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Up Through the Ranks

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"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 Captainnote  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 Officer 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. Contrast Declining Promotion, when someone is offered this and turns it down, and Gentlemen Rankers, who are the inverse: enlisted troops with an officer's background.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Bleach: Rukia was a lieutenant-class shinigami who spent decades as an unseated soldier in the 13th Division because Byakuya 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 following her defeat of Aaroniero, Aizen's Noveno (9th) Espada. In the epilogue, after she achieves Bankai and Ukitake dies in a Heroic Sacrifice, she formally replaces him as Captain of the 13th Division ten years after the end of the Quincy Blood War.
  • Alexandre Bewcock of Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a rare example of a flag officer that started his military career as an enlisted soldier. However, it is implied in the series that his enlisted background slowed down his rank promotion considerably, as compared to his Academy-trained counterparts, such that he was the oldest Alliance fleet commander at the age of 70 in the beginning of the series but holds only the rank of Vice Admiral. Meanwhile Yang Wen-li becomes a full Admiral before his 30th birthday.
  • 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.

    Fan Works 
  • In Along Came a Spider Kai's NCO mentor Dave Jewell is recommended for a commission and sent to command school to become a Leutenant.
  • 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. Played with in the case of USS Bajor's science officer Commander Birail Riyannis: she herself is a normal Academy-commissioned officer, but she's a joined Trill with memories from a life lived as a master chief.
  • 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).
  • In Infinity, Admiral Lindy mentions that she used to be a support mage before becoming an officer (whether or not this is true in canon is unknown).

  • 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.

  • The title character of the Sharpe novels enlisted as a 16 year old Private in 1794, rising to Sergeant. The Duke of Wellington gave him a field commission in return for saving his life at the Battle of Assaye in 1803. 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 - though his background and inability to buy a commission mean that for much of the series, he struggles to get a full promotion beyond Lieutenant, rather than being brevetted as a Captain (hell, even Wellington, who finds Sharpe useful and respects both his abilities and the debt he owes, is infuriated by his inability to have Sharpe's promotion beyond Lieutenant stick). 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 the ranks in both services to command a regiment and a ship in order to be eligible.
    • 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 Platoon Sergeant and later bumped up to Lieutenant at Cain's suggestion. His superior officer, Jenit Sulla, is an exaggerated example: She was promoted to Captain (having already moved from Quartermaster Sergeant to Lieutenant), 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 Cain's editor Amberley Vail, this is untrue, but only just; the colonel in question had previously been promoted to lieutenant but was an NCO first.)
  • Cobalt Blue: Greg, aka Cobalt Green, the poster boy for the U.S. Army, is a major who started out as a private and insisted that no one give him any special consideration because of his powers.
  • George MacDonald 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 '50s 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.

  • The Naked and the Dead: Major Dalleson is a former enlisted man who was repeatedly promoted due to the attentiveness to detail that makes him annoying as a staff officer. He feels uncomfortable around other senior officers and hopes to be demoted to captain, where he can mingle more with enlisted men, once the war ends and the army downsizes.
  • 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. Commander Ginger Lewis is one example, an engineering genius who was wasted in a petty officer role. More unconventionally, Travis Long went mustang after serving as a Gentleman Ranker for a book.
    • All the officers of Grayson Armsmen are these. They all start as ordinary enlisted and work their way up.
  • 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.
  • In Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, Commander Vimes insists that all members of the City Watch start in the lowest rank and work their way up to officership. He started that way and so, eventually, do pretty much all of the watch captains under him.
  • Lieutenant Koskela from The Unknown Soldier. His path from a NCO of the reserve to becoming a commissioned officer was particularly hard, because prior to all of this, his native Finland had went through a civil war, and his family was on the losing side. Indeed his father was a Company commander of the losing Red army.
  • This is played with in the Starfist. All Marine officers are supposed to have served as enlisted soldiers first. However, in practice a soldier with as little as three years of non-combat service can apply to military academy and receive a commission if he has the right recommendations. In the first book the protagonists are assigned such an officer and he quickly establishes himself as and Ensign Newbie despite his time in the ranks. In later books experienced sergeants are promoted to officers despite their protests because a war is going on and the Marines need officers.
  • Commodore (and "Mustang" in her own right) Marion Alston in the sequels to Island in the Sea of Time is mentioned as having made this policy for Nantucket's seaborne forces. A few years 'before the mast' is required before anyone is even considered for officer's training.
  • The Forever War: The viewpoint protagonist William Mandella starts out as a concripted Private, and during multiple campaigns gets promoted up to Major rank. Though according to him, his promotion doesn't come due to any particular military merit, but simply because he has survived too long to be a simple low-level soldier.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Captain Flint in Black Sails starts his naval career this way. From a working class fishing village, he works his way up through the ranks from childhood to Lieutenant by determination and skill rather than connections.
  • In Doctor Syn ("The Scarecrow") General Pugh started as a soldier in the ranks rather than buying a commission in the officer corps (which was the usual way to become an Army officer, silly as it sounds) and he makes his disdain for the aristocratic Lieutenant Brackenbury clear. It actually makes Pugh more villainous because he has no time for "gentlemanly" conduct like not terrorizing civilians or torturing prisoners, and considers the ends to justify any means.
  • 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.
  • Star Trek:
    • Star Trek: The Original Series: In the series, Janice Rand was a yeoman aboard the Enterprise. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, she's chief petty officer and transporter chief. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, she's a communications officer assigned to Starfleet Command on Earth. Finally, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, she's communications officer on the Excelsior, going from lieutenant junior grade to commander.
    • 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 with a field commission (despite having been blacklisted from officer training because of his low birth). Over his career he earned enough personal honor and glory to marry a prestigious noblewoman (becoming leader of a noble House), makes it to the rank of fleet admiral and then, during the war, is promoted to supreme commander of the entire Klingon armed forces. By the end of the series he's been made the Chancellor of the Klingon Empire, leader of the High Council, and the first warrior/soldier to hold the position in generations (rather than a politician).

    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.
  • Clumsily used in Battle Tech. The Star League Defense Forces had every officer spend a term as a Sergeant before commissioning.

    Video Games 
  • In Crusader Kings, it's possible for your chief general to find a particularly skilled soldier in your campaigns and present him to you. Over time, this soldier could become a noble, or even royalty.
  • Fallout 4: A Sole Survivor who opts to join the Brotherhood of Steel will experience this. They start out as an Initiate (equivalent to Private) and Rank Up to Knight only when the Prydwyn arrives in the Commonwealth. Although a Knight is granted Powered Armor, they are still considered rank and file soldiers. After Paladin Danse is exposed as a synth, the Sole Survivor is given his rank of Paladin, which is meant to be an officer rank. Finish the game with the Brotherhood and you get promoted again to Sentinel, which is just one rank away from Elder - the rank of the person in charge of the whole chapter.
  • Mass Effect:
    • Ashley Williams starts out in Mass Effect as a gunnery chief, a non-commissioned officer grade. Assuming she survived the Virmire mission, between games two and three she attends officer candidate school, 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. note 
    • Alec Ryder started out as an enlisted crewman onboard Jon Grissomís seminal flight through the Charon Relay to Arcturus. It is implied that he earned a commission later, as his last duty station before his Court Martial and dismissal was as the human military attaché on the Citadel - the same role Captain Anderson holds after giving up command of the Normandy.
  • 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.
  • In Symphony Of War, once a tier 1 unit maxes out their CP, they can be promoted to squad leader.

    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.
  • 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. Any Finnish military Academy graduate has already passed the Ensign Newbie phase on his or her conscript stage.
    • No need for NCO or Reserve Officer Academy in Estonia but you must be a reservist (done your conscription time).
  • 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 - though he did skip straight from private to lieutenant colonel by offering to pay for a regiment himself if he could lead it, his promotions from then on were a result of natural talent.
  • 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.
    • Jean Bernadotte went from French private all the way up to having his own Army as Charles XIV John, King of Sweden. Bernadotte also allegedly got an anti-monacharist tattoo during the Revolutionary days ("death to kings" or some similar motto). This became hilariously ironic when the tempestuous politics of the 19th century put him on a throne himself.
  • The US Navy Department has several programs like this. US Navy Admiral Jeremy Boorda was the first enlisted man to rise all the way up to Chief of Naval Operations (head of the US Navy and one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff).
    • The Naval Academy will take junior Sailors and Marines (under age 23), and send them through the four year program.
    • Both Marines and sailors can be selected for commissioning and sent to a university with a Navy Reserve Officer's Training Corps unit for up to three years. Some even can graduate as Registered Nurses. Admiral Boorda was sent through this kind of program, and set up a new one known as Seaman to Admiral-21
    • The truly experienced Sergeant Rock types can become Limited Duty Officers or Warrant Officers, where they have technical expertise and an officer's authority. Warrants have a greater focus on their technical expertise of the two groups. Roy Boehm the founder of the Navy SEA Ls was a Chief who was given a commission and retired at the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Alternative Title(s): Prior Enlisted