By Chad Storlie:
The role of a military commander is to prepare, train, employ, and recover military forces so they can accomplish their military mission as directed by the president, Congress, and the Department of Defense. Military commanders care about three things: first, the military tactics and procedures that will defeat the enemy, accomplish the mission, and keep the force ready to fight; second, the logistics, supplies, and equipment that will enable the most effective tactics to defeat the enemy and protect the wellbeing of the force; and third, the people in terms of skill sets, leadership qualities, and capabilities that will enable military missions to be successfully completed. As I was leading in the Army, the mantra of “Mission First, Men Always” was constant and consistent.
In wartime, these needs for tactics, equipment, and people are heightened to an incredible pace. When something is not useful, the military mindset is to get rid of it immediately, because anything that does not contribute to mission success is unnecessary. Military tactics evolved from independent US missions to those that included the Iraqi and Afghan military, so we were closely aligned with the needs of the population. Military HMMWVs could not protect troops from improvised explosive devices (IED), so we replaced them with mine-resistant trucks (MRAP). And when military personnel developed personal problems that were incompatible with successful military service (disrespect, showing up late, DUI, etc.), we gave them discharges to remove them quickly from service so other personnel could take their place. This mindset of mission effectiveness, while the right choice for tactics and equipment, proved to be disastrous for “unsuitable” military personnel.
150,000 US Army and US Marine Corps Veterans Received Discharges for Legal/Conduct Reasons Between 2003 and 2015.
Today, there are more than 150,000 service people between the US Army and the US Marine Corps who were discharged for legal issues and standards of conduct during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In most cases, the legal and standard of conduct discharges fall into the category of an Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge, a Bad Conduct Discharge (BCD), or a General Discharge. A Dishonorable Discharge also exists, but its use is rare.
EXHIBIT 1 – US Army and US Marine Corp Legal/Standard of Conduct Discharges by Federal Fiscal Year Compared to the US Air Force as a Percent of All Enlisted Discharges.
DATA SOURCE: US Department of Defense, Annual Manpower Surveys, FY 2003 to FY 2015.
When a service member receives any other type of discharge than an Honorable discharge, there is an immediate and lasting impact on the availability of benefits from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) as well as state and local benefits (to include employment hiring).
EXHIBIT 2 – Comparison of US Military Veteran Benefits by Discharge Type
These discharges reduce the support available to military veterans, including the GI Bill. Commanders, while the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was raging, increasingly turned to these less than Honorable discharges because it was a way to quickly remove someone from a unit so a more effective replacement could be found. While an entirely legal decision, it created a class of military veterans who were not veterans because most were denied benefits by the VA, and they were no longer military personnel because they were discharged. These military veterans became a class of “ghost veterans” who were present, but no one stood for their rights.
Factors Surrounding the Discharge Rate Readily Give the Perception of Unfair Treatment.
There are several factors surrounding the enlisted discharge rate for legal/standards of conduct that create significant evidence of unfair treatment to service members. First, the discharge rate for the US Army and the US Marine Corps was abnormally high and varied between 2003 and 2015. The discharge rate for enlisted US Air Force service members for legal/standards of conduct between 2003 and 2015 remained consistently between 4–5%, and did not swing wildly year to year. The US Army and US Marine Corps were at times three times the Air Force rate between 2003 and 2015 for enlisted discharges for legal/standard of conduct reasons.
Second, the US Army and US Marine Corps rates of discharge for legal/standards of conduct closely track each other: this gives credence to the possibility that continued exposure to ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be ruled out as a factor for the high number of discharges, possibly representing the influence of post-traumatic stress (PTS) as a reason for poor military performance.
Third, there is a stark contrast of officer vs. enlisted rates of discharge for legal/standard of conduct reasons. For the US Army, there was an average of one officer discharged per month compared to approximately 900 enlisted personnel. This rate clearly shows a bias against enlisted personnel for a higher rate of discharges due to legal reasons. The discharge rate, the vast difference between officer and enlisted, and the influence of prolonged ground combat all demonstrate significant factors for troop welfare that were NOT accounted for in these discharge decisions.
The Immediate Solution: A Presidential Pardon.
President Obama or President-elect Trump should grant a mass presidential pardon for combat veterans under the following conditions. First, pardon those who were not convicted of a serious crime against fellow soldiers, civilians, or other national security issues.
Second, pardon those who did not have any serious, non-judicial punishment prior to their military deployments or successfully served satisfactory terms of prior enlistment.
Third, pardon those with 90 days or less in confinement, or whose convictions were not against people, property, or national security.
Fourth, allow those who are pardoned to upgrade their discharges to honorable discharges so they can take advantage of VA benefits, including the GI Bill.
Forget Who is Responsible—Grant an Immediate Pardon to Deserving Military Veterans with Less Than Honorable Discharges.
This is the right thing to do to fully honor and respect those who served in combat but could no longer meet a military standard of performance after their combat service. At face value, this will be hard to understand. Military personnel who were “dirt bags” could have their military service fully recognized, and some undeserving of this pardon will benefit. In totality, however, these steps represent the full respect, admiration, and sacrifice due these military veterans whose levels of performance no longer met the military’s standards.
President Obama and President-elect Trump: please recognize the sacrifice of these unrepresented military veterans with an immediate presidential pardon.
Chad Storlie is an OpsLens Contributor and retired Lieutenant Colonel with 20-plus years of Active and Reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the United States. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab. Chad is author of two books: “Combat Leader to Corporate Leader” and “Battlefield to Business Success.” Both books teach how to translate and apply military skills to business. He has been published in The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and over 40 other publications. He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University. Follow Chad @Combattocorp.