Somewhere in Iraq, a young soldier is handing his three-starred boss a bottled water on a platter, or pressing the general's uniform, or serving his dinner guests dessert—from the left side, of course.
The military has always provided personal assistants to top brass: There are 300 "enlisted aides" who cater to three- and four-star generals and admirals. But now the Air Force and Navy are sprucing up their service by enrolling some aides at the Starkey International Institute for Household Management, the country's premier school for domestic help. The Pentagon, in short, is now training butlers.
It's true that not everyone in uniform can be a special forces commando. Still, the notion of sending soldiers to butler school hearkens back to the Pentagon's bad old days of $640 toilet seats.
Mary Starkey—that's Mrs. Starkey to you—started the eponymous institute in 1989 after nine years of running a staffing business for butlers, cooks, maids, and nannies. Students live at the school's Denver mansion for anywhere from a week to two months, where they learn skills such as silver polishing, flower arrangement, and cigar etiquette, as well as household management training, according to the school's course catalog. The school has published five texts on household management and has more than 600 alumni serving in wealthy households worldwide. Starkey grads work at the White House, the Pentagon, and the vice president's residence, a school official says.
It's no surprise the military chose Starkey: Mrs. Starkey has applied robotic discipline to managing manual tasks. Her trademark "Starkey Household Management System" is a perfect cross between Jeeves and boot camp. She demands that her trainees keep meticulous records of their employers' wishes, so service is seamlessly customized. "If a household is not following a system, it's always in crisis mode," she says. Mrs. Starkey urges students to create a "service matrix," which enumerates how the tasks should be handled—from the employer's diet to the bathroom cleaning regimen.
The Army trains its own servants at its advanced culinary program at Fort Lee, Va. But the Air Force and Navy supplement their basic enlisted aide training with the butler schooling at Starkey. The Navy started at Starkey in 2000, and the Air Force sent its first troops last year. "Within Department of Defense, or the Air Force, there currently is no school to teach all aspects of household management, and Starkey International is the service industry leader in this type of training," says Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Stephens. "In order to make best use of the tax dollar, we look to utilize existing commercial practices where nothing like it exists in the service, rather than creating those in-house."
The Starkey training does not strain the Pentagon budget. Together, the Navy and Air Force probably won't spend even $100,000 for Starkey classes this year. The Air Force plans to send a dozen students to a special one-week class at Starkey it recently developed with the school. Also, three veteran airmen will take the school's standard four-week, $6,400 course. Neither the Air Force nor Starkey will say how much the one-week course costs. The Navy Supply Systems Command in Mechanicsburg, Penn., will send 10 sailors to Starkey this fiscal year.
Mrs. Starkey, 54, will discuss the finer points of household management passionately, but won't make a peep about her military work. "We just don't talk about it in public," she said. "Our clients are confidential for security reasons." Yet Starkey's Web site says it is "the official Household Management school for the military enlisted aide program."
Starkey's military grads also are mum on the subject, citing the same preposterous security concerns. "Things are tighter than ever and security considerations are higher than ever," replied one Navy vet who trained at Starkey when asked about the school. Is he afraid Iraqis will sneak in and replace dessert forks with fish forks? Is he worried al-Qaida will booby-trap his shoe polish kit?
It's more likely that Mrs. Starkey and her military alums are silent for fear of drawing attention to what is, fundamentally, a boondoggle. In recent months, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been pushing for a leaner, meaner, and probably less Jeevesier military. In a June speech at the National Press Club, Rumsfeld said, "To have 320,000 military personnel doing jobs that are not military tasks is not a good thing for the department."
It's hard to imagine that Rumsfeld believes that planning a formal dinner party is a "military task." He could—and he should—stop the Starkey training tomorrow. But, oh, how the generals would complain! After all, where else can you find good help these days?