The U.S. government is drowning in debt. Defense spending is taking a big hit. As a result, the military will shrink. Land forces will bear the brunt of the cuts with Army alone expected to trim its ranks by at least 50,000 soldiers as combat in Afghanistan ends.
Congress recently made things even more uncertain recently when the supercommittee failed to reach an agreement on cutting the country's debt, meaning the Defense Department could face an additional $600 billion in cuts starting in 2013.
Given this environment, it's natural that troops are wondering who will be forced out. One rumor is that the services want to kick out troops with criminal convictions, even if they were convicted before they joined the military, a reader told The Rumor Doctor.
After talking to representatives from the Defense Department and each of the services, The Rumor Doctor could find no official policy that says troops with convictions should be kicked out, but it is clear that the military is going to be much less tolerant of disciplinary infractions.
In September, the Army required all soldiers E-6 and higher to report to their commanders any criminal convictions they have received since March 2008. The move enforces a Defense Department directive from more than three years ago.
"Commanders at all levels may consider the conviction for all official purposes, to include, but not limited to, evaluation reports, assignments, selection for schools, awards, initiation of separation, suspension of security clearance," Army spokesman Lt. Col. Timothy M. Beninato said in an email.
The notification requirement includes any convictions soldiers receive in civilian courts, which their commanders are not always aware of, said Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. Army Europe.
“Recently, USAREUR had an officer who had received a DUI and was involved in a serious auto accident involving injuries to others while on leave,” Hertling said. “That officer did not tell the chain of command out of rightful concern that it would affect his career (soldiers are, after all, soldiers 24/7). It took a long time for this civilian conviction to find its way into military records, but it was timely ... the soldier had just received another DUI, and he is now being eliminated from the service.”
Hertling has stressed the need to live up to Army standards of conduct and competence, which will only become greater as the Army looks to trim its ranks.
“If we are going to have fewer soldiers in our Army, the soldiers we should want to retain are those who adhere to our values, who understand our standards, and have met or excelled at meeting them in every area,” Hertling said.
It makes sense that as the services would want to keep the highest quality people as they look to cut end strength, said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former head of U.S. Southern Command.
“If two of us had records that were similar except I had a demonstrated drinking problem with three DUIs and a civil conviction of assault on a police officer, you would assume that would be one criterion for sorting out the force,” McCaffrey said.
However, a blemish on your record might not automatically put you at higher risk of being separated if you have also received valor awards and high marks on evaluations, he said.
The Marine Corps in particular looks at performance when deciding whom to retain, said former Marine Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak.
“The Marine Corps is and must always be a meritocracy,” Krulak said. “Those people who perform the best as Marines, and that includes are they good warfighters, are they good citizens, are they talented in their MOS, they are going to be promoted and retained.”
Still, there will be fewer opportunities for Marines with disciplinary problems to reenlist, said Marine Corps spokeswoman Maj. Shawn Haney.
"Any issue that could make you less competitive could factor into retention or separation," Haney said in an email.
THE RUMOR DOCTOR’S DIAGNOSIS: There may not be an official policy to separate troops with criminal convictions, but the writing is on the wall: The quickest way to end your career is to get a DUI or some sort of other conviction, even if it happens when you’re not on active duty.