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.

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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