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Army screening NCOs to rid service of marginal leaders

HEIDELBERG, Germany — The Army is reviewing personnel records of nearly 19,000 noncommissioned officers as it seeks to purge the senior enlisted ranks of underperforming, or even criminal, leaders.

The records are being checked for courts-martial, negative evaluations, failed leadership courses, removals for cause, reprimands and other disciplinary actions incurred since these sergeants made their current ranks. Among the reasons for records of reprimands and disciplinary actions are driving under the influence, sexual harassment charges, drug abuse and alcohol problems.

If such sergeants do not voluntarily retire, they will, for the most part, be discharged within six months.

“We’re trying to target those NCOs who don’t understand by looking in the mirror that they are not what the Army needs,” said Gerald Purcell, a Pentagon personnel expert and retired sergeant major who helped devise and carry out the program. “The time to learn and grow from your mistakes has kind of passed.”

After nearly seven years of suspension, what the Army calls the “Qualitative Management Program” is back, providing a means, the Army says, of ridding the service of marginal leaders. The QMP review applies to all retirement-eligible master sergeants, sergeants major and sergeants first class with 20 to 30 years of service in the regular Army, as well as the active Reserves and National Guard.

Some 19,000 senior noncommissioned officers – 3,000 sergeants major, 9,000 master sergeants and 7,000 sergeants first class – fall within the group to be scrutinized, Purcell said.

It’s unknown how many senior NCOs will see their records flagged and be forced to retire, but Purcell said that if he had to guess, he’d say upwards of 2 percent. That would be nearly 400 sergeants.

“This is a gut-check time for them,” Purcell said. “If their performance or conduct is substandard, it behooves them to submit their retirement.”

All would be honorably discharged and be able to retain their retirement benefits.

This move comes as the war in Iraq appears to be winding down, the U.S. economy remains mired in recession and the Army is having few problems meeting enlistment and re-enlistment goals. Recruitment bonuses have been discontinued and standards have been tightened elsewhere, putting an end, for example, to a program that allowed convicted felons to enlist.

Purcell said the QMP, which used to flag about 200 soldiers’ files annually, had been discontinued in 2002 because of the need to focus on fighting wars. But he denied that it was being brought back simply because these senior NCOs were now expendable.

Instead, he said, it had become increasingly clear that marginal NCOs who previously would have retired to avoid a QMP were no longer doing so without the program in place.

“We know it because the sergeant major of the Army gets notes about incidents and scenarios with senior leaders, incidents of misconduct,” Purcell said. “It’s become more frequent.”

Asked how senior NCOs could have accrued such demerits as letters of reprimand, Article 15s or, especially, courts-martial, and not already have been discharged, Purcell said that sometimes deference to rank provided an undue protection or leniency.

“A lot of what happens is – ‘move this guy, get him out of here,’ ” Purcell said. “All we’re doing is transferring problems,” he said.

Several NCOs said they’re happy that the QMP is back.

“I think it’s a good process,” said Sgt. Maj. Miguel Rosario, the V Corps sergeant major for personnel in Heidelberg. “It’s a tool that keeps you sharp. It reinstates good order and discipline.”

He added that he did not personally know any marginal NCOs.

“I do understand why we may have kept these guys around the last six years ...,” Rick Haddad, a retired E-8 who last served with the 10th Mountain Division and was medically retired after being severely injured in an Iraq bombing, wrote Stars and Stripes in an e-mail.

But “if you cannot meet minimal standards of conduct and schooling requirements, then you have no place hanging around,” Haddad continued. “Senior NCOs are supposed to be the standard bearers, and young soldiers need to be surrounded by those who constantly set the right example.”

Sergeants major will be the first group to be notified that their records have been flagged, and they’re subject to being forcibly retired after review and recommendation by a centralized promotions board. The board will meet in October.

Any bureaucratic errors — an Article 15 put in the wrong file, for instance — should be easily resolved, Purcell said. He also said that the program was not going after NCOs whose sole deficiency was an inability to meet weight standards.

“That’s not even something we’re targeting,” he said.

Master sergeants will be notified next, followed by sergeants first class, for which the board is scheduled to meet next spring. NCOs may decline to retire and fight the QMP.

“Let’s take a sergeant major who received a GOLR (general officer letter of reprimand) five years ago but since then has had above-reproach conduct,” Purcell said. That individual could theoretically argue, ‘My mistake should be overridden by my exemplary performance since then.’

“Then it’s up to the board. There’s some risk but that’s a personal choice every soldier has to make,” Purcell said.

The risk is that if the board rules against a soldier and puts him on the list for denial of continued service, that soldier will have only six months to retire once the list is approved or be involuntarily discharged. The list, like that for promotions, will be approved about a month after the board meets. The list is approved by the director of Military Personnel Management.

That means they’d be gone more quickly, and, some might argue, with less dignity.


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