Military Culture to Blame in Recent GAO Report, Not Bad Training By Michael McCarthy
Many Veterans were upset by the Government Accountability Office’s recent finding that the Department of Defense discharged over 90,000 Service Members for misconduct who had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, also known as post-traumatic stress illness), traumatic brain injury (TBI), or other injuries connected to misconduct diagnosed within two years of discharge. This raised concerns that DOD is not properly assessing Service Members’ Service-connected injuries when considering discharge.
A misconduct discharge is one of the many flavors of discharge for Service Members. Generally, there are three: honorable (the highest), other than honorable, and punitive. Service Members with other than honorable discharges or punitive discharges, until recently, did not receive any Services from the Veterans Administration. These two discharges are often called “bad paper.”
It is one of the many catch-22s: Service Members have an undiagnosed issue that causes them to get discharged with bad paper, but these same Veterans likely need the VA’s help the most but can’t receive it because they have bad paper. Kudos to VA’s Secretary Shulkin for advocating for Veterans to receive mental health treatment at the Veterans Health Administration for all types of discharges.
The GAO assessment finds the lack of training was the primary issue. Officers were not properly trained to screen or counsel Service Members during bad conduct investigations and discharge proceedings. But the real question is what caused this systematic process.
The larger cultural issue goes unmentioned in the GAO’s findings. A commander who leads better combat operations receives better evaluations, assignments, and quicker advancement. At the same time, service Members who exhibit misconduct distract the commander and the unit from effectively preparing and executing combat operations.
Unit commanders have great discretion in how to punish a Service Member for misconduct. It is often easier to discharge a Service Member rather than labor to retain and revitalize a Service Member who committed some act of misconduct regardless of the service-connected nature of the cause.
The military and civilian service leaders of the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy are concerned with the unit commanders’ goals too, but must find the proper incentives so unit commanders do not hastily discharge a Service Member who shows bad conduct but is otherwise suffering from a military service-connected mental health injury.
The U.S. Military’s gung-ho, can-do culture is focused on results, particularly regarding war. This is understandable, but also negatively impacts the most vulnerable Service Members and Veterans. Greater officer training is unlikely to produce long term change without greater attention to systematic incentive structures of those in charge.
Michael McCarthy, an Army Veteran, is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Director of Data Science at Utica College.