Sunday, July 13, 2008

Misconceptions About "Moral Conduct" Waivers

While it's no secret that there are problems with military recruiting--and one of those problems being the acceptance of substandard recruits--there is a misconception out there as to what this really means. Letting in people who can't read and write is worse than letting in people with questionable backgrounds.

Part of the problem comes from using flawed or misguided methodology to panic the American people into thinking that the military is full of gangbangers and criminal masterminds. That kind of thing pisses me off to no end--a statistically small number of troops have always made the military look lawless and unprofessional, and that's the bullshit that needs to be debunked. It's not a "shocker" and it's not a crisis. We have plenty of other problems, but this is not the one we should be focused on.

Here, Greg Mitchell quotes from the Sacramento Bee and its coverage of "moral conduct" waivers in the military:
During a yearlong examination, the Sacramento Bee studied the civilian and military backgrounds of hundreds of troops identified from recruiting documents and other military records, focusing on those who entered the services since the Iraq war began and those linked to in-service problems.

Though not a representative sample, the 250 military personnel analyzed most closely for "Suspect Soldiers" included 120 with questionable backgrounds, including felonies and serious drug, alcohol or mental health problems.

Risks associated with employing people with criminal histories multiply in a war zone, where a single incident by one soldier or Marine can affect entire units and fuel anti-American sentiment.

Ruby, Holmes and Gonyon were among 70 with troubled pasts whom The Bee linked to incidents in the military, most occurring in Iraq. A number of those incidents were identified for the first time through military records; even in some well-publicized incidents, The Bee uncovered criminal records not previously made public.

Though dozens of these soldiers would not have qualified for law enforcement jobs in this country, the military sent them to Iraq, where troops often function as police officers.

"These guys are out there carrying weapons, fighting on the streets with drugs in their pockets," said Tressie Cox, whose son, Lee Robert, had a history of drug and mental problems before he was charged with selling drugs in Iraq. "Shame on my son, but shame on all you people out there who are policing this and allowing this to continue to happen."

Right off the bat, I can tell you that when I see that the sampling was not "representative," I know we're in for a ride down bullshit lane. The easiest way to construct a negative piece is to simply pick the worst examples--the most sensationalized ones--and run with it.

When I served, you could have written this exact same story by looking at criminal activity in the military. If you had gathered up the worst offenders from 1997, you would have found that the highest ranking NCO in the US Army was accused of sexual harassment.You would have found NCOs convicted of sexual abuse of trainees at Aberdeen Proving Ground. You would have found other stories of members of the military associating with gangs, shooting people, robbing people and stealing. You would have found domestic assaults, murders and more. The problem is, you would have found all of this reprehensible conduct and more long before we went to war in Iraq.

There are two things people need to remember--despite the increase in "moral conduct" waivers, the fundamental mindset of the military has not changed. The UCMJ allows commanders to kick people out if they break the law--no one is saddled with a bad soldier permanently because of shortages. They are simply ramrodding more questionable troops into the system and making the commanders sort out the ash and trash. But what I don't see is evidence where the troops who have been given "moral conduct" waivers have become adequate or even good soldiers. The Sacramento Bee article cites several studies which show that, yes, the military ends up separating the "moral conduct" waiver recruits at a higher rate than recruits without the waiver, but were those studies complete? One study only looked at the California National Guard--hardly a representational look at the National Guard as a whole.

That's where I question the methodology. Because it wasn't representative, it didn't focus on a randomly generated group and show what happened in each of their cases--it just showed the most outrageous criminals. Well, those outrageous criminals are nothing new. What is new is that someone thinks all of this can be linked to the lax recruiting standards, and that's probably correct. Keeping felons out would make it easier for commanders throughout the military. The problem is, what do you do with the felon who joins the military and becomes a model soldier and turns their life around? Anyone who served in the military of the '50s and '60s knows people who went in badasses and screwups and came out model citizens.

When I talk about methodology, this chart exemplifies why you can't accept the numbers at face value:

The chart has a lot of things that I question. Including the calendar year 2003 is my biggest complaint--we did not have a problem in 2003, but we had the initial indications of one. By the end of 2003, we knew we had "problems" in Iraq, but the first units to have invaded Iraq were largely still there. We did not enter the backbreaking rotation of combat brigades until 2005 or so. When the casualties began to skyrocket, when the rotations began to strain the active duty and the National Guard, and when the first spike in the number of troops going AWOL happened, that triggered the recruiting issues. The problems that triggered the increase in accepting substandard recruits didn't even exist in 2003 or 2004 at a high rate:

Army desertion rates have fluctuated since the Vietnam War _ when they peaked at 5 percent. In the 1970s they hovered between 1 and 3 percent, which is up to three out of every 100 soldiers. Those rates plunged in the 1980s and early 1990s to between 2 and 3 out of every 1,000 soldiers.

Desertions began to creep up in the late 1990s into the turn of the century, when the U.S. conducted an air war in Kosovo and later sent peacekeeping troops there.

The numbers declined in 2003 and 2004, in the early years of the Iraq war, but then began to increase steadily.

In contrast, the Navy has seen a steady decline in deserters since 2001, going from 3,665 that year to 1,129 in 2007.

The Marine Corps, meanwhile, has seen the number of deserters stay fairly stable over that timeframe _ with about 1,000 deserters a year. During 2003 and 2004 _ the first two years of the Iraq war _ the number of deserters fell to 877 and 744, respectively.

The Air Force can tout the fewest number of deserters _ with no more than 56 bolting in each of the past five years. The low was in fiscal 2007, with just 16 deserters.

Despite the continued increase in Army desertions, however, an Associated Press examination of Pentagon figures earlier this year showed that the military does little to find those who bolt, and rarely prosecutes the ones they find. Some are allowed to simply return to their units, while most are given less-than-honorable discharges.

A chart which shows "problem recruits" from calendar years 2003 and 2004 plainly misses the problem of recruiting entirely--we were not in a crisis during those years. We didn't actually step up the acceptance of the moral conduct waiver troops until AFTER the data on this chart, reaching the high level we're at now:
The percentage of Army recruits receiving so-called "moral conduct" waivers more than doubled, from 4.6 percent in 2003 to 11.2 percent in 2007. Others, The Bee found, were able to enlist because they had no official criminal record of arrests or convictions, their records were overlooked or prosecutors suspended charges in lieu of military service - akin to a now-defunct Vietnam-era practice in which judges gave defendants a choice between prison and the military.

I don't know how you read a chart like that when, clearly, it uses calendar year data that isn't relevant. Even so, the statistical differences are not great. Yes, troops with moral conduct waivers are "slightly" more likely to be bad troops. Not all of them are--the numbers would be off the charts were that the case.

So, statistically, they're only slightly more likely to be worse. And we don't have the right data to back it up. Take it with a grain of salt, then.

Finally, two quick points--urinalysis testing for drug offenders and keeping troops who have Lautenberg violations from owning or carrying weapons. If there are troops on drugs, they better be testing them and catching them and kicking them out. If there are troops that have domestic violence issues, they better not be allowed to re-enlist.I think what is missing is an understanding of the Lautenberg Amendment, which should have helped eliminate some of the problems in the Sacramento Bee article much earlier on, if it was applied and enforced properly:
The Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968, effective 30 September 1996, makes it a felony for those convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence to ship, transport, possess, or receive firearms or ammunition. The Amendment also makes it a felony to transfer a firearm or ammunition to an individual known, or reasonably believed, to have such a conviction. Soldiers are not exempt from the Lautenberg Amendment.

Summary court-martial convictions, nonjudicial punishment under Article 15, UCMJ, and deferred prosecutions (or similar alternative dispositions) in civilian court do not constitute qualifying convictions within the meaning of the Lautenberg Amendment. The prohibitions do not preclude a soldier from operating major weapons systems or crew served weapons such as tanks, missiles, and aircraft. The Lautenberg Amendment applies to soldiers with privately owned firearms and ammunition stored on or off post.

Army policy is that all soldiers known to have, or soldiers whom commanders have reasonable cause to believe have, a conviction of a misdemeanor crime of domestic are non-deployable for missions that require possession of firearms or ammunition. Soldiers affected by the Lautenberg Amendment are not eligible for overseas assignment. However, soldiers who are based outside the continental United States (OCONUS) will continue to comply with their assignment instructions.

Soldiers with qualifying convictions may not be assigned or attached to tables of organization and equipment (TOE) or modified TOE (MTOE) units. Commanders will not appoint such soldiers to leadership positions that would give them access to firearms and ammunition. Soldiers with qualifying convictions may not attend any service school where instruction with individual weapons or ammunition is part of the curriculum.

Soldiers whom commanders know, or have reasonable cause to believe have, a qualifying conviction may extend if otherwise qualified, but are limited to a one year extension. Affected soldiers may not reenlist and are not eligible for the indefinite reenlistment program. Soldiers barred from reenlistment based on a Lautenberg qualifying conviction occurring after 30 September 1996 may not extend their enlistment. However, such soldiers must be given a reasonable time to seek removal of the conviction or a pardon.

I think the bottom line is, we need better research, a clearer understanding of what constitutes a recruit that can succeed in the military, and better methodology before we panic about what we're getting.

We still have the best military in the world; we need to concentrate our efforts on fixing it and rebuilding it and healing the troops affected by the Iraq War before we condemn them to a phony stigma of being "a bunch of gang bangers and felons."

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