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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7 Responses to Slipping through the cracks

  1. Mike says:

    A good idea, just need to get senior leader support up front – so the worrywarts in legal/EO won’t get in the way. HELPING leaders succeed; what a concept.

  2. SGT(R) says:

    The Marines have this, its called a page 11 entry. It is a step up from a counseling statement. And if a bad soldier transfers, its easy for one commander to email the next. Its a lack of leadership, and a lack of accountability in the Leadership ranks (including sainted Officers who can do no wrong). I have served in both the Army and the Marines, in the Marines a leader is accountable for his subordinates actions, in the Army an Officer isn’t responsible for his own actions, let alone those of a subordinate.

  3. @forbesmm says:

    @SGT(R): give the Army vs USMC nonsense a rest. All services have their warts. And you’re missing the point: the Army has a similar system to the Page 11 you describe in the Marines, but the point is to be able to track patterns of behavior that fall below that cut-line, and therefore below the radar of mid-level leaders. And “easy for one commander to email the next?” Really? Yeah, I’ll just pick up the phone or fire off an email to the soldier’s next duty station: “Hello, is this Fort Bragg? Hi Fort Bragg, I’m CPT Schmedlapp and I just want to let you know that PVT Dirtbag is headed your way.” Sure.

    • All branches do have their warts. I was AD Marines 95-99 Army 03-09. Comparison is good for finding the best system. If you are a Capt and you have no idea the unit YOUR soldiers are going, and can’t figure out how to have a Capt to Capt talk, then you are a piss poor leader. I was just a SGT, I always knew where my guys went. If they were shitbags, amazingly through AKO I found there SGT and had an offline chat. And I have seen things in the Army that I never saw in the Marines, example Art 15 for a soldier who utilizes the chain of command because he was being ordered to guard duty and missions outside the wire with no ammo. Response up the chain of command to the Art 15 and no ammo? “We will not correct a commander, it will make him look bad to his subordinates” Similar situations where a SGM told a soldier during a psych eval for PTSD/TBI to “Save the Army time and money, and just kill yourself” no reprimand. A CWO3 royally screwing up medical discharges, counseling soldiers that they were not eligible for Medical Retirement, even when they were, no reprimand. A LTC sleeping with my wife while I was deployed, no reprimand. I never saw these things in the Marines, I did see a Capt get smoked by a LTC for not taking care of his soldiers, in the Army if you don’t care for your soldiers you get promoted. I have seen to many times a guy get promoted to get rid of them, instead of killing their career. So you end up with incompotant people in leadership. In the Marines, they WILL put negative remarks on an OER.

  4. Leadership "Scholar" says:

    I think this idea of a permanent behavior file is a good idea. But, reality is that it wouldn’t be used appropriately. The evaluation reporting system (OER/NCOER) is set up to catalog the behaviors, and they show up on the permanent record. Our problem is that supervisors are not ready to take a stand on a document that they know is permanent. I think this is because 1) they don’t want to perpetuate a zero-defect Army that does not allow people to make mistakes; 2) they are afraid of end a soldier’s career over one or two errors.

    If the proposed system can be designed to allow for mistakes, and only identify patterns of behavior (good and bad), this may be useful. But, a zero-defect military is the anti-thesis to the adaptive, learning leaders we need in the future.

  5. For the record, this was all reported again to SMA Ray Chandler at his request due to a comment on Facebook. That was 30 days ago with no response or questions. I am guessing like most soldiers in the Army my situation will be filed where they wish all with head injuries went, in the trash can.

    Amazing how if you loose your hand or leg your a hero, if you have PTSD or TBI your just crazy and its not the Army or Combat’s fault, you must have been born that way.

    And I have many case files that prove this.

  6. Dan says:

    Great post, and this was always one of my chief issues with Army paperwork. Every time a soldier moves, that packet starts all over again.

    Re: Marines v. Army: unfortunately, force size seems to allow for more cases of incompetence. And the OER/NCOER system is pretty much a complete joke. It’s not an eval, it’s a bulleted awards justification.

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