Col. Douglas A. Pryer, U.S. Army
Defense guest columnist
political firestorm concerning Sergeant Bowe Berghdahl continues, I am hearing
people state as fact that enlistment standards dropped far too low after 9/11,
allowing either hardened criminals or, as they claim in Bergdahl's case, men
with serious mental issues into the Army. It is a recurring notion that I've
read often, and it is an idea that, I believe, is a red herring hiding a profounder and harder reality.
commanding an intelligence company in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, I volunteered for
recruiting duty to, hopefully, spend more time with my family. I had no idea
what I was getting myself into.
as the Milwaukee Recruiting Company Commander from January 2005 to July 2006
and as the Milwaukee Recruiting Battalion's Executive Officer from July 2006 to
July 2008. As a recruiting company commander, I initiated scores of requests
for medical and "moral" (crime-related) waivers. As an executive
officer, I not only reviewed all waivers, but also I did most of the work
concerning investigations of "recruiting improprieties," which occur
when recruiters either knowingly or negligently enlist applicants who are not
qualified to enlist.
waivers were a problem, I never noticed it. They weren't a problem in
Wisconsin. I was untroubled by the thought of any of the applicants whom I
interviewed for a waiver becoming soldiers. The only felony waiver I ever tried
to get my boss to sign off on was for a kid who, as a juvenile, had broken into
a store with his friends and stolen $600 worth of ice cream. The police nabbed
him with his friends, chowing down on ice cream beneath a tree, surrounded by
gallons of the stuff. Due to the dollar value of the heist, he had been
convicted of a felony. Although my boss pushed the waiver up, USAREC disapproved
it (perhaps because it was the wrong time of the year).
the chances are that we put a number of men and women "in boots" who
didn't belong in them. This had little to do with published enlistment
standards, which were fairly stringent, or with the waivers that we initiated
and were approved. The problem lay with the huge surge in required enlistments
and the tremendous amount of pressure this put on leaders and soldiers alike to
avoid being truthful. Those who didn't serve as Army recruiters during the
immediate post 9/11 period probably can't appreciate the tremendous amount of
pressure that recruiters were under. When you recruited then, it wasn't just
your career and livelihood that was at stake. The threat of mission failure
loomed over you like a black cloud, making you constantly fearful of letting
your fellow soldiers down.
battalion leadership team -- the Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major
-- for whom I worked employed "old
school" tactics that many called "toxic." Some went so far as to
say these two leaders were responsible for two suicide attempts, a first
sergeant nearly dying from high blood pressure, and various other
stress-related woes and ailments. What I can personally attest to was that they
created the most depressed environment that I've ever worked in.
leadership team did things right: they maximized the use of positive
reinforcement, phoning recruiters and congratulating them when they enlisted
someone, and they made spectacular celebrations of battalion ceremonies in
which awards were presented to recruiters for high enlistment numbers. But this
approach, while far more productive in terms of enlistment numbers and morale,
still brought a lot of pressure to bear on recruiters. Nearly everyone wanted
to personally succeed or help their team succeed. No one wanted to keep their
brother and sister recruiters from getting those "Top Station,"
"Top Company," or "Top Battalion" awards. Several times I
witnessed recruiters strutting forward to accept awards from leaders in front
of their peers, their chests swelling with pride and faces beaming, their wives
or girlfriends cheering them on, and I would think to myself: "There goes
my next recruiter impropriety investigation." And sure enough, that would
often prove to be the case.
saying that all, or even most, recruiters lied. What I'm saying is that, post
9/11, record-high "quotas" placed a great deal of pressure on
recruiters to avoid the truth. Adding to this pressure was our Army's warrior
ethos: "I will always place the
mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never
leave a fallen comrade..." This combination led a few recruiters to
outright lie and many more to passively lie. When they talked to an applicant, this passive lying sounded
something like this: "Ok. I'm now going to give you the list of
disqualifying conditions. I know you really want to join. I think you're a good
guy and would make a great soldier. But if one of these conditions applies to
you and you tell me that it does, then you won't be able to join. So, what you
tell me is up to you"--wink wink.
there was the great temptation for applicants to lie because of high enlistment
bonuses, college money, and other benefits that the need to rapidly grow our
all-volunteer Army generated. Of course, some applicants didn't even need
recruiters to help them to lie--they did their own research and went ahead and
dived into falsehoods on their own.
I read a news story about a soldier who engaged in serious misconduct and who
had needed a moral (crime-related) or medical waiver to enlist, I always wonder
what exactly the waiver was for. Was the waiver actually for the pre-enlistment
crime or mental health condition that the news is reporting? Or, as is more
likely to be the case, did the applicant's enlistment package include some
facts that required a waiver while omitting other facts that would have been
remember one interview that I conducted for an investigation in a ramshackle
house outside of Green Bay. The guy I was interviewing had been a new soldier
who had had a nervous breakdown at basic training and had dropped out, claiming
that that he had told his recruiter about his mental health issues but that his
recruiter had coached him to lie. I went to talk to him, clarify the details of
his story, and collect whatever substantiating documentation about his mental
health that I could gather.
approaching dusk as I parked my car and walked alone about 100 meters down a
dirt path to his house in some woods. He ushered me into the house where he
lived by himself. I was stunned by the squalid condition of the place. Trash
and rotting food were heaped everywhere. The stench made me nauseated. The
first thought I had was: "Good God! I'm interviewing Buffalo Bill [the
serial killer from Silence of the Lambs]!"
The guy clearly had mental issues. After he moved trash out of the way so that
I could sit on his couch, we began talking. He described being in and out of
mental institutions since he was young and, when I asked him what mental health
disorders he had been diagnosed with, he began reciting a litany of them:
"Doctors have told me that I have major depressive disorder, dissociative
disorder, am psychotic, suicidal, homicidal..."
honest, I didn't hear much he said after that word "homicidal." I
remember looking out his living room window at the sun now nearly gone and at
the darkening path leading through the woods back to my car, and thinking just
how far away my car seemed. I quickly stood up, thanked him for his time, and
proceeded with some urgency to my car.
today when I think of that rush through the woods that evening. That was one
brave warrior, right? But when I step back and think about it, that was a
serious thing. If there is another Jeffrey Dahmer or Ed Gein in Wisconsin
today, he may very well be this guy, and my unit once enlisted him. This guy
swore the oath of enlistment, though, not because standards were low, but
because either he lied to his recruiter (which I determined was most likely to
be the case here) or his recruiter helped him to lie.
line, my recruiting battalion probably enlisted a number of applicants who
shouldn't have become soldiers. But the problem wasn't low enlistment
standards. The far deeper, more pervasive, much-harder-to-solve problem was the
great stress and pressure that was placed on recruiters when our nation, in a
time of war, tried to field a much larger all-volunteer Army over a short
period of time. The urgency of this mission, and the profound wish of soldiers
not to fail in the missions they were given, created such inner conflict and
stress that a recruiter's character far too often came undone.
saying that we should do away with our all-volunteer Army. But I would be
willing to bet that this undoing of soldiers' character -- the hidden moral
cost of our needing a larger army quickly to fight the next Iraq, Afghanistan, or
large-scale conventional war -- has not factored at all into past and ongoing
calculations concerning troop cuts.
Lieutenant Colonel Douglas A. Pryer is an active-duty
counterintelligence officer who has deployed to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
He has published one book and numerous essays on the human domain of war. The views
expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the
official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of
Defense, or the U.S. government.
via David Schott/Flickr