Best Defense

Bergdahl and recruiting (II): It wasn’t just the enlistees who learned to dissemble

By Lt. Col. Douglas A. Pryer, U.S. Army Best Defense guest columnist As the political firestorm concerning Sergeant Bowe Berghdahl continues, I am hearing people state as fact that enlistment standards dropped far too low after 9/11, allowing either hardened criminals or, as they claim in Bergdahl’s case, men with serious mental issues into the ...

via David Schott/Flickr
via David Schott/Flickr

By Lt. Col. Douglas A. Pryer, U.S. Army

Best Defense guest columnist

As the political firestorm concerning Sergeant Bowe Berghdahl continues, I am hearing people state as fact that enlistment standards dropped far too low after 9/11, allowing either hardened criminals or, as they claim in Bergdahl’s case, men with serious mental issues into the Army. It is a recurring notion that I’ve read often, and it is an idea that, I believe, is a red herring hiding a profounder and harder reality.

After commanding an intelligence company in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, I volunteered for recruiting duty to, hopefully, spend more time with my family. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I served as the Milwaukee Recruiting Company Commander from January 2005 to July 2006 and as the Milwaukee Recruiting Battalion’s Executive Officer from July 2006 to July 2008. As a recruiting company commander, I initiated scores of requests for medical and "moral" (crime-related) waivers. As an executive officer, I not only reviewed all waivers, but also I did most of the work concerning investigations of "recruiting improprieties," which occur when recruiters either knowingly or negligently enlist applicants who are not qualified to enlist.

If such waivers were a problem, I never noticed it. They weren’t a problem in Wisconsin. I was untroubled by the thought of any of the applicants whom I interviewed for a waiver becoming soldiers. The only felony waiver I ever tried to get my boss to sign off on was for a kid who, as a juvenile, had broken into a store with his friends and stolen $600 worth of ice cream. The police nabbed him with his friends, chowing down on ice cream beneath a tree, surrounded by gallons of the stuff. Due to the dollar value of the heist, he had been convicted of a felony. Although my boss pushed the waiver up, USAREC disapproved it (perhaps because it was the wrong time of the year).

Still, the chances are that we put a number of men and women "in boots" who didn’t belong in them. This had little to do with published enlistment standards, which were fairly stringent, or with the waivers that we initiated and were approved. The problem lay with the huge surge in required enlistments and the tremendous amount of pressure this put on leaders and soldiers alike to avoid being truthful. Those who didn’t serve as Army recruiters during the immediate post 9/11 period probably can’t appreciate the tremendous amount of pressure that recruiters were under. When you recruited then, it wasn’t just your career and livelihood that was at stake. The threat of mission failure loomed over you like a black cloud, making you constantly fearful of letting your fellow soldiers down.

The first battalion leadership team — the Battalion Commander and Command Sergeant Major —  for whom I worked employed "old school" tactics that many called "toxic." Some went so far as to say these two leaders were responsible for two suicide attempts, a first sergeant nearly dying from high blood pressure, and various other stress-related woes and ailments. What I can personally attest to was that they created the most depressed environment that I’ve ever worked in.

The next leadership team did things right: they maximized the use of positive reinforcement, phoning recruiters and congratulating them when they enlisted someone, and they made spectacular celebrations of battalion ceremonies in which awards were presented to recruiters for high enlistment numbers. But this approach, while far more productive in terms of enlistment numbers and morale, still brought a lot of pressure to bear on recruiters. Nearly everyone wanted to personally succeed or help their team succeed. No one wanted to keep their brother and sister recruiters from getting those "Top Station," "Top Company," or "Top Battalion" awards. Several times I witnessed recruiters strutting forward to accept awards from leaders in front of their peers, their chests swelling with pride and faces beaming, their wives or girlfriends cheering them on, and I would think to myself: "There goes my next recruiter impropriety investigation." And sure enough, that would often prove to be the case.

I’m not saying that all, or even most, recruiters lied. What I’m saying is that, post 9/11, record-high "quotas" placed a great deal of pressure on recruiters to avoid the truth. Adding to this pressure was our Army’s warrior ethos: "I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade…" This combination led a few recruiters to outright lie and many more to passively lie. When they talked to an applicant, this passive lying sounded something like this: "Ok. I’m now going to give you the list of disqualifying conditions. I know you really want to join. I think you’re a good guy and would make a great soldier. But if one of these conditions applies to you and you tell me that it does, then you won’t be able to join. So, what you tell me is up to you"–wink wink.

Then there was the great temptation for applicants to lie because of high enlistment bonuses, college money, and other benefits that the need to rapidly grow our all-volunteer Army generated. Of course, some applicants didn’t even need recruiters to help them to lie–they did their own research and went ahead and dived into falsehoods on their own.

Whenever I read a news story about a soldier who engaged in serious misconduct and who had needed a moral (crime-related) or medical waiver to enlist, I always wonder what exactly the waiver was for. Was the waiver actually for the pre-enlistment crime or mental health condition that the news is reporting? Or, as is more likely to be the case, did the applicant’s enlistment package include some facts that required a waiver while omitting other facts that would have been disqualifying?

I remember one interview that I conducted for an investigation in a ramshackle house outside of Green Bay. The guy I was interviewing had been a new soldier who had had a nervous breakdown at basic training and had dropped out, claiming that that he had told his recruiter about his mental health issues but that his recruiter had coached him to lie. I went to talk to him, clarify the details of his story, and collect whatever substantiating documentation about his mental health that I could gather.

It was approaching dusk as I parked my car and walked alone about 100 meters down a dirt path to his house in some woods. He ushered me into the house where he lived by himself. I was stunned by the squalid condition of the place. Trash and rotting food were heaped everywhere. The stench made me nauseated. The first thought I had was: "Good God! I’m interviewing Buffalo Bill [the serial killer from Silence of the Lambs]!" The guy clearly had mental issues. After he moved trash out of the way so that I could sit on his couch, we began talking. He described being in and out of mental institutions since he was young and, when I asked him what mental health disorders he had been diagnosed with, he began reciting a litany of them: "Doctors have told me that I have major depressive disorder, dissociative disorder, am psychotic, suicidal, homicidal…"

To be honest, I didn’t hear much he said after that word "homicidal." I remember looking out his living room window at the sun now nearly gone and at the darkening path leading through the woods back to my car, and thinking just how far away my car seemed. I quickly stood up, thanked him for his time, and proceeded with some urgency to my car

I smile today when I think of that rush through the woods that evening. That was one brave warrior, right? But when I step back and think about it, that was a serious thing. If there is another Jeffrey Dahmer or Ed Gein in Wisconsin today, he may very well be this guy, and my unit once enlisted him. This guy swore the oath of enlistment, though, not because standards were low, but because either he lied to his recruiter (which I determined was most likely to be the case here) or his recruiter helped him to lie.

Bottom line, my recruiting battalion probably enlisted a number of applicants who shouldn’t have become soldiers. But the problem wasn’t low enlistment standards. The far deeper, more pervasive, much-harder-to-solve problem was the great stress and pressure that was placed on recruiters when our nation, in a time of war, tried to field a much larger all-volunteer Army over a short period of time. The urgency of this mission, and the profound wish of soldiers not to fail in the missions they were given, created such inner conflict and stress that a recruiter’s character far too often came undone.

I’m not saying that we should do away with our all-volunteer Army. But I would be willing to bet that this undoing of soldiers’ character — the hidden moral cost of our needing a larger army quickly to fight the next Iraq, Afghanistan, or large-scale conventional war — has not factored at all into past and ongoing calculations concerning troop cuts.

Lieutenant Colonel Douglas A. Pryer is an active-duty counterintelligence officer who has deployed to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He has published one book and numerous essays on the human domain of war. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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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