March 15, 2007

Serially Abusing the American Military



As the scandal surrounding the conditions in which veterans have been housed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center has grown to include the resignation or firing of a number of top commanders, there has been much ado about how this should be the straw that collapses the claims of the Bush Administration and its backers that they "support the troops." What is perhaps even more tragic however, is that the White House has been allowing this to happen since the invasion of Iraq, and that there were reports of wounded soldiers housed in squalor as early as 2003 and with insufficient care as early as 2004.

The long range effects of the Walter Reed scandal, stop loss, insufficient equipment and multiple tours of duty - all coupled with cuts to veterans benefits in time of war - are already beginning to be felt. The families of service people are increasingly falling into crushing debt and are more often reliant on charity to make ends meet. Further, in addition to the massive shortfall in resources to address the physical needs of wounded service people, the psychological requirements of returning vets have been ignored almost completely. It is a grim reality that incidents of apathy towards homicidal tendencies in soldiers and an unprecedented suicide rate among reservists serving in Iraq are only harbingers of deeper trouble to come. Things will only get worse as more troops leave active service - and as the war drags on - and it will affect not just these men and women and their families as individuals, but the very ability of the United States to defend itself.

Faced with more dead, more wounded, a poorly defined mission and an administration that prefers to focus on preserving presidential power over creating an exit strategy, the Army and Marines failed to meet their recruiting goals in 2005. From this nadir, recruiting rebounded in 2006 and appears to be on track for 2007, but unfortunately, this apparent rejuvenation in enlistment comes burdened with hidden costs, and is not the success it might initially appear. Today, even former Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell believes the Army may well and truly be "broken."

The Army in particular has resorted to filling its ranks through extraordinary means, and it has doubled the percentage of enlistees accepted from the lowest-scoring tier (Category IV) of recruits. The maximum age for enlistment has been raised - twice - since 2005; first, from 35 to 39 in January 2006, and again in June of that year to 42. Active-duty service terms for some recruits have also been reduced to 15 months from four years, resulting in diminished training for green troops, while still leaving them subject to stop loss.

Perhaps more telling however, is the number of waivers being granted to potential recruits who would not normally be accepted for service, as detailed in a recent New York Times article:
The number of waivers granted to Army recruits with criminal backgrounds has grown about 65 percent in the last three years, increasing to 8,129 in 2006 from 4,918 in 2003, Department of Defense records show.

During that time, the Army has employed a variety of tactics to expand its diminishing pool of recruits. It has offered larger enlistment cash bonuses, allowed more high school dropouts and applicants with low scores on its aptitude test to join, and loosened weight and age restrictions.

It has also increased the number of so-called “moral waivers” to recruits with criminal pasts, even as the total number of recruits dropped slightly. The sharpest increase was in waivers for serious misdemeanors, which make up the bulk of all the Army’s moral waivers. These include aggravated assault, burglary, robbery and vehicular homicide.

The number of waivers for felony convictions also increased, to 11 percent of the 8,129 moral waivers granted in 2006, from 8 percent.

Waivers for less serious crimes like traffic offenses and drug use have dropped or remained stable.

Supporters of this policy have touted it as "giving young people who have made mistakes a second chance," but this is clearly not about enlisting new soldiers who shoplifted as teenagers, or who spray painted graffiti on their high school; these are people with histories of substantial criminal behavior. Perhaps even more deeply marking the desperation of recruiters, the Boston Globe reported late last year that the Army, on top of recruiting criminals, is considering accepting foreigners seeking citizenship into its ranks. The work of the past three decades, which saw the Army and Marines move from a conscription to an all-volunteer model while becoming the best-equipped, best-trained soldiers on the planet, is being undone before our eyes.

As if all of these factors weren't bad enough, there is now increasing evidence that, not only are injured soldiers being pressed back into battle at the front lines, but that soldiers who have come home and been declared medically unfit for combat are being returned to Iraq. While they will ostensibly serve in "safe jobs," it is hard to credit that that will be the case given the obvious lowering of standards that has occurred in order to bring in new combat personnel. As Salon.com reported [readers will need to subscribe or watch a short advertisement to access the full text of the article]:
And while Grigsby, the brigade commander, says he is under no pressure to find troops, it is hard to imagine there is not some desperation behind the decision to deploy some of the sick soldiers. Master Sgt. Jenkins, 42, has a degenerative spine problem and a long scar down the back of his neck where three of his vertebrae were fused during surgery. He takes a cornucopia of potent pain pills. His medical records say he is "at significantly increased risk of re-injury during deployment where he will be wearing Kevlar, body armor and traveling through rough terrain." Late last year, those medical records show, a doctor recommended that Jenkins be referred to an Army board that handles retirements when injuries are permanent and severe.

A copy of Jenkins' profile written after that February 15 meeting and signed by Capt. Starbuck, the brigade surgeon, shows a healthier soldier than the profile of Jenkins written by another doctor just late last year, though Jenkins says his condition is unchanged. Other soldiers' documents show the same pattern.

One female soldier with psychiatric issues and a spine problem has been in the Army for nearly 20 years. "My [health] is deteriorating," she said over dinner at a restaurant near Fort Benning. "My spine is separating. I can't carry gear." Her medical records include the note "unable to deploy overseas." Her status was also reviewed on February 15. And she has been ordered to Iraq this week.

It is hard to come to any conclusion but that our soldiers are being serially abused. Consider for a moment the (by no means exhaustive) list of factors that are presently assaulting the structural integrity of - and the individuals in - our armed forces:
  • Stop loss
  • Insufficient equipment
  • An undefined long term mission
  • Cuts in benefits
  • Inadequate veterans facilities
  • Inadequate outpatient services
  • Inadequate psychological services
  • An unprecedented suicide rate
  • Diminished standards for enlistment
  • Deployment of medically unfit personnel

It's a credit to the men and women who continue to serve that there hasn't been a complete collapse already, which makes today's news that General David Petraeus has asked for an additional 3,000 troops for deployment in Iraq all the more disturbing. The so-called surge policy, which was advertised to include "just" 21,500 men and women, already encompasses an additional 4,600 support troops that weren't counted when it was first publicized. If the new request for another brigade is honored, it will bring the total to 29,100 "surge soldiers" deployed to Iraq - fully 35% more than was originally claimed - and those personnel will have to be drawn from somewhere. Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult not to believe that there is some link between the endless demand for troops and the troubling reports of injured and medically unfit soldiers being pressed into battle.

Ted Rall points out in his most recent column the disturbing and shameful truth that the abandonment of military veterans is a long and sad tradition in the United States. Even with that sorry badge of dishonor however, it is crucial to recognize that we have entered new and unfamiliar territory, and that the armed forces of the United States are facing pressures unprecedented in number and in magnitude.

Now, not only is the United States stretched too thin to address another significant crisis, current policies are ensuring that, even when our troops are finally brought home from Iraq, the military will be exhausted, substandard and suffering from poor morale. The White House's desire to fight the Iraq War on the cheap and with as little political cost as possible is coming home to roost. Like nearly everything else the Bush Administration has touched, the military will bear the scars of ignorant, ideological, and short-sighted policies for years to come.

4 comments:

Richard Mayfield said...

It is sad that we have allowed the good sense of our founding father's use of a "citizen army" to be abandonned and our military to be destroyed by our flag waving "patriotic" administration. Just a first hand comment on the extrodinary enlistment policy authorized that you cite from the Boston Globe, in Peru the US has posters out in the poorer communities of a $1,000.00 for young men who promis to serve for 6 years and the payoff is citizenship for them so they may come here with their famlies. Tere was a reason for a citizen army as created by our founders. Those with ties to the community, famlies, friends and love ones cannot be turned to oppress the people they serve, nor are the leaders able to abuse their power. However all one has to do is look at this administration's track record of abuse of power. What's sadder is the apathy of the public that has allowed this for the "war on terrorism". Smoke and mirrors folks for the usurpers of our liberty and freedom did not strike on Sept 11, 2001, they struck and succeded in Florida Novemebr, 2000.

PBI said...

Richard,

You make an excellent point about the pitfalls of an army made up of those without ties to the community. Without a connection to the nation it defends, such a force is much more easily manipulated, and becomes a more promising tool for repression.

Best,
Paul

Roberthb said...

Your article mentions that Colin Powell believes that the Army may be broken as a result of the Iraq War - he should remember Vietname.

He served in Vietnam, he saw the consequence of the destruction of the US Army (and the Navy, Air Force and Marines) as a result of that "adventure", he had the opportunity to prevent the current "adventure" from happening by resigning on principle rather than risk the destruction of a multiple decade effort to rebuild the armed forces.

I remember a phrase from a book I read many years ago - the successful general is the one who does NOT engage in battle.

Perhaps Powell - and others in the administration - should remember that.

PBI said...

roberthb,

Agreed. While I believe Powell did his level best to mitigate the excesses of the Bush Administration while he served in it, I also believe he was too much of a "good soldier" and failed his country by not resigning.

Best,
Paul