Slipping through the cracks

Over the last two years, the Army’s had no shortage of proverbial “strategic knuckleheads“: alleged WikiLeaker Bradley Manning; the “Afghan Kill Squad”; and most recently, a soldier charged with murdering seventeen Afghan civilians.

Striking in many of these cases is that nearly every perpetrator of these heinous acts had patterns of misconduct, indicipline, and criminal behavior dating back years. Bradley Manning was nearly booted from Basic Training, further reprimanded during advanced training at Fort Huachuca, and had violent outbursts while stationed at Fort Drum. Likewise, Specialist Jeremy Morlock, one of the ringleaders in the infamous “Afghan Kill Squad”, was once punished for disorderly conduct, and even went AWOL to avoid a drug test shortly before deployment (a habit he took with him to Afghanistan). Or Major Nidal Hasan, the accused Fort Hood shooter, who had a history of extremist behavior. Add to this SSG Robert Bales, who had arrests for drunken driving and a hit-and-run accident.

The tumultuous cycle of train-up, deployment, and re-deployment often leaves a rift in leadership. Key leaders—mid-grade sergeants and officers—are frequently rotated through leadership billets. This is only compounded by soldiers frequently changing duty stations, or transferring between units to fill manning shortfalls.

As soldiers move, their problems move with them.  But their counseling packet doesn’t.

It takes months, if not years, for commanders to know and understand their soldiers.  Moreover, soldiers are adept at hiding problems; substance abuse, violent behavior, or criminal activity tend to only manifest themselves after a major incident.

Our information-age Army still works on Web 1.0. Sure, we can collect and amass data. But can we sort, tag, and prioritize it? Can we track a soldier’s discipline problems over the course of a few years? (Anecdotal evidence suggests that we can’t.)

We need to look at creating a permanent counseling file for soldiers (I’m not the only one who thinks so, either). Such a file would not appear before promotion boards, but give commanders insight to a variety of high-risk activity. Previous counseling statements, evaluations, letters of reprimand, and criminal records–tagged and sorted–would be an invaluable tool in getting soldiers the help they need. And, should repeated efforts at rehabilitation fail, it would help separate problem soldiers from the service.

In fairness, such a system would come with risk. Soldiers with genuine problems—such as PTS or MTBI—may eschew revealing their issues. The thought of a permanent record, visible to commanders, certainly sounds sinister. But for an organization stressed by ten years of war, leaders need the tools to give service members the mentorship, and if need be, the professional help they need, lest problems slip through the cracks.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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