Army Recruiters Say They Feel Pressure to Bend Rules

New York Times

    It was late September when the 21-year-old man, fresh from a three-week commitment in a psychiatric ward, showed up at an Army recruiting station in southern Ohio. The two recruiters there wasted no time signing him up, and even after the man’s parents told them he had bipolar disorder – a diagnosis that would disqualify him – he was all set to be shipped to boot camp, and perhaps Iraq after that, before senior officers found out and canceled the enlistment.

    Despite an Army investigation, the recruiters were not punished and were still working in the area late last month.

    Two hundred miles away, in northern Ohio, another recruiter said the incident hardly surprised him. He has been bending or breaking enlistment rules for months, he said, hiding police records and medical histories of potential recruits. His commanders have encouraged such deception, he said, because they know there is no other way to meet the Army’s stiff recruitment quotas.

    “The problem is that no one wants to join,” the recruiter said. “We have to play fast and loose with the rules just to get by.”

    These two cases in a single state – one centered on a recruit, the other on a recruiter – may lie at the outer limits of the fudging and finagling that are occurring in enlistment offices as the Army tries to maintain its all-volunteer force in a time of war. But that cheating, evidenced by Army statistics that show an increase in cases against recruiters, is disturbing many of the men and women charged with the uphill task of refilling the ranks.

    Interviews with more than two dozen recruiters in 10 states hint at the extent of their concern, if not the exact scope of the transgressions. Several spoke of concealing mental-health histories and police records. They described falsified documents, wallet-size cheat sheets slipped to applicants before the military’s aptitude test and commanding officers who look the other way. And they voiced doubts about the quality of some troops destined for the front lines.

    The recruiters insisted on anonymity to avoid being disciplined, but their accounts were consistent, and the specifics were verified in several cases by documents and interviews with military officials and applicants’ families.

    Yesterday, the issue drew national attention as CBS News reported that a high-school student outside Denver recorded two recruiters as they advised him how to cheat. The student, David McSwane, said one recruiter had told him how to create a diploma from a nonexistent school, while the other had helped him buy a product to cleanse traces of marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms from his body. The Army said the recruiters had been suspended while it investigated.

    By the Army’s own count, there were 320 substantiated cases of what it calls recruitment improprieties in 2004, up from 199 in 1999, the last year it missed its active-duty recruitment goal, and 213 in 2002, the year before the war in Iraq started. The offenses varied from threats and coercion to false promises that applicants would not be sent to Iraq. Many incidents involved more than one recruiter, and the number of those investigated rose to 1,118 last year, or nearly one in five of all recruiters, up from 913 in 2002, or one in eight.

    Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, the Army’s commander of recruiting, said the increases reflected a renewed resolve to find and prevent improprieties, rather than any significant rise in cheating.

    Recruiters and some senior Army officials, however, said that for every impropriety that is found, at least two more are never discovered. And the Army’s figures show that it is not punishing serious offenses as it once did. In 2002, roughly 5 of every 10 recruiters who were found to have committed improprieties intentionally or through gross negligence were relieved of duty; last year, that number slipped to 3 in 10.

    General Rochelle said that decline could be explained, in part, by his decision two years ago to end a policy that nearly always dismissed serious offenders from recruiting.

    “My shift in thinking was that if an individual was accused of doctoring a high-school diploma, it was an open-and-shut case,” he said. “It may still be, but now I look at person’s value to the command first.”

    Recruiting has always been a difficult job, and some say the scandals that have periodically surfaced are inevitable. But the temptation to cut corners is particularly strong today, some experts on the military say, as deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a desperate need for new soldiers, and as the Army has fallen short of its recruitment goals in recent months, including April.

    “The more pressure you put on recruiters, the more likely you’ll be to find people seeking ways to beat the system,” said David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland.

    Over the last six months, the Army has relaxed its requirements on age and education – a move that Mr. Segal says may lead recruiters to go easier on applicants, with the expectation that those who are unqualified now may be deemed eligible later on.

    Recruiters, who typically work far from commanders in storefront offices, are the Army’s primary gatekeepers. They are required to press applicants to disclose any police record or medical problems, from asthma to knee injuries, that could disqualify them.

    But applicants can lie, or withhold damaging information. So recruiters are expected to check court, educational and criminal records to confirm details and search for others that have not been disclosed. The records are checked by senior officers and then sent to a regional processing office that arranges aptitude and medical tests; it may check into problems revealed in the files but largely depends on the digging done by recruiters.

    The two cases in Ohio show just how badly the system can veer off track. In the case of the 21-year-old who had just left a psychiatric ward, it is not clear what he revealed when he approached recruiters in September. He could not be reached for comment through court-appointed lawyers and his parents, who asked that he not be identified.

    But details of the young man’s troubled past could have been easily found on the Web sites of local courts. County court records show that he was arrested in July and charged with assault; though the charge was dismissed after his accuser failed to appear in court, the records could have raised a red flag.

    Probate court records show that in a case later last summer, a judge committed the man, finding him a danger to himself and others after he showed up at his parents’ door bloodied and disoriented. He was released in late September under the guidance of a treatment program.

    Recruiters are not required to check probate court records unless they are made aware of a specific case. But the man’s parents said they did just that.

    After hearing that he had enlisted, they said, they wanted to make sure the Army understood his condition. They said they went to the recruiting station with the probate court record, gave recruiters the court’s Internet address and even showed photos of their son. The recruiters, they said, claimed they had never seen him. “They acted sympathetic,” the father said.

    The parents say they went back twice more after the recruiters failed to return their calls. At their urging, their congressmen in early October finally learned that the recruiters had indeed enlisted their son. Days before he was scheduled to ship out, the young man was disqualified only after the father told the commander of the regional processing station about his illness.

    In an interview, the commander confirmed the general outlines of the case. The Army would say only that at least two recruiters had been investigated in the case, which is closed. But the man’s father said Army officials told him they had found no wrongdoing. “The fact that they would recruit someone straight out of a psychiatric hospitalization – give me a break,” he said. “They were willing to put my son and other recruits at risk. It’s beyond my comprehension, and appalling.”

    Co-workers in the stations where the recruiters worked said last month in interviews that the two were still on the job. One of the two declined to comment when reached on his recruiting-command cellphone; the other did not return a half-dozen phone messages.

    Recruiters in Ohio, New York, Washington, Texas and New England said that as long as an offending recruiter met his enlistment quota of roughly two recruits a month, punishment was unlikely.

    “The saying here is, ‘Production is power,’ ” the recruiter in northern Ohio said. “Produce, and all is good.”

    He said that in the last year, he had seen recruiters falsify documents so that applicants could earn ranks they were not qualified to hold. When enlistees tested positive for marijuana, he said, recruiters coached them to drink gallons of water before visiting military doctors. Occasionally, the recruiter said, he has been ordered to conceal police records and minor medical conditions like attention deficit disorder, which usually disqualifies a candidate. When he and others resisted such orders, he said, superiors threatened to ruin their careers.

    The recruiter, who has fought in several conflicts including the current war in Iraq, said one in every three people he had enlisted had a problem that needed concealing, or a waiver. “The only people who want to join the Army now have issues,” he said. “They’re troubled, with health, police or drug problems.”

    The recruiter said he believed in the Army and his job, often working 80-hour weeks. But he sometimes worries about the mental capabilities of those who are enlisted, he said, especially as they move up the ranks.

    “If they are in a leadership position and they’re sending 10 or 11 people all over the place because they can’t focus on the job at hand,” he said, “we’re in trouble.”

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