Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Passing the Buck

In the wake of Monday's mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has, predictably, ordered an inquiry into security practices at the nation's military installations. 

According to some reports, the probe will focus on physical security at bases and other facilities controlled by the armed forces, along with a review of security clearance procedures.  The gunman responsible for yesterday's massacre, 34-year-old Aaron Alexis, held a "Secret" security clearance--and as a defense contractor had acess to military posts, despite a history of discipline problems during his time in the Navy Reserve and treatment for mental illness.

Perhaps Mr. Hagel and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus will expand the official inquiry to determine who "passed the buck" on an individual who should have been booted from the reserves for his conduct and denied both a security clearance and employment as a defense contractor.  As more is learned about the former Petty Officer, we seem ample opportunities for intervention--opportunities that were continually ignored, for whatever reasons.

Sadly, this isn't the first time that commanders and supervisors have taken a pass on dealing with a troubled individual, with deadly consequences.  And we're not referring to Fort Hood, either.

Flashback to 1992.  A young man from Michigan with a long history of mental illness appeared at an Air Force recruiting office.  Apparently, his problems never surfaced during the enlistment process; the individual either lied to the recruiters, or the service ignored potential warning signs.  With a solid score on his ASVAB, the individual was allowed to enlist and shipped out for basic training.

At Lackland AFB, the recruit's military training instructor (MTI) observed behavior he considered alarming.  The MTI referred the recruit to the base mental health clinic and urged his squadron commander to begin paperwork for an administrative discharge.  Mental health professionals at the clinic concurred with his assessment.  But the commander decided the new airman deserved a second chance and ignored the advice of her MTI and base psychologists.  The troubled recruit made it through basic and moved on to technical school at Lowry AFB, Colorado. 

A similar pattern was observed during the long training course.  The airmen went through several roommates; all complained about his odd behavior, and one received a death threat from him.  Once again, the airman was referred to base mental health specialists--and once again--he was recommended for discharge.  But a senior officer in the airman's chain-of-command rejected that request, because the disturbed young man "made good grades" in the equipment calibration technician course.  Never mind that he threatened to kill a roommate.  Or was often observed sitting by himself, laughing out loud.  Or simply staring at the wall for long periods of time.

After tech school, the disturbed airman was sent to his first duty station, at Fairchild AFB, Washington.  There, his behavior grew more disturbing.  Asked by his roommate where he was from, the airman said he "needed to get to know someone before answering a question like that."  The airman also masturbated in front of his roommate and his girlfriend.  There was another referral to the mental health clinic and once more, a recommendation for discharge.  Again, the recommendation was ignored.  The commander wanted the Air Force to recoup some of the money it had invested in the airman's training; besides, he was doing "okay" at work.

As the airman's behavior continued to deteriorate, he was sent to the USAF's Wilford Hall Medical Center (back at Lackland) for in-patient psychiatric treatment.  During his stay, the airman was diagnosed with several serious mental conditions--all of which were grounds for discharge.  Yet, he somehow managed to avoid discharge.  After extended treatment, the airman was reassigned to Cannon AFB, New Mexico.

Not surprisingly, the young man's bizarre behavior continued at his new assignment.  But commanders at Cannon refused to pass the buck.  Acting on the advice of his superiors (and their mental health team), they discharged the airman in early 1994, citing a severe personality disorder.  Unable to dodge the separation bullet, the airman opted for the cash value of his ticket home and withdrew his savings (about $6,000) from a local bank.  But the team at Cannon did make one mistake; they didn't consider the individual's potential for violence and failed to warn his old base (Fairchild) that the disturbed airman had been discharged.

On the afternoon of 20 June 1994, the airman took a cab back to the base hospital--an ungated, unsecure facility.  He was carrying a Chinese-made MAK-90 assault rifle.  Once inside the hospital, he went to the offices of Major Thomas Brigham, a psychiatrist, and Captain Alan London, a psychologist.  Both had recommended the airman's discharge when he was assigned to Fairchild.  After fatally shooting the two mental health providers, he strolled through the hospital, firing at anything that moved.  He killed three more individuals (and wounded 22 others) before being killed by Senior Airman Andrew Brown, a security policeman on bike patrol.  Airman Brown stopped the gunman at a range of 70 yards, firing four shots from his 9mm pistol.  One of the bullets struck the shooter between the eyes.  It was a remarkable feat of marksmanship.  

The deranged airman was Dean Mellberg.  The subsequent investigation into the massacre--and the events that led to it--revealed the long list of missed warning signs and commanders who refused to deal with the problem.  Yet, there is no evidence that any of them were ever sanctioned for allowing a disturbed individual to remain on active duty, perpetuating the danger that eventually exploded on that terrible June day almost 20 years ago.

Making matters worse, it appears that the defense department learned little from the Fairchild incident.  Fifteen years later at Fort Hood and again this week at the Washington Navy Yard, we saw the consequences of command chains that chose to ignore a festering problem.  Major Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people at the Texas base became a radicalized jihadi literally before the eyes of his fellow residents at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington.  They recognized the danger and reported Hasan's comments and actions to their superiors, who did....nothing.  According to various accounts, some senior officers worried about the potential "impact" of investigating and disciplining a Muslim officer, fearing it would jeopardize the Army's treasured "diversity."  There were ample red flags in the months before Hasan's rampage--and those concerns were communicated to officers with the power to neutralize the threat.  Instead, they chose to look the other way. 

And the same pattern is evident in the case of Aaron Alexis.  His long list of disciplinary problems in the Navy Reserve were indicative of someone unsuited for military service.  Collectively, his supervisors in the reserve had more than enough information to punish Alexis and begin discharge proceedings, but instead, they took a powder.  He was promoted to Petty Officer Third Class; his security clearance was never in jeopardy (as far as we can tell) and he left the reserves with an honorable discharge, apparently because his unit was happy to get rid of him--without all the paperwork and headaches of an administrative discharge and/or disciplinary action. 

To be sure, there are limits on what a military commander can do; ditto for mental health professionals in the armed forces and boards that (typically) determine if an individual will be discharged or allowed to remain in service.  But that doesn't excuse what happened with Aaron Alexis.  The Navy Reserve let their "problem" walk out the gate, with little regard for the potential, long-term consequences, following the sorry example set in the Mellberg case and the Fort Hood massacre. 

Being a commander, senior enlisted advisor, first sergeant (or anyone else involved in disciplinary and discharge proceedings) is hardly an easy job.  But it comes with the territory.  And one of the most important tasks facing anyone in that chain is making the quality cuts required to maintain a well-trained, motivated and disciplined force.  Military service is not a right--it is a privilege.  And the number of Americans who meet the minimum criteria to wear the nation's uniform is shockingly small and that's the way it should be. 

Obviously, no system is perfect, so when a few bad apples fall through the cracks of the recruiting and training systems, it's up to commanders, first shirts and Command Chiefs/Sergeants Major to determine if the new soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or coastie can be salvaged.  If they can't, it's time to make the cut.  "Flush early and often," as Chief Buddy would say. 

Unfortunately, some individals entrusted to make those tough calls aren't up to the task, and the consequences can be deadly.  Equally disturbing is the negative impact of political correctness and diversity on the military personnel and justice system.  It's an unspoken fact that some commanders are reluctant to punish (or discharge) minority members, fearing that individual will play the "race card" and ruin their careers.  Others are worried that a large number of disciplinary actions or discharges will highlight their squadron, battalion or section as a "problem area" in the eyes of their superiors, another potential problem for ambitious officers or senior NCOs trying to move up the food chain. 

But it's quite possible for units to maintain fair and firm discipline policies, without impacting the advancement of senior personnel.  Chief Buddy remains a legend in the blue-suit community; new arrivals learned on day one that he was watching them and if they couldn't maintain standards (or created problems within the unit), he would help them find another line of employment.  Strict adherance to the standards resulted in outstand units and Buddy still reached the Air Force's highest enlisted rank, Chief Master Sergeant.  He even received the ultimate compliment from a JAG officer who told him "you never made a bad call."  In other words, he thoroughly documented substandard or illegal conduct, so by the time the JAG and commander took a look, there was no question about how the matter would be handled. 

That should be the standard in the U.S. military (and it is in many units).  But, as evidenced by the shootings at Fort Hood and the Navy Yard, some senior officers apparently can't be bothered with the tough issues of unit discipline and removing those who are unfit for military service.  Such commanders are content to let those matters resolve themselves, and avoid any unpleasantness that might disrupt their next promotion.  To borrow another "Buddy-ism," that isn't leadership, it's chickenship.  And it's high time the military started holding those feckless "leaders" accountable.        






GreyLocke said...

This is very disturbing, that the people who have no just the responsibility, but the obligation to ensure that anyone in the uniform or our armed forces be mentally stable, failed to do so.

How many others are going to slip through the cracks? How many will be hurt or not get the help they need because of the failure of leadership to do the jobs they are entrusted to do?

OldSarg said...

I have read that the Marines on post had weapons but no ammo issued. . . Any truth to that?