Best Defense

Noel Koch responds to General Cheek, but focuses on the plight of caregivers

By Noel Koch Best Defense guest columnist I don’t want to enter into a dispute with General Cheek, for whom I have the highest respect — he has one of the toughest, and most thankless, jobs in the Army. That said, I learned early that the surveys used by DOD and, I am assuming, by ...

U.S. Army
U.S. Army

By Noel Koch
Best Defense guest columnist

I don’t want to enter into a dispute with General Cheek, for whom I have the highest respect — he has one of the toughest, and most thankless, jobs in the Army.

That said, I learned early that the surveys used by DOD and, I am assuming, by the military services, are so primitive as to be useless. Thus, an 80 percent satisfaction rate is dismissible. I don’t know how many people respond to the surveys, but I suspect the numbers are low enough to invalidate the sample, and I know the questions are useless. Forgive me, but this was one of my hobby horses while I was in the job, and I regularly pointed out that if Procter & Gamble used these surveys in their market analyses, they would have been out of business inside of a month.

I would be surprised if 84 percent of the Soldiers in the WTU’s have deployed, but this may be another statistical anomaly stemming from the time the evaluation was conducted. My staff and I were regularly struck, during our visits to the WTU’s, by the number of people who said they had not been deployed, and that astonishment was reinforced by confirmation from the cadre. While we are on the subject of cadre, I note that many of the comments are inimical to the cadre. I don’t quarrel with these assessments, but I have to say they do not comport with our experience during out visits to the WTU’s. At the beginning of our visits, we met only with the Wounded, Ill, and Injured Warriors in the units. Early on, however, we began to get a sense that these people were not the only ones suffering the effects of dealing with all the issues that associated with life in the WTUs. Therefore, in addition to meeting with the "patients," we began to meet with the caregivers, including the cadre. 

We began a series of articles in our newsletter, "The Square Deal," which appears to have been suspended or canceled under the Stanley regime. These articles focused on the full array of caregivers: family members, the Recovery Care Coordinators (I owned the Recovery Coordination Program, which was run by the incomparable Susan Roberts, who announced her retirement when I left — there were regular e-mails saying thank you for saving my husband’s life; among the services, the Army declined to participate in the Recovery Coordination Program), Chaplains (one of them took his life); and cadre. What was striking was the impact of involvement on the caregivers. They are breaking, or broken. So let me give you a picture of the maligned cadre. This was at Fort Riley, home of the Big Red One. I have spoken of this before, but I want to put it forth again: We had a session with the NCOs responsible for the care and management of the WTU, and we had gotten past the usual formalities to the point where people felt like they could speak openly.  

There were two NCO’s who were especially and obviously angry. One of them let it fly: "I hate some of these sons of bitches. They hustle the system. They challenge us. They want to fight us. And they are gaming the system." I asked him when his rotation date was and he said he was up in two months, after two years in the job. So I said, "This is good. You are out of here in sixty days, right. You have to be happy." And he said, "No. I don’t want to leave. There are Wounded Warriors here. They need my help, and I want to help them. I love them." You don’t hear that, "I love them" a lot up front in the U.S. military, but that summed up much of what we heard from the cadre in the WTU’s. So despite all the negative commentary about cadre, I have to say I didn’t see it first hand. I thought, generally, these were great men and women doing the very best they could for their brothers and sisters. But they were stressed. Some of them were near breaking. 

So I would rather skip over a lot of General Cheek’s statistics, acknowledging that there may be room in the interstices between his perceptions and mine. But there is one event that I think is telling with regard to this issue, and I will share it here. I had a meeting with the Surgeon General of the Army, General Schoomaker, to discuss the issues specific to the point here. It had to do with non-combatants in the WTUs, and I rehearsed all the issues that occur in my article. General Cheek joined us for the discussion, and after I laid out the problems of non-combatants in the WTUs General Cheek joined in to reinforce my concerns. He did it with a personal recollection. "I was in a ward with a guy from the 160th (Army Aviation’s Special Operations Task Force 160) who was pretty banged up. There were guys in beds on either side of him. One of them had an obesity issue, and the other one had a drug problem. And this guy said, ‘I got this piece of human garbage here on one side of me, and I got that piece of human garbage on the other side of me, and what I’m wondering, Sir, is, ‘What does the Army think of me?’!" 

It’s anecdotal, but it sums up much of the problem. 

So you know, I am looking forward to being challenged on this issue by the "leadership" of Personnel and Readiness. Because, ultimately, that is where the problem lies.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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