Monday, July 10, 2006

Leadership Begins at the Recruiting Office

Former Army Private Steven D. Green has entered a not guilty plea to charges of rape and murder in connection with the deaths of a young Iraqi girl and members of her family. The crimes allegedly occurred in March of this year, when Green was serving with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. Green was honorably discharged from the Army in May, apparently after being diagnosed with an "anti-social personality disorder." Four other soldiers, still on active duty, face similar charges in the case.

According to media reports, Green served for about a year on active duty before being discharged for psychiatric reasons. The Army hasn't divulged Green's diagnosis, but his discharge has all the elements of a "rush job," someone who was hustled out of the service because mental health professionals determined he was a risk to himself, and other soldiers. Over my 20-year-military career, I witnessed a couple of similar incidents; in a bureaucracy not designed for speed, it was amazing how quickly the military could get rid of someone when it became necessary.

It's unclear if Green's sudden discharge was related to the reported crimes in Iraq. But in the era of the "strategic corporal" and the "three block war," it's worth asking why Green was allowed to enlist in the military. Admittedly, recruiters and drill instructors can't catch every bad egg that winds up in a military uniform, but it is disconcerting that Green not only finished basic training, but wound up in a combat unit, carrying a loaded weapon. And, when his problems became obvious, the Army hustled to get him out of uniform, and back on the street.

Obviously, Mr. Green deserves his day in court, but the system that allowed a mentally ill individual to enter the U.S. Army deserves renewed scrutiny. And, more distressingly, the alleged massacre in Iraq is not the first time a mentally disturbed individual has killed unsuspecting victims. Back in 1994, the U.S. Air Force had a similar episode, with equally murderous results.

On June 20, 1994, former Airman First Class Dean Mellberg entered the hospital at Fairchild AFB, near Spokane, Washington. Mellberg was upset after being discharged from the Air Force for psychiatric reasons and went on a shooting spree, killing five persons and wounding 23 others. The rampage finally ended when a base security policeman, on bicycle patrol, shot Mellberg dead in the hosptial parking lot.

During the subsequent investigation, it was determined that Mellberg had long aroused suspicions from co-workers and supervisors. There were serious concerns about his behavior during Mellberg's first assignment at Cannon AFB, New Mexico, where he served as a maintenance specialist in the early 1990s. But rather than getting Mellberg out of uniform--and into a treatment program--the leadership at Cannon decided to pass the buck, and arranged a transfer to Fairchild. Apparently, there were concerns that discharging Mellberg from his squadron at Cannon would make the "unit look bad," and besides, it was easier to arrange a transfer than initiate the documentation for a psychiatric discharge. That process was finally concluded at Fairchild, but once again, there was little concern for what Mellberg might do, once he was booted from service. The answer to that question became painfully obvious on that June day in 1994.

While I have nothing but respect for military recruiters and those who train new recruits, the Green and Mellberg cases illustrate that we can do a better job in screening those entering the military. As Chief Buddy once observed, military leadership really does begin at the recruiting office. Even with increased pressure to meeting recruiting and training quotas, the military must be willing to make the first quality cuts at the front door, and bar admission for those who aren't qualified, or exhibit symptoms of severe psychiatric disorders. When the book is finally closed on former Private Green, we wil probably discover that his problems were evident early in his military career, but no one bothered to do the right thing--until it was too late.


ShrinkWrapped said...

Don't be too hard on the recruiters and the Army. It is not always easy to identify anti-social personality disorder in a person who wants to present himself as within the range of normalcy. It often takes a fairly sophisticated clinician to make the diagnosis, and then typically only after a long period of observation. If the person is smart enough to answer standardized test questions, and typical interview questions, with a modicum of sense, he can hide his anti-social tendencies. Add to this the fact that under high levels of stress, people have a tendency to regress from optimal functioning, and the I think the more remarkable finding is how infrequently we hear of criminal and anti-social behavior in our service men and women.
Unfortunately,even with good screening, we can't be perfect.
I have spent time working in the VA system and have seen the results of poor screening technique (in the 1980s); I think things are much improved since then.

Unknown said...

Shrink--I read your excellent blog on a regular basis, and your points are well-taken. However, my own experience in the military tells me that we sometimes look the other way when there's a recruiting or production quota to meet.

Was that the case with former Private Green? Hard to say. But his sudden exodus from the military tells me that something got the bureaucracy in high gear, and it likely wasn't a single incident. Discharging a "problem" airman, soldier, sailor or Marine usually takes a little time, but Green was out in, apparently, a matter of days. Something just doesn't add up.

I do agree with your point that our service members deserve credit for exceptionally professional conduct, under exceptionally trying conditions.

Papa Ray said...

The Army does not consider "anti-social personality disorder" a mental illness.

It is classifed seperatly and I did a little reading on it.

I found out that sometimes it can be mis-identified as just being "strong willed" "independent" "opinionated" and many other personality traits.

In other words, its not like this "type" person goes around advertizing his problem. It is normally disguised either conciously or subconcionsly.

I have known a few really anti-social people in my life,(one was a sociapath to boot) they could match the colors needed (pretense, deception) in a heartbeat, but if you knew them over a period of time, it became clear that they were screwed up.

Even if there were no pressure on recruiters, they would not catch the majority of this personality type during the recruitment, testing process. A few might be weeded out, but it is not something a recruiter is qualified or trained to do.

Even mental health professionals can be fooled.

It happens all the time.

Papa Ray
West Texas

Nancy Reyes said...

when I used to do physicals in the National Guard, I screened out an ADHD who needed his medicine...and when I did my two weeks, we had heat stroke in a guy who was taking pychotropics for paranoid schizophrenia...

The recruiters might miss this stuff, and the docs often have to do a quick physical. And with political correctness, could a guy suspected of mental problems actually be thrown out because he gave his sargent a bad vibe (what is known in psychiatry as countertransference)?

A lot of people who are sociopaths will never be picked up...and many mild paranoid schizophenics will be missed as merely quaint (a lot of Bush derangement syndrome resembles paranoid delusions, for example).

However, rape and murder with buddies? This sounds like sociopathy...gang members. Rape I understand (there is a "date rape" case here in the Philippines which is garnishing a lot of bad publicity for the US). But rape, then murder? This is criminality, not insanity... and makes me wonder if some of these soldiers had prior criminal records that were missed or expurged from their record at 18...

You also have to worry about drugs: Meth could cause rage murder.

And don't overlook steroids. I suspect a lot of the rape by college athletes is fueled by steroids taken to build up muscles, which also is associated with increased sex drive and rage attacks.