- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
Here is a thoughtful and worried note from Noel Koch, who recently left his position at the Pentagon overseeing the "wounded warrior" program, about "warrior transition units," or WTUs, which he says that despite their publicity have become dumping grounds for soldiers who never should have been recruited-and most, he reveals, have never seen combat.
By Noel Koch
Best Defense guest columnist
Our men and women in uniform today represent the finest fighting force ever fielded. The only problem? There aren’t enough of them.
The evidence has been multiplying and cascading down on the Pentagon since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It includes the assignment of military duties to extravagantly paid private contractors because there are not enough soldiers to perform these duties; the use of "stop-loss" orders to keep personnel past the end of their contracts, at which point their service is no longer "voluntary"; and, because "stop-loss" is not a sufficient expedient, the call up of National Guardsmen to deploy, at the age of 45 or 50, to Iraq or Afghanistan.
These desperate attempts at patching institutional shortfalls have human consequences: spouses are deployed multiple times as marriages falter and fail and children grow up with a parent they scarcely know; soldiers take their lives in record numbers, their deaths lamely assigned to "relationship problems"; and, most tellingly, recruiting NCOs commit suicide because they can’t bear the brutal stress put on them to bring in more people when qualified people are unwilling to join the military. The Army says it is meeting its recruiting quotas, but many of those recruited are unfit for service.
The evidence for that can be found in the failure of our Warrior Transition Units. Over the past eleven months my colleagues and I spent countless weeks visiting these units and hundreds of hours talking to the men and women in them. The WTUs were created following the discovery of substandard conditions in temporary quarters at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. They were intended to assist with the healing of combat-wounded service personnel. Yet the majority of the people in these units today are not combat-wounded. To the contrary,most have never left the country.
To understand how this happens, recall the stressed-out recruiting sergeants. To meet their quotas people who are physically unfit; mentally unfit; emotionally unstable; or, who have criminal histories and disciplinary problems are recruited. Commanders refuse to deploy with these people. So, commonly, they are put in the Warrior Transition Units, which is why these are called "warehouses" and "dumping grounds."
Here’s a snapshot: I am in a room with 35 soldiers. The one first in front of me is glassy-eyed, staring into the middle distance, and I have to raise my voice to get his attention.
Wilson, what are you doing here? "I’m schizophrenic, sir." How old are you? "Nineteen, sir." You haven’t been downrange, have you, son? "No, sir."
Smith, why are you here? "I’m bi-polar, sir." How old are you? "Twenty, sir." Have you deployed? "No, sir." Same glassy-eyed look.
The next youngster is also twenty. He suffers from depression. He can’t be deployed.
And so on. Some are physically unfit. Some exhibit mental health problems. Others are disciplinary cases. All dumped in the WTUs. Oddly enough, many tend to get quite comfortable in these units and are adept at finding ways to remain in them for months reaching into years, as they dream up new complaints. Meanwhile, the limited numbers of personnel who actually are combat-wounded feel stigmatized by being lumped together with people they consider malingerers; they don’t want to be in the WTUs, but would rather be sent back to their regular units to heal. So, in the end, the entire purpose of the WTUs is defeated.
About the glassy-eyed look? Here’s a snapshot from another WTU session. A visibly agitated soldier tells me, "A lot of times I run out of my meds when the dispensary is closed and I can’t get a refill when I need it." I ask him what he is taking, and he tells me Percocet. I ask him how many he takes that he can’t time his refills with the dispensary schedule. He says he has a jar of the stuff that he takes when he needs it. This turns out to be a common problem, and an uncontrollable one in the WTUs.
In Vietnam the enemy turned our war fighters into drug addicts. Today, their caregivers are doing it.
These, in aggregate, are the results of going to war with insufficient manpower. These are the evidences of the failure of the All Volunteer Force. There was a time when the draft bound our nation together. Many believe that any attempt to restore it today could risk tearing us apart. Still, more and more people, quietly, are coming to the conclusion that careful consideration has to be given to restoring the draft.
The alternative is to continue to rely on that less than one percent of the American population that currently defends the nation to produce our war fighters and the question that prompts is simple enough: Are we going to continue to send these few back to the battle again and again and again until their marriages collapse, and their children are resentful strangers to them, and they are either battle-crazed or suicidal or homicidal – the way we do now? And how long can we depend on that expedient?
How long can we afford to delude ourselves about the efficacy of the All Volunteer Force?
All the problems noted here were regularly recorded and reported to the appropriate officials in the Defense Department.
Noel Koch served as the Obama Administration’s first Deputy Undersecretary of Defense heading the Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy. He is a Vietnam Veteran, served as Special Assistant to two Presidents and as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and Director for Special Planning in the Reagan Administration.