks.'"
Lieutenant, formerly Lance-Corporal Dand MacNeill, The General Danced at Dawn

The result of turning a Sergeant Rock into a Colonel Badass (or other officer rank), without having to pass through Ensign Newbie. The starting point is important here: The character must have several years of experience as an enlisted soldier, before they are made an officer.

Most military forces that make a delineation between enlisted ranks and commissioned officers have mechanisms in place for having an enlisted soldier become an officer. These people are sometimes referred to as "prior enlisted" or "mustangs". How they became so varies. Sometimes they got a field commission, but other times they applied for and were accepted to officer candidate school or equivalent. However, an officer that went up through the ranks is usually an exception among the officers—older, less formal education, and with a very different background.

In the U.S. military, officers from the rank of 2nd Lieutenant through Captain who have prior enlisted experience even have a different pay scale and are paid more than other officers of equal rank who do not have prior service. While there is a low-level rivalry between mustangs, officers who are commissioned through the service academies, and officers who attend Office Training School, there is no doubt that mustangs generally receive more respect sooner from their enlisted subordinates (who appreciate that the mustang understands their perspective) as well as from their commanding officers, who know that the mustang needs much less supervision and training.

Outside America, it's reasonably common for this to be the only way to become an officer.

Whatever the reason for their commission, prior enlisted are often characterized as being more blue-collar and down-to-earth than those who started as officers, and in many cases are trusted more by the rank-and-file because of it. This is frequently helped along by the character having seen some action, unlike an Ensign Newbie who is usually straight from the Military Academy.

Closely related to Rank Up. The distinction is twofold: First, someone who came up through the ranks may have done it offscreen, and second, this is specifically promotion from enlisted man to commissioned officer.

Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Implied in One Piece. In one colorspread page, there are a shot of many of the current (and some ex) high ranking Marines' younger selves as foot soldiers.
  • Bleach: Rukia was a lieutenant-class shinigami who spent decades as a seatless soldier because her brother had quietly made sure she could never be promoted in an attempt to keep her safe from harm. This changes during the seventeen-month time-skip where she is finally promoted to lieutenant.

    Fan Works 
  • Captain Kanril Eleya of Bait and Switch (STO) spent four years as a noncom in the Bajoran Militia and saw combat, then attended Starfleet Academy for a shortened Officer Candidate School program after the Militia decommissioned the last of its starships. An Alternate Timeline version of her in "The Road Not Taken" went to the Militia's officer school instead and in the present day is a captain (O-3) and the security chief on Deep Space 9.
  • The narration of Peace Forged in Fire mentions in passing that Lieutenant Commander Jaleh Khoroushi used to be a chief petty officer (specifically a quartermaster).

    Film 
  • In Starship Troopers Johnny Rico, then a sergeant assigned as a Mobile Infantry squad leader, is given a field commission so he can take command of the Roughnecks after Lieutenant Raczak is killed.
  • The Blue Max: Bruno Stachel begins as an ordinary grunt in the German Army, who one day looks up from the Western Front mud, sees a plane overhead, and has an epiphany. Accepted for the Imperial Air Service, he is commissioned as an officer pilot, and learns to his disillusionment that an ex-private who cannot put a "von" in front of his name is the lowest form of life in the Kaiser's armed forces.

    Literature 
  • The title character of the Sharpe novels enlisted as a Private in 1799. The Duke of Wellington gave him a field commission in return for saving his life. Richard Sharpe is a commoner and is a lot more coarse than the otherwise mostly aristocratic officer corps, but he makes up for it with sheer skill. By the end of the series, set in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo, Sharpe had been promoted all the way up to Lieutenant-Colonel.
  • In Starship Troopers the Terran Federation military only has these. Everyone starts as a grunt or crewman and if they do well, they're allowed to apply to officer candidate school, as protagonist Johnny Rico eventually does. The sky marshal, the overall commander of the military, is required to start at the bottom rank in both the Army and the Navy and work his way up to the top rank of both services.
    • Everybody in the mobile infantry (Johnny Rico's branch of the Terran Federation Army) starts out as a private. In the K-9 Corps for example, every neodog handler starts out as an officer.
  • Ciaphas Cain:
    • Sergeant Lustig started off as the "the upper ranks don't care about us rank and file!" sort of soldier. He was given a Field Promotion to Sergeant at Cain's suggestion. His superior officer, Jenit Sulla, is an exaggerated example: She was promoted to Captain (having already moved from Quartermaster to Sergeant), by Cain's (accidental) suggestion (opening the way for Lustig's promotion). Cain expected her Leeroy Jenkins habits to eventually get her killed, but she ultimately reached the rank of Lady General.
    • According to rumor, the situation on Corania prior to the first book is such that one of the Rough Rider regiments ended up with a colonel who had been promoted from sergeant. (According to Vail, this is untrue, but only just; the colonel in question had previously been promoted to lieutenant but was an NCO first.)
  • George Mac Donald Fraser, author of the Flashman books, fought as a private soldier in India and the Burma campaign. He wrote an autobiography of his wartime service as a private soldier, and fictionalized his later commissioning and officer service in the Gordon Highlanders as the McAuslan stories.
  • John Foley served as a private soldier and tank driver in the Royal Tank Regiment between the wars. As with McDonald Fraser's "Lieutenant Dand McNeill", he wrote a slightly embellished account of his officer service in the same regiment in World War II. Mailed Fist covers his active service between D-Day and Berlin.
  • In the Rogue Warrior books, Richard Marcinko talks about his time as an enlisted sailor, earning a GED (in The Fifties dropouts were allowed in the military) then going UDT. He earned a college degree and then went to OCS (a cakewalk for the now SEAL Marcinko).
  • Trail of Glory: Sergent Patrick Driscoll had served more than a decade in Napoleon's army when he enlisted in the US army and participated in the War of 1812. When he lost his left arm in the battle at the Chippewa, Winfield Scott promoted him to first lieutenant. He ended up as a founder of the Arkansas Chiefdom and the general of its army, but never lost the way of thinking like a sergeant.
  • 1632: Frank Jackson had served as a grunt in the Vietnam war and then worked as a miner, when he was called to organise and lead the defense of first Grantville and then the United States of Europe.
  • Harry Turtledove's Timeline-191 series:
    • Sam Carsten starts out as an enlisted man in the US Navy. During the period between the Great War and the Second Great War, he takes a test to become an officer, passes, and eventually gets his own command in the later books.
    • Similarly, Sergeant Michael Pound starts out as a "barrel" gunner, then as he demonstrates good tactical acumen and leadership earns a battlefield commission and command of his own unit.
  • Honor Harrington:
    • Discussed in the narration in Honor Among Enemies, which mentions that, for a polity with an entrenched formal aristocracy, a surprisingly large amount of the Royal Manticoran Navy's officer corps came up from the ranks.
    • Self-defied with Chief Warrant Officer Sir Horace Harkness. Characters in-universe mention that he would easily qualify to become an officer if he wanted, possibly even a junior grade captain, but he's content to remain a senior noncom.
  • In In Fury Born the Imperial Cadre (and possibly the other military branches) requires all officers to serve at least a few years as a NCO before they can be granted a commission.
    • Protagonist Alicia DeVries starts off as an enlisted soldier in the Marine Corp and rises to the rank of Master Sergeant in the Cadre before being offered a commission.
    • Averted with her grandfather who earns the equivalent of the Medal of Honor which normally includes the offer of a commission, but in his case he prefers to remain as an NCO.
  • Ia and several secondary characters from the Theirs Not To Reason Why series exit basic as privates (a lance corporal in Ia's case), but Ia earns a field commission at the end of the first book and spends the first half of book two at the Military Academy. In this 'verse it's preferred: while you can go straight to an Academy after basic, you'll spend the rest of your career as a desk jockey instead of a combat officer. One of the other requirements besides badassitude is a college degree: in one chapter Ia is shown working on a degree in military history from a correspondence course, noted to be a common choice for would-be officers.
  • Mr. Shortround, an USMC rifle platoon leader in The Short-Timers, a Vietnam War era novel by Gustav Hasford. He got killed soon after his entry into the text - probably by one of his own men, Animal Mother.
  • Antin M'Lewis, from The General series, begins as a private soldier with a bad reputation, but wins an officer's commission by helping to put down a coup against the Governor.
  • In The Devil Is a Part-Timer!, supplemental material states that Satan started his career as a common foot soldier. By the start of the series, he's the supreme commander of the Legions of Hell.

    Live-Action TV 
  • M*A*S*H: Col. Potter started as an enlisted man in World War I. By the time of the Korean War he's a colonel and surgeon.
  • Feudal Future example with General Martok from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Fifteen generations of his family had been warriors in the Klingon Defense Force, but since they were commoners none became officers. Martok managed it, and not only did he make it to flag rank despite Kor blacklisting him for his low birth, but by the end of the series he's the Chancellor of the Klingon Empire.

    Tabletop Games 
  • This is how Tau Empire rank progression works in Warhammer 40,000. To reach Shas'O (commander) rank, you have to start as a basic Fire Warrior and pass through multiple trials of fire (usually surviving a dangerous mission or passing a difficult combat exercise) to progress through the ranks. There are no shortcuts, so every commander has started out as a basic infantryman.

    Video Games 
  • Mass Effect:
    • Ashley Williams starts out in Mass Effect 1 as a gunnery chief, a non-commissioned officer grade. Assuming she survived the Virmire mission, between games two and three she either attends officer candidate school or acquires a field commission, and by the Reaper invasion is a lieutenant commander, the same rank as Shepard.
    • According to the Mass Effect 3 codex, Admiral Steven Hackett, one of the Big Goods of the series, spent four years as an enlisted man and volunteered for several high-risk assignments to explore then-uncharted space beyond the Charon Relay. He then was commissioned as a second lieutenant just in time to serve in the First Contact War.
    • Implied with Shepard. An optional interaction on the Citadel in 3 has Shepard buy a round of drinks for a group of Marine grunts at James Vega's request. They give a call-and-response toast, and a Renegade interrupt allows Shepard to supply the response. Vega comments he didn't think an officer would know that one, suggesting Shepard may have spent time in the ranks.
  • Star Trek Starship Creator: The game's bio for Simon Tarses, a quarter-Romulan enlisted medical tech who was the subject of TNG: "The Drumhead", states that about a year after the episode, he attended Starfleet Academy and came back to the Enterprise as a lieutenant.

    Real Life 
  • Ernst Juenger, German author and philosopher, joined World War I as enlisted soldier. He later became a lieutenant. He wrote a book about his experiences, Storm Of Steel.
  • In the Soviet and then Russian army officer training is conducted in voyennoe uchilische (military training facilities), the conditions in which are very similar to the conditions the enlisted men live in, but longer (5 years instead of just one). However, an enlisted man who served his mandatory term and stayed in the army by contract can undergo officer training in a much more lenient way.

    There is also a reserve officer training system called voyennaya kafedra (military school within civilian universities). The career military doesn't consider the reserve cadets and officers as "real", since they didn't serve either as enlisted men or true 5-year cadets, but if some one of them actually did, or, even better, fought in a conflict, he's instantly a "real" cadet or officer.
  • In the Singaporean military, this is how one makes it as an commissioned officer since they have no officer's school and potential candidates are sent off to Officer Candidate School on the recommendation of their commanding officers.
  • The Israeli Defense Forces require you to put in time as an enlisted man first. Enlistees with leadership potential become squad leaders first, and only the best of those are permitted to attend officer school (Kurs K'tzinim). That's for line officers, anyway; engineering and medical officers are trained at civilian universities in something similar to an American ROTC program.
  • Every Finnish soldier starts as a conscripted Private. Only those who are during their service promoted to NCO ranks or pass successfully the Reserve Officer Academy are eligible to apply for Finnish Military Academy.
  • Elisha Hunt Rhodes enlisted at the beginning of The American Civil War as a private on the Union side, and was a Colonel by the end. His war diaries were used heavily in Ken Burns' PBS documentary The Civil War.
    • The Confederate side had one of their own in Nathan Bedford Forrest. He enlisted as a private at the outbreak of the war in 1861. By 1864, he had been promoted all the way up to Major General.
  • William Robert Robertson, a British Victorian/WWI-era soldier who started out as a private cavalry trooper and ended up rising to Field Marshal and Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the highest position in the British Army.
  • Happened very often during The French Revolution, partly because the emigration of many officers led to a need to replenish the higher ranks with experienced men. In fact, many of Napoleon's marshals first enlisted as privates note  and some of them spent many years in the ranks.
  • US Navy Admiral Jeremy Boorda was the first enlisted man to rise all the way up to Chief of Naval Operations (one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff).

Alternative Title(s):

Prior Enlisted