Best Defense

How my negligent discharge in Iraq pretty much ruined my Army career

By A Former Officer Best Defense bureau of anonymous guest columns The post on Friday regarding negligent discharges provoked comments expressing the gamut of emotions from exasperation to empathy. It elicited a strong reaction within myself for personal reasons I’ll explain shortly. My story begins with a personal experience early in my career, during OIF ...

Okinawa Soba/Flickr
Okinawa Soba/Flickr

By A Former Officer
Best Defense bureau of anonymous guest columns

The post on Friday regarding negligent discharges provoked comments expressing the gamut of emotions from exasperation to empathy. It elicited a strong reaction within myself for personal reasons I’ll explain shortly. My story begins with a personal experience early in my career, during OIF I, and continues with observations on the matter throughout a second deployment in 2006-2007. What I hope to illustrate is just how drastically the Army has changed its views on weapons safety since 2003, and how, for all those changes, dangerous the environment remains due to a failure to conquer the overarching problems — specifically, inconsistency in training and an immature regard for weapons.

I have the ignominious title of being perhaps the first officer to have a negligent discharge in OIF history. To make the sequence of events as brief as possible, the incident occurred about my third or fourth week in country. I had just been assigned to my platoon, only 22 days after being medically discharged from Ranger School for a back injury. I was put in the D Company because I was still limping and being in a vehicle allowed me to serve in some meaningful capacity. It wasn’t long before I did the same thing everyone did after two or three weeks of MREs and K-rations — I ate the local food. With a system still weakened from Benning, it only took 24 hours after that for me to react the same way everyone else did after their first bite of local cuisine — I grew violently ill. I developed wretched diarrhea and you can imagine what happened. A convoy was heading to the main FOB to hit the shower tent and I hopped on it in haste. We arrived at the front gate of the FOB, where everyone hopped out of the vehicles to clear their weapons. In my delirium, I pulled the charging handle back to eject the chambered round before removing the magazine, thereby charging a new round. When I pointed the rifle at the ground and pulled the trigger, it went off. The MPs at the gate immediately accosted us, got my info, and reported it to my company commander, who was already on the FOB.  

My company commander, just off a stint as a platoon leader in the Ranger Regiment, immediately sought to remove me from the company. My battalion commander showed clemency and instead declared that my punishment would be to dig a grave behind our company’s outpost. My company commander explained to me that I was only to work on the grave at night and in an inconspicuous location. The idea was to keep the matter discreet. However, the unspoken punishment was that I was never accepted among the company’s officers. My company commander rarely spoke to me except to criticize some mistake I made, gave my platoon the worst assignments, and ultimately wrote me a bad OER. My battalion commander, while counseling me on that first OER, told me in no uncertain terms that the company commander’s remarks were unfair and obviously colored by that single incident.  

For my part, I spent the week after the incident trying to figure out what went wrong with the weapon. I gave it to the unit armorer for a full inspection. I never told my company commander about my physical condition before the incident. Not because I was afraid of further punishment for eating the local food (it was against the rules), but because I was embarrassed to admit I’d soiled my pants. A few months later, one of my soldiers experienced a similar incident. He was punished severely by doing rifle PT for hours in the sun — in full view of the entire company. I did nothing to stop my NCOs from taking their action because I was afraid my own incident would be brought up and I’d be humiliated again. After the deployment, at an officers’ beer call, a few of my former “fellow” lieutenants from the company put on a skit reenacting the incident. It was vindictive and humiliating, and it was meant to be.  

I spent much time reflecting on the incident, especially in the context of a friend’s discharge while in Infantry Officer Basic Course in 2002. He was manning an M249 machine gun during the blank-fire iteration of a live-fire exercise when the weapon went off. They nearly kicked him out of the Infantry. His saving grace was that his training NCO had told him to put the weapon in the “half-cock” position — a safety measure that wasn’t in any manual and was highly disputed for its safety. It would be 2004 before I saw the Army release official guidance forbidding the half-cock position and mandating that the weapon be set to “safe” properly. The whole procedure had been invented because of the M249’s stigma for accidentally firing while on safe with a round charged. The Army finally quashed this nasty rumor with the new guidance, but the Officer Basic Course continued to use it in my class, which took place after my friend’s. All that aside, I remember the sense of disgrace my friend felt and how he was ostracized for the rest of his class. Today he’s a highly successful officer, decorated for service as a company commander in combat.  

It was on my second deployment that I realized just how severe the problem was in the Army. Traveling to multiple FOBs across Iraq, I noticed that no two weapons-clearing areas were the same, nor had the same rules. Furthermore, the tenant units all had their individual procedures for placing weapons on safe. At every echelon, from squad to Corps, I heard the question asked at least once– “If the weapon fires into the clearing barrel, why do we punish the soldier? He followed proper procedure, didn’t he?” No one attempted to say “because the weapon wouldn’t have gone off if he had followed proper procedure from the beginning.” No one attempted to give any answer at all. Some units forewent pulling the trigger at all, with commanders and NCO leaders at every level declaring they weren’t going to put their troops at risk of being punished for doing the right thing. I once saw a photoshopped image of a clearing barrel with Admiral Akhbar from the Star Wars movies standing in front of it, making his famous declaration that “it’s a trap!” It was posted in an office in the Green Zone. 

Another change that struck me between 2003 and 2005 may have seemed trivial semantics to many, but was profound in demonstrating the Army’s efforts at getting a handle on the problem. My incident was labeled an “accidental discharge.” By 2005, that term had been officially replaced with “negligent discharge.” It left the impression that the Army was institutionally no longer willing to consider that people have accidents. Every misfiring of a weapon was categorically an act of carelessness, and would be treated as such.  

I have no other basis for the following conclusions than my experience and observations. However, I feel that what I’ve seen and heard is substantial enough to at least be considered by the Army. It is my considered opinion that the Army continues to have accidental and negligent weapons discharges because of a culture that equally indulges in bravado and shame. One needs to look no further than that iconic scene from Full Metal Jacket of the Marines marching through the squad bay, one hand carrying a shouldered weapon and the other grabbing their genitalia, to understand the psychological and cultural association of weapons with manhood in the military profession. This bears significant consequences for the safety mindset. An infantryman, regardless of rank or experience, is taken for granted to know how to properly and safely maintain any weapon he’s handed, and any oversight of that handling is viewed as an affront to his manhood. He’s a big boy, playing by big boy rules. Of course, the Drill Sergeant Hartman analogy also explains why anyone who experiences an incident is treated so harshly. He’s committed a breach of manhood; literally, and excuse the crass language, shooting his load too early. This may explain why so many accidents cited in the comments occurred with experienced NCOs who probably had at least one previous combat tour. These individuals are regarded as knowing what they’re doing. Keep in mind the stigma that goes along with the extra precautions taken with first-timers. They’re referred to as “cherries;” another sexual innuendo. If a pilot puts his helicopter down for a “hard landing,” his unit closely reviews the incident and recertifies him on that training before slating him to fly again. If a unit experiences a fatality in a vehicle rollover, nearly every unit in theater is directed to conduct safety training on those procedures. But if an individual has an accidental or negligent discharge, the incident is “taken care of” as swiftly and quietly as possible — as much for the benefit of the soldier as for the entire unit.

Though it is not as pronounced in the real military as the caricature in the Kubrick film, the prevalence of the mentality is obvious in the combat arms world. Culturally, we insist on believing that no one is a virgin. Institutionally, and perhaps influenced by that same culture, we disdain anyone who can’t keep it in their magazine. As it is often said by our safety officers, safety is a state of mind. Until the existing mentality can be overcome, there can be no development or implementation of a policy that really gets to the matter of safety.  

I have submitted the preceding thoughts and observations anonymously. At the time the skit was performed, I wish I’d stood up in that group of officers and told everyone that, for all my shame, the incident was no laughing matter. That I’m still reluctant to identify myself today, because I feel assured others will assault my position as motivated by personal bias, should perhaps indicate the severity of the issue.

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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