Making the Tough Calls, Redux
In the days after Major Nidal Hassan's murderous rampage at Fort Hood last November, disturbing revelations began to emerge. Not only were there obvious signs that Hassan was embracing radical Islam; it was also clear that his Army superiors recognized the same warning signals, but failed to act.
That reality is painfully evident in the Defense Department's official review of the Fort Hood massacre. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report, which confirms that Hasan's commanders and supervisors expressed repeated concerns about his strident Islamist views and inappropriate behavior. Yet they still gave Hasan performance evaluations that allowed him to rise through the ranks.
In telling episodes from the latter stages of lengthy Hasan's medical education in the Washington, D.C., area, he gave a class presentation questioning whether the U.S.-led war on terror was actually a war on Islam. And students said he suggested that Shariah, or Islamic law, trumped the Constitution and he attempted to justify suicide bombings, according to the information reviewed by The Associated Press.
Yet no one in Hasan's chain of command appears to have challenged his eligibility to hold a secret security clearance even though they could have because the statements raised doubt about his loyalty to the United States. Had they, Hasan's fitness to serve as an Army officer may have been called into question long before he reported to Fort Hood.
As the AP observes, the Army had a full picture of Hasan's character and deficiencies, developed over his 12-year career as a medical student, psychiatric resident and post-graduate student. To say the least, his record was less-than-sterling:
While in medical school at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences from 1997 to 2003, Hasan received a string of below average and failing grades, was put on academic probation and showed little motivation to learn.
He took six years to graduate from the university in Bethesda, Maryland, instead of the customary four, according to the school. The delays were due in part to the deaths of his father in 1998 and his mother in 2001. Yet the information about his academic probation and bad grades wasn't included in his military personnel file, leaving the impression he was ready for more intense instruction.
In June 2003, Hasan started a four-year psychiatry internship and residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and he was counseled frequently for deficiencies in his performance. Teachers and colleagues described him as a below average student.
Between 2003 and 2007, Hasan's supervisors expressed their concerns with him in memos, meeting notes and counseling sessions. He needed steady monitoring, especially in the emergency room, had difficulty communicating and working with colleagues, his attendance was spotty and he saw few patients.
In one incident already made public, a patient of Hasan's with suicidal and homicidal tendencies walked out of the hospital without permission.
Yet, none of the negative information made its way into Major Hasan's personnel file, which is reviewed by promotion boards. In his evaluations, Hasan's performance was usually listed as "satisfactory," and "outstanding" on at least two occasions.
That should come as no surprise to anyone familar with Officer Evaluation Reports, or OERs. While the Army doesn't have the same reputation for OER inflation as the Air Force, most officers still receive laudatory reports. With OERs representing a critical element in the promotion folder, it's no surprise that Hasan was promoted, to Captain in 2003, and to Major six years later.
Why the obvious disconnect? As we suggested a few months back, Hasan's continued advancement was the product of three factors:
First, the Army was anxious to recoup its significant investment in Hasan's education and training. After nearly a decade in school, the service expected Dr. Hasan to fulfill his military obligations--and his debt to the taxpayer.
Secondly, the Army was in need of his services, despite Hasan's spotty record as a mental health provider. With thousands of soldiers suffering from PTSD and other psychological disorders, the service needs all the psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors it can muster. We're guessing there was pressure to keep Hasan on the job, so the busy Fort Hood clinic wouldn't wind up being a "doctor short."
Finally, there's the ugly specter of political correctness as a factor in this equation. We've seen military commanders who are reluctant to punish minority military members, for fear of receiving discrimination complaints. Others buy into the "diversity celebration" business and are hesitant to remove a minority officer, lest they upset the "desired" demographic balance.
Still, that doesn't excuse the abject failure of Hasan's superiors, who recognized his problems--and even imposed corrective actions--but refused to get rid of him. One of the most difficult tasks for any commander or supervisor is removing personnel who fail to measure up. There's that human desire to avoid confrontation, or impose sanctions that could end someone's military career.
At a practical level, there's also the requirement to document substandard performance (or inappropriate behavior). It takes more than a single memo; building a file for an administrative discharge requires reams of documentation, over a period of time. It also demands a commander or supervisor who's willing to take on the system. JAGs won't support a poorly-documented case; the same holds true for senior officers.
Clearly, Hasan's superiors had the time--and the evidence--to build a case for his dismissal from service. But no one was willing to take on that challenge, and make the tough call. And because of that failure, 13 people died.