The Surge: Moral Waivers and Legal Triage
| January 18, 2007
Brace yourself. Bush’s Iraq escalation, euphemized as “surge,” sends just over 20,000 more troops into that bottomless pit, and flirts with an invasion of Iran. But because Iraq has depleted our armed forces—and recruitment levels plummet as our population wises up—Bush’s plan requires still more: the entire Army active-duty force must swell to 547,000 over the next five years (an increase of 39,000), and the Marine Corps grow by 23,000 (to 202,000). Constitutionally, Congress must approve or disapprove the expansion—but one never knows whether this particular executive branch recognizes that the legislative (or judicial) branches exist.
Meanwhile, Bush simply changes the rules to suit his mad plans, raising the enlistment age to 42, and removing the cumulative limit—24 months active duty in any five-year period—for National Guard Reserve units. Furthermore, the military will now mobilize units, not individuals, so soldiers who’ve completed their duty tours, but, perhaps, transferred to a new unit, will still be eligible. Never mind how destructive this is to “family values” or a “sound economy.”
Then there’s the still-astonishing “moral waiver”—employed to produce more cannon fodder. In 2005, already desperate for fresh recruits, the Army started increasing, by nearly half, the rate at which it grants what it terms “moral waivers,” permitting recruits with criminal records, emotional problems, and weak educational backgrounds to serve. Afterward, if these recruits survive, they’ll be called heroes and released back into society. One returned hero, who credited the military with having “properly trained and hardened me,” was Timothy McVeigh. According to the Pentagon, waivers in 2001 totaled 7,640, increasing to 11,018 in 2005.
But those are numbers. How does this play out in lives?
We now know. In March 2006, five U.S. soldiers allegedly stalked, gang-raped, and murdered 14-year old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, slaughtered her family, and burned the bodies. The U.S. military managed to hush the story up until July, then detained the five, immediately scapegoating Pfc. Steven D. Green as the “bad apple” ringleader—who’d conveniently already been discharged.
Then we learned that Green, a 19-year-old Texas high-school dropout, had enlisted despite three convictions: fighting, plus alcohol and drug possession. Once, the Army would have rejected him. Now, he was accepted, under a “moral waiver.” He got “born again” religiously while being trained to kill legally; got sent to Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division's 502nd Infantry Regiment; got shot at; and got discharged for a “personality disorder” after allegedly leading the Abeer massacre.
Yet according to a January 9, 2007 Associated Press story by Ryan Lenz, three months before that massacre, an Army Combat Stress Team in Iraq had diagnosed Green as a “homicidal threat.” (We assume they did not mean he was simply a well-trained soldier). Green sought psychiatric help in December, 2005, pleading he was so angry about the war and so desperate to avenge his platoon friends’ deaths that he felt driven to kill Iraqi citizens.
They told him to get some sleep.
According to medical records obtained by the AP, they also prescribed “several small doses of Seroquel—to regulate his mood.” Seroquel’s website claims the drug is for “acute mania associated with bipolar disorder.” The next day, Army shrinks sent him back to active duty in the “Triangle of Death” south of Baghdad.
Three months passed. No psychological follow-up. Then—eight days after the Abeer atrocities—Green was suddenly summoned for another exam, diagnosed with an “anti-social personality disorder,” and swiftly declared “unfit for service.” An immediate discharge process began. He was shipped home in May, arrested in June, and moved to the U.S. marshal’s custody in Louisville, Ky. (for proximity to Ft. Campbell). There, in November, he was arraigned on numerous counts, including premeditated and felony murder, which carry a minimum life sentence and possible death penalty. Green’s alleged “followers” face court martials on various charges, and they may be allowed to plead to lesser counts and punishments; so far one has been convicted and sentenced. But Green’s trial is federal, in U.S. District Court, since his well-timed discharge means he isn’t the military’s problem. In effect, Green seems to have been legally triaged.
As the WMC’s on-site reporter noted, Green, who pled “not guilty,” is represented only by the Louisville public defenders’ office. Yet, oddly, the prosecution team includes Brian D. Skaret of the U.S. Department of Justice Domestic Security Section, in Washington, D.C.—a section primarily charged with prosecuting smuggling, border violations, and foreign nationals accused of supporting terrorists. Is Washington that eager to ensure that culpability for these crimes won’t be traced back to the Pentagon or White House?
Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, psychiatry counsel to the Army Surgeon General, defends treatment policies for emotionally or psychologically distressed soldiers, but won’t discuss Green—nor will the 101st Airborne Division. According to documents viewed by the AP, when Lt. Col. Elizabeth Bowler—an Army reservist psychiatrist who took over the Combat Stress Team in January—recommended Green’s discharge, her final evaluation stated: “Green exhibited no traits that would indicate dangerously erratic or homicidal moods.” This was after the rape-murders-burnings, and despite Green’s cries for help.
The military—especially the Army and Marines, with the most personnel in Iraq—has been criticized for sending troops diagnosed mentally and emotionally unfit back to combat duty, often under medication prescribed for too short a time to have taken effect. As for moral waivers, instead of dropping them entirely—as morality would dictate—the Pentagon issued new guidelines in November. Some prevent personnel with certain “pre-existing mental problems” from deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan (but not elsewhere), and: “Mental illnesses that are not expected to be resolved in one year will be cause for discharge.”
One year? Green was on active duty for less than one year.
Weep not only for Iraqi civilians. Weep for ourselves.
Social scientists have repeatedly charted how post-war domestic-violence rates soar, as returning vets (including those who started out sane) try to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder plus reflexes trained to react with lethal force. Spousal battery, marital rape, child sexual abuse, child battery, homicides, and suicides rise precipitously in the wake of wars—especially those with intense ground combat and high casualties. Less than a month ago, between Christmas and New Year’s 2006, five U.S. soldiers committed suicide upon being informed they’d been ordered to serve an additional tour in Iraq.
Bush keeps warning, “If we don’t fight ‘em in Iraq, we’ll have to fight ‘em here at home.” Presumably, he means the pre-U.S.-invasion, nonexistent terrorists in Iraq, not our own armed forces. But given his escalation, his hunger to sacrifice more lives, his extended active-duty tours, and his continuing “moral waivers,” what behavior might we really expect when those 547,000 GIs and 202,000 Marines eventually return home?
And long before then, who will listen to their cries for help, or monitor what acts they commit—before they are triaged, discharged, and hung out to dry?
Robin Morgan’s latest book is Fighting Words: A Toolkit for Combating the Religious Right (Nation Books).
This report continues the Women’s Media Center series and organizing campaign focusing on the crimes against Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and their implications for the U.S. military and foreign policy.
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.
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