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Analysis: Shadows of dishonor cast on the US military

An American soldier patrols at sunset outside of Mosul. With operations winding down in Iraq, veterans of the long war hope their sacrifice translate into a successful country.

A military judge last week found Army Sgt. John Russell guilty of gunning down five fellow soldiers at a base in Iraq.

Victims' family members hugged and wept at the verdict. Russell stood quietly, head down.

Friends and family say he was "combat stressed" by a third tour. "Snapped," they say. He should have been sent home.

Prosecutors argued that Russell was angry about not getting a mental disability discharge and took out revenge.

Is the respect that America holds for its military -- a pride shown over the weekend in Armed Forces Day observances -- being undercut by acts of mayhem, a growing sexual abuse scandal and a flurry of other misconduct cases grabbing headlines?

Jury selection is scheduled to start later this month in the court-martial of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder at Fort Hood, Texas. By the time testimony begins for Hasan, the trial for WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning should also be underway.

There is Robert Bales. He is the Army sergeant charged with the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children. At pretrial hearings, the military said it would seek the death penalty.

Throw in record suicides. Throw in what Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey deemed last week a "crisis" of military rape and vows by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to make the court-martial system more accountable.

Throw in 17 Air Force officers stripped recently of nuclear missile launch duty because of repeated failings. ("Rot," a commander called it.) And add a Marine captain charged with dereliction because of an incident last year in which his men urinated on corpses of Taliban fighters.

"Every one of these cases is different. Each has its own logic. But I do think a broader phenomenon is at work" within a military that has been fighting nonstop since 2001, said John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and expert in counterinsurgency.

"We're seeing a strain on an institution that's been asked to give probably more than it should have been asked to give," he said.

This is a unique, troubling and puzzling time for the nation's armed forces. Never before have they seen such a perfect storm of murder cases, self-destructive behavior and cries for help.

This in a country in which citizens consistently rank the military as the nation's most trusted institution. "Support Our Troops" stickers adorn thousands, maybe millions, of cars. Strangers pick up restaurant tabs for men and women in uniform.

So for the next few months, as high-profile cases go to court and frustrated members of Congress call for sexual assaults to be removed from the military chain of command, what are people supposed to think?

"They are supposed to think we've been at war a long time and that bad things are going to happen," said Cindy Williams, a principal research scientist and defense analyst in the securities studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"If we're at war long enough, My Lai happens," added Williams, referring to the 1968 slaughter of a Vietnam village by a U.S. unit commanded by Lt. William Calley.

The spate of incidents is certainly raising questions about what happens to a military force in prolonged war with multiple deployments. As things play out, the reputation of the military could take a hit.

"At some point, it's going to undermine public confidence in the military," said Victor Hansen, a retired JAG officer and now vice president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

Eugene Fidell, a veteran teaching military justice at Yale, said, however, that we should not lose sight that the U.S. military is generally made up of well-behaved troops with a low level of criminality and few incidents of desertion and insubordination.

Nothing other than timing connects Russell, Bales, Hasan and Manning, he said. And most service personnel aren't committing sexual abuse.

"But people should be concerned that these things are happening all at once," Fidell said. "Red flags are obviously being missed. Even personnel matters that are staring them right in the face. Hasan clearly showed he should not have been in his job. Pvt. Manning should never have had security clearance."

And in combat zones, field commanders don't want to hear that a soldier is having issues.

"They don't want to lose another soldier," Fidell said. "So they say, 'Hey, everybody's a little goofy out here.' "

The jump in suicides is perhaps the most vexing trend. It used to be thought that military service shielded young people from woes that could cause a civilian to kill one's self.

But during many years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rate of military suicide has climbed steadily, hitting a record 350 in 2012, nearly one a day. The suicide rate for active-duty troops in 2002 was about half that of the general U.S. population; now the rates are similar.

"There is a difference between a military at war and a military at peace," Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told The New York Times on Thursday. "There is no doubt that war changes you."

On May 11, 2009, the day Russell grabbed an M16 and killed five fellow soldiers at a mental health clinic in Baghdad, he was on his third deployment.

Bales was on his fourth.

According to "War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era," a report by the Pew Research Center, fighting wars in two countries at the same time required longer and more frequent deployments than in other eras.

Nearly half of those deployed to a combat zone knew someone who had been killed.

Back at home, 48 percent of post-9/11 veterans said deployments strained their marriages and nearly as many said relationships with children had suffered, the Pew survey found.

We've long known that much of the collateral damage of warfare is psychological. In the World War I era, mental breakdowns were the result of "shell shock." World War II gave rise to the term "battle fatigue."

The post-9/11 soldier faces the emotional toll of post-traumatic stress syndrome and the cognitive aftershocks of traumatic brain injury.

"You see, the idea of combat is not to kill, but to stress out the enemy," said military analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org. "You wear them down so they don't fight effectively."

The Vietnam conflict spurred social scientists to study the troubles that can follow combat veterans home. Research in the 1980s found a link between combat exposure and veterans' likelihood to be convicted of a crime after the war. In 1990, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study found 46 percent of veterans reporting to have performed at least one violent act during the past year.

The irony, perhaps, is that today's warriors are volunteers -- more educated, older, better paid and far more female than in past wars.

"The first years of the volunteer force were pretty chaotic," said David R. Segal, who directs the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. "We were dealing with racial issues, language issues, and drugs and alcohol, as well as adapting to gender integration and an increasingly married force."

Still, "I don't think the problems were as severe as now," Segal said. "We weren't at war."

Fidell believes sexual assault is the military's worst nightmare and the issue most likely to affect military culture in the future.

"People come into the military and find themselves in a climate that is highly misogynistic," Fidell said. "What ratchets up sexual assault is a hierarchy of submission and obedience. Women are more vulnerable in front-line duty than in a civilian community.

"There is a prevailing macho aspect of hard drinking and hard living: 'What happens in Subic Bay stays in Subic Bay.'"

America's military always has been resistant to change. But many experts see change coming.

"The more these news stories come out, the more difficult it is for the military to defend the status quo," said former JAG Hansen.

If the armed services can't police or protect their own, he added, parents with children considering a military life may think twice about encouraging it.

Nagl, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, noted that Congress has an obligation to oversee military decisions, including the confirmation of three- and four-star generals: "But Congress has not used that power effectively, in my opinion."

Last week, U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota introduced a bill to strengthen sexual assault prevention programs, including better training for those who work with military personnel.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is among many in Congress promoting legislation that would remove responsibility for prosecution of sex crimes from the military's chain of command. Gillibrand's bill, introduced Thursday, was spurred on by the Defense Department's recent revelation that 26,000 troops in 2012 reported anonymously to be sex abuse victims, up from 19,000 the year before.

The proposals could bring wholesale reform to the military justice system. Gillibrand and Secretary Hagel would bar commanders from setting aside guilty findings of courts-martial -- an apparent response to Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin's decision in February to overturn a sexual assault conviction and free from the brig a U.S. fighter pilot in Italy.

Some who value the time-honored traditions of military trials worry about congressional overreach and rights being denied the falsely accused.

"Right now, hysteria is driving things," said Phil Cave, a Virginia lawyer who represents defendants in courts-martial. "The military has had these scandals in the past ... but it wasn't faced with 24-hour news and rumors spreading on the Internet."

Military justice, he said, "is in flux, and it's going to stay in flux so long as there's a media frenzy and a partisan political frenzy."

And so long as we're at war.

"The people are right to have enormously high expectations" of their fighting forces, Nagl said. "I do think that Americans have been very appreciative of what the military has done during more than a decade of war ...

"But that patience and that gratitude are not infinite."

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