Army cleaning up its ranks, backs dismissals based on misconduct
By TOM ROEDER | Colorado Springs Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 24, 2015
The Army has cracked down on misconduct in recent years, sending the number of troops dismissed for misdeeds skyward while piling up punishment paperwork at a rate not seen since the 1990s - the last time the Army saw deep cuts in its ranks.
Army insiders say the service is cleaning up its act after years of lax discipline in wartime. Critics say the service has found a convenient tool to deal with Pentagon belt-tightening by using peacetime to cut soldiers who were good enough for war.
Retired Army Capt. Donald Hamilton found himself on both sides of that equation when he was a personnel officer in Fort Carson's 10th Special Forces Group.
He recalled an October 2012 meeting when personnel officers from across the post were told discipline would be the top tool for shedding soldiers.
"From October 2012 to April 2013, you saw memorandum after memorandum," Hamilton said.
"You had to keep your nose so freaking clean it was ridiculous."
The Army parted with 24,611 soldiers for discipline issues in 2012 and 2013.
'Fighting to clear my name'
Hamilton nearly became one of them when he was issued a pair of Article 15s, a move one step short of court-martial and that often leads to discharge since the Army crackdown.
He signed for $500 in morale, welfare and recreation funds - money collected at the post exchange - to cover the cost of hamburgers, hot dogs and other party items in an effort decided to bolster morale in the headquarters unit he commanded.
Hamilton's timing couldn't have been worse. He sent invitations for the event planned for Sept. 12, 2013, the day the rain came. Nearly a foot of rain was recorded that day at Fort Carson. Flood damage ravaged the county and closed roads. A mudslide closed the entrance to Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station's underground command center.
The party was canceled, and Hamilton put the food in his freezer to wait for a sunny day. Meanwhile, the Army was grinding out paperwork to bring him trouble.
Leaders noted that Hamilton had put papers in his personnel file to qualify for Canadian parachutist wings. Hamilton claimed he jumped with a Canadian unit at Fort Carson in February 2012 to earn the honor. He submitted the papers as an afterthought when reviewing the collection of records in anticipation of a major's selection board.
But Hamilton was accused of lying about the jump and suspended from command pending an investigation. The postponed party, he thought, would have to wait until he cleared his name. Leaders saw things differently after commanders looked at his use of the morale money.
"It looks like he stole $500 in MWR funds," Hamilton heard.
Hamilton was arrested and questioned about the meat and the money. He said he was handcuffed, threatened with a court-martial and counseled to resign.
"They came to me every day and said 'you can make this stop,' " he recalled, noting that most troops facing discipline in his unit were treated similarly.
In December, while he remained under investigation on the theft allegation, Hamilton was issued an Article 15 over the jump wings, contending he never made the 2012 leap and lied about it to burnish his record. The Article 15 was thrown out after Hamilton produced proof of the jump, including pictures and a flight manifest that showed him on the plane.
But the 10th Special Forces Group didn't give up.
"It was 18 months of fighting to clear my name," Hamilton said.
Hamilton won, and he was retired from the Army in April for injuries he suffered in an Iraq bombing. He received benefits that would have been taken if he'd accepted the disciplinary discharge.
Savings through downsizing
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, has questioned the Army on whether its officers are using discipline to save money. He worries that the Army is mistreating loyal troops by discharging them for minor missteps.
"They were pretty defensive about their program, and they said it wasn't about downsizing," Coffman said. "I think it is."
The Army shed 57,835 soldiers from 2010 to 2014. Over that time, 57,060 soldiers were kicked out for discipline issues. The Army says the similarity of the numbers is a coincidence.
Fort Carson commander Maj. Gen. Ryan Gonsalves doesn't deny that the Army takes discipline seriously these days. Many crimes, especially drug use, put troops on a quick path to discharge.
"If it is criminal in nature, that's something we take very seriously," he said.
The ax has fallen squarely on the service's lower ranks - the Army has eliminated more than 60,000 enlisted troops, including 40,000 staff sergeants and specialists since 2010. Its officer corps has grown by more than 3,100 troops in that time. Insiders have said the boost in officer ranks could allow the Army to grow rapidly in a crisis because leaders are in place.
The Army also stepped up the number of administrative punishments given to misbehaving soldiers. In 2013 alone, the Army said 8 percent of its soldiers were given Article 15s. The Army, for instance, issued an edict in 2012 that drug- and alcohol-related infractions be processed for discharge.
"For minor misconduct, we now have a zero-tolerance policy," Hamilton said.
And soldiers couldn't pick a worse time to step out of line.
The Army, with just over half a million active-duty soldiers, is in the middle of a seven-year downsizing plan that will take the service from 562,000 soldiers in 2010 to 450,000 soldiers in 2017.
Former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler laid out a plan in 2012 to use tighter discipline to downsize.
"I personally believe that we can manage our drawdown by focusing on those underperforming or poor-performing soldiers and those soldiers who show a pattern of misconduct," Chandler said on the Army's website in March 2012. "If we focus on those folks who do not measure up to who we say we are as an Army, along with normal attrition, we'll be fine as an Army."
Colorado Springs attorney Skip Morgan said the Army's use of discipline is about dollars and cents.
A 1972 Air Force Academy graduate, Morgan rose to be one of the service's top lawyers over a 30-year career. He now owns a practice that represents troops facing discipline or discharge.
With the Pentagon cutting $50 billion a year, Army planners needed to save cash, Morgan said.
"And the quickest way to do that is to cut personnel, preferably senior personnel who have 17 years or less of service," he said, noting that soldiers can retire at half pay after 20 years in uniform.
Discharging those troops saves money even with an honorable discharge, he said, because the Army avoids a lifetime of retirement benefits that soldiers earn for serving at least two decades.
Reliance on general discharge
The Army has several types of discharges it can issue for misconduct. In recent years, it has increasingly leaned on the mildest of those, the general discharge. That discharge is a catchall for minor misconduct not serious enough to merit the deeper black mark left by dishonorable or other than honorable discharges.
Commanders are told they must counsel soldiers they will face "substantial prejudice in civilian life" before issuing a general discharge, which allows soldiers to keep their Veterans Affairs benefits - including medical care and disability payments - but characterizes their service record as poor. A general discharge denies soldiers many Army benefits, including separation pay, continued Army medical benefits, medical retirement, college funds and more.
In 2012 and 2013, more than 20,396 soldiers were issued general discharges, up from 17,521 from 2010 and 2011 - a 16 percent increase. The Army contends its increase was not tied to downsizing.
"Separations of soldiers from the Army are taken very seriously and require a thorough look at all the facts," Army spokeswoman Tatjana Christian said. "We have a process that is fair, objective and methodical to ensure due process and that the maintenance of good order and discipline is maintained within the ranks."
The Army said its Qualitative Service Program is scrutinizing the records of noncommissioned officers to pick who stays and who goes. The Army's Human Resources Command said it will keep those "who have been identified as having the greatest potential for future contributions to the Army."
"The Army does not and will never discharge soldiers to avoid providing the needed medical care and benefits," Christian said.
'Adherence to high standards'
Morgan said one of his Fort Carson clients, a sergeant first class with 17 years of service and several deployments, was fighting discharge because he got a DUI in 2003. Those soldiers get honorable discharges but no retirement pay.
The Army's top enlisted soldier, Daniel Dailey, didn't apologize for tough discipline.
"The American people deserve and expect adherence to high standards from the professionals who represent them in Army uniform," Dailey said in an email.
A recently retired Army four-star general told The Gazette that the Army desperately needs to clean up misconduct in its ranks because wartime demands in Iraq and Afghanistan forced commanders to overlook bad behavior. He said commanders kept troops in uniform after drug- and alcohol-related issues - and sometimes even after crimes like assault - so they could take their brigades or battalions to war at full strength.
"Commanders are finally tired of the crap," he said.