The unused tools in the military

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The unused tools in the military

Over 10 years ago, I was the elec­tri­cal offi­cer aboard a sub­ma­rine. One of my Sailors was a mas­sive slacker. Every time he was on duty, I would catch him gaffing off his main­te­nance respon­si­bil­i­ties. Every col­lat­eral duty I assigned him was done poorly, and almost always required another Sailor to ensure com­ple­tion. Luck­ily for me, he indi­cated he didn’t intend to re-​enlist, so I was happy when he finally received his sep­a­ra­tion orders.

And then…my Engi­neer asked me to write him up for an award. I protested. “The guy sucks. He hasn’t done any­thing worth­while.” Still, my engi­neer per­sisted. For­tu­nately for me, he was too busy to fol­low up, so I sim­ply didn’t do it, and this Sailor sep­a­rated with­out a Navy Achieve­ment Medal.

[cap­tion id=“attachment_105437” align=“aligncenter” width=“784”] The achieve­ment medal, quickly becom­ing a default “I worked here” award. Image from Wikipedia.[/​caption]

I was shocked to find this “hand out a medal no mat­ter what” thought process at other com­mands. While giv­ing a medal is essen­tially free, there is a bad ten­dency to hand awards out like candy in the mil­i­tary. The Navy has almost made a Navy Achieve­ment Medal a default award for enlisted Sailors and junior offi­cers, no mat­ter how good or bad their per­for­mance. In the Air Force it’s even worse: I’ve seen E-​4s walk­ing around with Air Force Com­men­da­tion Medals for doing lit­tle more than their nor­mal day job.

While hand­ing out medals like candy, mil­i­tary lead­ers seem too hes­i­tant to actu­ally dis­ci­pline mem­bers. Another one of my sub­ma­rine Sailors was hor­ri­bly delin­quent in his qual­i­fi­ca­tions. When I looked into it, he was 12 months behind, but had no coun­sel­ings. Noth­ing. No doc­u­men­ta­tion at all say­ing he was delin­quent. Lit­er­ally, he had been allowed to sim­ply slack off for over a year. Amaz­ingly, when we started coun­sel­ing him and doc­u­ment­ing it, he started get­ting qualified.

Later in my career, I was at a large com­mand and placed in charge of the Infor­ma­tion War­fare Qual­i­fi­ca­tion pro­gram. The over­whelm­ing major­ity of our offi­cers qual­i­fied, although it some­times took a sec­ond oral board or addi­tional study­ing to get them there. But in four cases, I had offi­cers that sim­ply couldn’t qual­ify. They could not demon­strate the knowl­edge on an oral board, no mat­ter what we did, which included me spend­ing hours of my per­sonal time try­ing to teach them dif­fer­ent mate­r­ial. So I sub­mit­ted let­ters of non-​attainment for each of them, effec­tively end­ing their career. In that process, I got chewed out by a LCDR, who thought I was being overly hard on peo­ple, and had a lot of pres­sure placed on me from other officers.

Oddly enough, that same LCDR was later relieved for cause for some inap­pro­pri­ate behav­ior with a younger enlisted Sailor. I had for­tu­nately moved on to another com­mand before that.

These aren’t iso­lated inci­dents. The mil­i­tary in gen­eral isn’t doing enough to cre­ate lead­ers that hold peo­ple account­able. It’s not hard to find them: Gen­eral Sin­clair, Gen­eral Ward, Gen­eral Lichte, and oth­ers get away with dis­grace­ful behav­ior and at most pay a fine. Every ser­vice has them. The sad part is that there is ample abil­ity to pun­ish these peo­ple. The Uni­form Code of Mil­i­tary Jus­tice gives plenty of power to com­man­ders to actu­ally hold peo­ple account­able. Penal­ties range from rep­ri­mands all the way to death, although that hasn’t hap­pened since 1961. More impor­tantly, com­man­ders can use non-​judicial pun­ish­ment (NJP) to quickly deal with small issues. There is a bal­ance, since mil­i­tary mem­bers can appeal the pun­ish­ment, but that remains a quick process as well. The beauty in NJP is that the bur­den of proof is “pre­pon­der­ance of evi­dence,” not “beyond a rea­son­able doubt.” This lets you assign pun­ish­ment in cases where some things are 100% clear cut. The big win­ner is pros­e­cut­ing sex­ual assault. Despite what the media tells you, the mil­i­tary is bet­ter percentage-​wise in actu­ally pun­ish­ing sex­ual assault than civil­ian courts, who reject most cases.

And we have proof the tools work when used. The base I’m cur­rently sta­tioned at had a string of Sailors smok­ing mar­i­juana to get out of the Navy. They would get an enlist­ment bonus, get through ini­tial school, then smoke mar­i­juana and be sep­a­rated. Essen­tially, the Navy was pay­ing for their edu­ca­tion and then let­ting them go. A new JAG at the base started tak­ing them to Spe­cial Court Mar­tial, and the first per­son was sent to a nearby fed­eral prison for 90 days. Sud­denly, this behav­ior disappeared.

Despite all the tools, too many com­man­ders are happy to hand out awards like candy while not pun­ish­ing their slack­ers. It’s no won­der that Sec­re­tary Mat­tis is now focus­ing on get­ting rid of non-​deployable mem­bers. I’ve already heard whin­ing from peo­ple that have been avoid­ing deploy­ments most of their career. They were happy to wear the uni­form when it gave them spe­cial priv­i­leges, but not when called upon to keep our coun­try safe. Sec­re­tary Mat­tis has a habit of hold­ing peo­ple account­able, even will­ing to fire a colonel in the mid­dle of the Iraq war.

But I shouldn’t be sur­prised by the whin­ing. Our nation strug­gles to hold peo­ple account­able in gen­eral, whether it be local gov­ern­ment, law enforce­ment, or fed­eral. We’ve become OK with let­ting the VA kill vet­er­ans, let­ting cops stand by in Char­lottesville, let­ting the IRS run rough shod over the First Amend­ment, and too many oth­ers. More and more, peo­ple are sug­gest­ing we should look to the mil­i­tary to see how to act.

Before you do, give us a chance to get our own house in order first. It’s not as clean as it should be.


This post rep­re­sents the views of the author and not those of the Depart­ment of Defense, Depart­ment of the Navy, or any other fed­eral agency. Although the recent push to get rid of non-​deployable peo­ple might sug­gest that these views are becom­ing more mainstream…

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Over 10 years ago, I was the electrical officer aboard a submarine. One of my Sailors was a massive slacker. Every time he was on duty, I would catch him gaffing off his maintenance responsibilities. Every collateral duty I assigned him was done poorly, and almost always required another Sailor to ensure completion. Luckily for me, he indicated he didn’t intend to re-enlist, so I was happy when he finally received his separation orders.

And then…my Engineer asked me to write him up for an award. I protested. “The guy sucks. He hasn’t done anything worthwhile.” Still, my engineer persisted. Fortunately for me, he was too busy to follow up, so I simply didn’t do it, and this Sailor separated without a Navy Achievement Medal.

The achievement medal, quickly becoming a default “I worked here” award. Image from Wikipedia.

I was shocked to find this “hand out a medal no matter what” thought process at other commands. While giving a medal is essentially free, there is a bad tendency to hand awards out like candy in the military. The Navy has almost made a Navy Achievement Medal a default award for enlisted Sailors and junior officers, no matter how good or bad their performance. In the Air Force it’s even worse: I’ve seen E-4s walking around with Air Force Commendation Medals for doing little more than their normal day job.

While handing out medals like candy, military leaders seem too hesitant to actually discipline members. Another one of my submarine Sailors was horribly delinquent in his qualifications. When I looked into it, he was 12 months behind, but had no counselings. Nothing. No documentation at all saying he was delinquent. Literally, he had been allowed to simply slack off for over a year. Amazingly, when we started counseling him and documenting it, he started getting qualified.

Later in my career, I was at a large command and placed in charge of the Information Warfare Qualification program. The overwhelming majority of our officers qualified, although it sometimes took a second oral board or additional studying to get them there. But in four cases, I had officers that simply couldn’t qualify. They could not demonstrate the knowledge on an oral board, no matter what we did, which included me spending hours of my personal time trying to teach them different material. So I submitted letters of non-attainment for each of them, effectively ending their career. In that process, I got chewed out by a LCDR, who thought I was being overly hard on people, and had a lot of pressure placed on me from other officers.

Oddly enough, that same LCDR was later relieved for cause for some inappropriate behavior with a younger enlisted Sailor. I had fortunately moved on to another command before that.

These aren’t isolated incidents. The military in general isn’t doing enough to create leaders that hold people accountable. It’s not hard to find them: General Sinclair, General Ward, General Lichte, and others get away with disgraceful behavior and at most pay a fine. Every service has them. The sad part is that there is ample ability to punish these people. The Uniform Code of Military Justice gives plenty of power to commanders to actually hold people accountable. Penalties range from reprimands all the way to death, although that hasn’t happened since 1961. More importantly, commanders can use non-judicial punishment (NJP) to quickly deal with small issues. There is a balance, since military members can appeal the punishment, but that remains a quick process as well. The beauty in NJP is that the burden of proof is “preponderance of evidence,” not “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This lets you assign punishment in cases where some things are 100% clear cut. The big winner is prosecuting sexual assault. Despite what the media tells you, the military is better percentage-wise in actually punishing sexual assault than civilian courts, who reject most cases.

And we have proof the tools work when used. The base I’m currently stationed at had a string of Sailors smoking marijuana to get out of the Navy. They would get an enlistment bonus, get through initial school, then smoke marijuana and be separated. Essentially, the Navy was paying for their education and then letting them go. A new JAG at the base started taking them to Special Court Martial, and the first person was sent to a nearby federal prison for 90 days. Suddenly, this behavior disappeared.

Despite all the tools, too many commanders are happy to hand out awards like candy while not punishing their slackers. It’s no wonder that Secretary Mattis is now focusing on getting rid of non-deployable members. I’ve already heard whining from people that have been avoiding deployments most of their career. They were happy to wear the uniform when it gave them special privileges, but not when called upon to keep our country safe. Secretary Mattis has a habit of holding people accountable, even willing to fire a colonel in the middle of the Iraq war.

But I shouldn’t be surprised by the whining. Our nation struggles to hold people accountable in general, whether it be local government, law enforcement, or federal. We’ve become OK with letting the VA kill veterans, letting cops stand by in Charlottesville, letting the IRS run rough shod over the First Amendment, and too many others. More and more, people are suggesting we should look to the military to see how to act.

Before you do, give us a chance to get our own house in order first. It’s not as clean as it should be.


This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other federal agency. Although the recent push to get rid of non-deployable people might suggest that these views are becoming more mainstream…

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