Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Military misconduct affects those who follow orders, too

It was a weekend morning, possibly a Saturday morning, and I was sleeping in my room in the barracks when someone knocked on the door.

I got out of the bottom bunk and opened the door a crack to find the duty NCO of our barracks at the door. I wasn’t in trouble, he said, but he was sure glad to find me, he said, because he needed me to relieve him.

“I don’t have the duty this weekend,” I said.

“I know, Vince,” the corporal replied. “I’ve been trying the doors of every NCO in the building and you’re the first one who’s answered. I need to be relieved now.”

“What happened to your relief?” I asked.

“Jenkins never showed up,” he said.

It was sometime in early 1982. I was a corporal in the Marine Corps at the airbase in Yuma, Ariz., and was starting to count down the days until my discharge in August of that year. A couple of months earlier, my ineptitude at being the duty NCO in the barracks had gotten me relieved of the detail, and I was sent off to mess duty instead. But now I was needed.

Could I shave and shower? No, the duty NCO said. “Just get dressed, come to the office and relieve me. I called the OD (officer of the day). They’re trying to find Jenkins.”

I did as instructed, and the officer of the day assured me they’d get it all straightened out. Of course, we all knew that if and when Jenkins – not his real name – was found, he’d probably be in no condition to take over as duty NCO of anything, so I might be stuck for the rest of the day looking like I had been awakened suddenly and put in charge of the barracks.

The outcome is lost in the mists of time, but I guess I eventually was relieved and thanked for coming to the aid of a fellow Marine. If there is one lesson I learned in the Marines, it was that military misconduct affects a number of people, and not just the person committing the offense.

Jenkins was basically a drunk who had a habit of disappearing to the enlisted club or going out of town to drink, whether he was supposed to go off base or not. If you were on “duty section” on the weekend, you had the run of the base, but could not leave the base. People could and did leave, though, but most made sure to be reasonably sober when called upon to serve on duty.

Jenkins’ behavior was a problem for the squadron and its personnel who had to cover for him while he explored the wonders of mind-altering liquids. I’m sure that today he tells great stories about how the Marine Corps screwed him over and gave him a bad discharge, and doesn’t tell about the times other Marines had to cover for him.

A recent piece in The New York Times detailed the sad story of the hundreds of thousands of former military personnel with “bad paper”: discharges that are less than the top one, the honorable discharge. “The Vets We Reject and Ignore” seeks to gain sympathy for those who “were discharged ‘under conditions other than honorable’ and so do not qualify as veterans under federal law.”

For them, life after the military is difficult, the article notes. “According to documents separately obtained by the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Army discharged 76,165 soldiers between 2006 and 2012 with bad paper. Of these recent Army discharges, only one in seven were kicked out following a criminal conviction for a serious offense. The rest were discharged for smaller breaches of military discipline like missing duty or abusing alcohol or drugs. For many of them, their misconduct was likely related to the stresses of war,” it says.

Be that as it may, in the military abusing alcohol or drugs or missing duty is a major offense. I wonder how many people had to change plans or cancel events because they had to cover for those 76,165 soldiers who didn’t show up ready, willing and able to do their duty.

Nowadays, narratives of military discipline are told almost exclusively from the perspective of the person being disciplined. The person under court-martial or non-judicial punishment gets to tell all about how unfair the process is and receives a sympathetic hearing from journalists and liberal activists.

An article in Harper’s described AWOL and UA troops who considered their fellow troops to be psychopathic baby-killers, while they were sensitive people who were thrown into a situation with crazy people. Their stories were presented without any effort to hear from those others who obeyed orders and deployed without going AWOL.

I ask, what about the people who are inconvenienced because someone goes AWOL, UA, deserts the unit or misses a unit movement? The work still has to be done, and there are many, many more people who will do the work and silently curse the offender who self-righteously goes around bad-mouthing the military and accumulating charge sheets and disciplinary actions, while they have to give up their off-time to fill in.

There are plenty of services available to those in the military who are having trouble after coming back from the war zone. If they fail to avail themselves of those services and instead drink to excess or do drugs, absent themselves from their units and misbehave while on duty, they have no one to blame but themselves. Everyone knows the consequences of bad military service and “bad paper” discharges. I was taught the importance of obeying orders and getting a good discharge soon after reporting to Parris Island in August 1978, and those lessons were reinforced throughout my four years of service in the Marine Corps.

The lesson really was driven home to me when I reported to my squadron, VMA-513, in Yuma, Ariz., around the start of 1980.

A Marine meltdown
I was told of a Marine who had been a well-respected member of the squadron but had seemingly gone “crazy” at some point. Most people who go AWOL do so early in their service time, when they are of low rank and status, and perhaps are disappointed that the well-ordered world of basic training isn’t replicated out in the “fleet,” as the real Marine Corps is called.

Marine drill instructors then and I suppose now were models of what a Marine should be; oftentimes there’s disappointment when you find out the “brotherhood” includes people in leadership positions who don’t measure up to that standard.

My first real verbal encounter with a Marine NCO was a corporal in civilian clothes who looked like a gas station attendant. He was shorter than me, his hair was long and mussed, and he walked over to me in my unadorned (save for a Marksman shooting badge) winter service alpha uniform that was maybe a slight bit wrinkled, and said, “Private, do you own an iron?”

“No, Corporal,” I replied.

“Then you’d better shit one,” he said.

Most of the NCOs I met had better leadership skills than that one, but there was the one who had basically self-destructed, according to what I was told. I believe most of the story because I actually encountered this person near the end of his time at the squadron.

(Maybe my fellow ex-squadron-mates could enlighten me on the details and correct any errors I might make in the description that I remember hearing.)

He had been a fast-advancing Marine who had reached the rank of E-5. The sergeant had been offered a chance to re-enlist for six more years and had taken it. Back then, you could re-enlist for six years and get not only a nice cash bonus but also another stripe. He had taken both the cash and the stripe, becoming a staff sergeant (E-6) in a pretty short time frame.

Of course, it might be up to a decade before he would have a shot at gunnery sergeant (E-7) but the compensations included living in the staff NCO barracks, the very nice pay that a staff sergeant got and a chance to show off his leadership capabilities, plus not having to serve on mess duty or the other “details” that came up from time to time.

I don’t recall what his job was in the squadron, by the way.

I was told that before I had arrived, he had just returned to the squadron after going UA (unauthorized absence). At some point after re-enlisting and cashing his bonus check, he had gone UA for the first time and eventually returned to base. The military didn’t try actively to catch UAs and deserters. Their names were put in the “wanted” files and the police computer dispatch systems of the time, and often they were captured after being pulled over for a traffic infraction.

He had been demoted and sent back to work, but then he continued to go UA. He was gone for about a year at one point, I think, then came back again. Finally, he was reduced to the rank of private (E-1), served some time in the brig and then was restricted to barracks. That meant he could only leave the barracks for work, religious services, meals at the chow hall and trips to the PX for health and comfort items. He also had to report to the barracks’ duty NCO at a set interval, or the duty NCO had to check on him to make sure he hadn’t left the barracks.

I never learned why this fellow did what he did, which to me seemed very self-destructive. Still, going from a staff NCO to a private had to be quite a fall, even if it was self-inflicted.

Besides the stories I was told, my main encounter with this person was during a time before I left the Marines when I was detailed as duty NCO in the barracks. Let me say right out that my ineptitude at this rather simple job got me relieved of it after about two weeks. The sergeant major chewed me out, told me I didn’t deserve to be a corporal and I think recommended me for mess duty.

He was right because I simply was not applying myself at the time, though I should have known better. I think I was lucky that my superiors didn’t just decide to get rid of me.

The demoted fellow was on barracks restriction, and I was advised to check on him regularly. My big, hairy, gigantic screw-up was that one night the MPs came for him and took him away. I made a note in the log and that was it.

The next day, the sergeant major was furious. “Why didn’t you call the officer of the day to tell him someone had been taken from the barracks?” he demanded, and I didn’t have a good answer to that.

In the meantime, my encounters with the restricted Marine had been pretty negative. He refused to do any of the work I assigned and pretty much treated me like a non-entity. In a way, I was glad to get off duty NCO because getting heavy with fellow Marines was simply not something I was good at.

I never saw the restricted Marine again, and his fate is lost to my understanding.

In the realm of the shitbirds
The late 1970s and early 1980s were kind of rebuilding years for the U.S. military. The service had a bad reputation
in light of the Vietnam war, and civilians saw the military as a waste of men and money.

Still, there were people in the military of varying motivations. The force had become all-volunteer but some of the troops’ attitudes left much to be desired. There was at least one occasion, when I was at the naval base in Millington, Tenn., for electronics training, when the Navy offered commanders the chance to rid themselves of sailors who just weren’t contributing to the mission.

They could break enlistment contracts and boot out those whose performance wasn’t up to snuff. I don’t know how many sailors got off-loaded but it seems to be a good way to keep up morale.

In his book “The Generals,” Thomas E. Ricks noted that one U.S. Army commander in Germany in the late 1970s used an authorization to rid his division of shitbirds. He kicked out more than a thousand soldiers, and said that the rest would cheer as the buses carrying the shitbirds left the base for an American airbase, where they would board planes to bases in the U.S. for discharge from the Army.

Even though getting out of the Marines was difficult, I had heard of “convenience of the government” discharges, in which you’d get out if the Marines decided they didn’t want to keep you around. Of course, not everyone who was eligible to be kicked out wanted out, and those who really wanted out didn’t seem to care about the quality of their discharge.

An integral part of basic training, aside from marching and drill, weapons training, customs and courtesies, and disciplinary actions, was the ways that one could leave the service. You could retire with honor after at least 20 years or receive an honorable discharge after a term of enlistment was completed.

The honorable discharge is the gold standard, though a service member who does his or her duty and avoids trouble can get one. This is the kind that I have, and I’m proud to have received it.

The discharges below that – save for medical, disability in service and psychological (which are honorable discharges) – confer less status and fewer to no Veterans Affairs benefits. It has saddened and frustrated me to read the stories of people who joined the military, especially after the 9/11 attacks, and then became so determined to free themselves of the military that they would accept “bad paper” to get away.

I knew guys when I was in the Marines who were willing to take any discharge just to get out, and later regretted it. Reading about folks nowadays who are willing to have the blackest of black marks on their records makes me sad, too. People need to realize that a military commitment is a very serious matter, and breaking it has major consequences.

The trouble can find you years later, when you need the VA but don’t qualify and then have to go through the long, hard process of getting a discharge upgraded. With brig or prison time, that’s pretty hard to accomplish.

So the moral, I guess, is to do what I did: stick with it and get out clean, then move on to something new. And don’t be so desperate for a change that you’re willing to sacrifice your future to have it.

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November 24, 2013 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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