Tag Archives: Army

On Suicide, Sexual Violence, and Army Civilian Service: I’ll Be Silent No Longer

iStock_000007655720_ExtraSmallExactly four years ago, I was hired by the best equipped, most richly funded and lethal fighting force ever assembled. Their primary need for my expertise surrounded the scourge of sexual violence occurring within their ranks. I gave them everything I had for 32 months as a civilian with a background in special victims prosecution.

I was supposedly hired to do far more than train JAGs on the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault. I was told- initially at least- that my mission was to make candid observations and help create meaningful changes; hence bringing me in as an HQE or “Highly Qualified Expert” at a level on par with general officers and the Senior Executive Service.

I took the mission seriously, and in return I was largely bullied and marginalized, almost exclusively by a tiny handful of unfortunately placed mid-level officers who viewed myself and my two colleagues as subordinates, there to carry out their pre-planned agendas, rather than the change agents we were supposed to be. To my detriment, I fought back. The bullying continued, blossoming into what amounted to stalking humiliation as I entered my third year of service. I left honorably in February of 2012.

I have never written of that experience in this space, for two reasons: First, I encountered largely honorable, dedicated and decent men and women in every facet and at every level of the US Army, and did not want anything I said to create an unfair impression of a group I admire greatly and through which I made lifelong friends. Second, I simply feared I could not do it fairly.

Instead I wrote privately to the JAG leadership who hired me, several months after leaving, to express what I believe were ignored blind-spots despite the valiant efforts I had seen and in some measure been a part of. I got a polite non-response and decided I had done and said enough.

And then I saw this. The Army reported a record 325 suicides in 2012, up from 283 in 2011. The issue is of course deeply complex; 12 grueling years of war provide infinite reasons. But the analyses I have read remind me darkly of things I suggested with regard to the mental health of not only JAG lawyers themselves but also investigators, commanders, support personnel and soldiers of every rank and responsibility who were witness to or otherwise affected by the crimes I was hired to help reduce. Two of these issues stand out in particular, and on both I fought for changes and development. I did so largely in vain.

One issue was same-sex sexual assault. Whether or not the victim identifies as homosexual (most perpetrators do not), they are uniquely disadvantaged. Prior to the final repeal of the odious ban and the “DADT” compromise, many victims remained silent because any real or perceived consensual homosexual conduct before an attack could still lead to discharge. Prior to the lifting of the ban in 2011I implored the JAG to bring in nationally known and respected experts to help us understand the issues, believing that reports of victimization would likely rise. Same-sex rape victims are some of the most wounded, vulnerable and isolated imaginable; we needed specialized resources as investigators and prosecutors to assist them.

I was ignored, at times aggressively so.

I also petitioned for better vicarious trauma services for the JAGs- both prosecutors and defense counsel- who had to consume not only the facts of the cases we regularly saw, but also things like high definition video of child rape and torture in the context of child pornography cases. Again, I was ignored; Army officers, I was told, received vicarious trauma training already. When I pointed out that this was largely combat related (a very different stressor) it was suggested that I alert the leadership when I encountered someone who “seemed to need help.”

These two examples address a tiny percentage of the issue of mental health and the danger of suicide within the military context. But they were two that I felt I had a responsibility to address, even if tangentially, as part of my mission. I quickly became used to my ideas being ignored while working for the Army. Such is life, and I do not begrudge substantive differences in opinion, particularly with regard to an institution and culture that I only served temporarily and without wearing a uniform.

But when those differences are more about posturing and personality conflicts than rational argument, and when present and former warriors are taking their own lives in desperation and despair as war and its accompanying hardships continue, I cannot in good conscience remain silent on any aspect for which I have insight.

I know the concern is there. I know that general officers understand the pain of suicide; they attend the funerals without exception. They engage the families. They bear the misery themselves in large measure. I simply wished then and wish now that the ones I worked for would have given me more of an ear than their subordinates did.


10 Years in Iraq: The Fragrance of Flowers. The Horror of War. The Burden of Doing Justice in its Wake


Note to readers: The post below was one I wrote not in anticipation of the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, but an anniversary of the atrocities at Al-Mahmudiyah. I’ve since realized the post is more appropriate for publication at a significant anniversary of the invasion. The reason is simple: The atrocities at Mahmudiyah are as intrinsic and foreseeable an aspect of war as any that can be imagined. The designers of the war must never be allowed to escape that.

“Abeer” translates in Arabic to “the fragrance of flowers” and was the name given to the 14 year-old girl ruthlessly raped and murdered, along with her parents and six year-old sister, on March 12, 2006, near the town of Al-Mahmudiyah, Iraq. The murderers were a group of American soldiers, stationed at a nearby checkpoint in an especially brutal time after the American invasion three years previous.

Of the many honorable men and women I met serving as a civilian in the Army JAG Corps, the one I came to know the best was among the first and most involved prosecutors in the Al-Mahmudiyah massacre. It wasn’t enough that he endured a difficult and dangerous deployment as part of the 101st Airborne Division. He was also saddled with bringing, of all things, the weight of that crime home with him as he handled the case near Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He did this while readjusting to stateside and family life as a husband and father. He’ll acknowledge that burden if it’s pointed out. But he will never, ever complain about it. First, because by God’s grace, his own family is intact and healthy, and he was able to hold them when he returned. Second, because seeking justice for Abeer and her family was an honor he accepted with humility and a deep sense of duty that I found typical in the Army JAG Corps. He sought justice for his Army and his country. But I suspect most of all he sought justice for for Abeer, and the details he came to know of her life and the unspeakable circumstances of her death.

The details are public, if you want them. I can tell you that nightmares are all you’re likely to get for mining them, and I say this as a trained absorber of such things.

The Army JAG Corps ignored several things I encouraged them to address while I served as a consultant. In a time where soldier suicides are spiking in particular, perhaps the most puzzling to me was refusing (to my knowledge and based on their responses to me at the time) to even look into proactive assistance for JAG prosecutors and defenders who must absorb, if not horrors like Mahmudiyah on a daily basis, then things like increasingly detailed and technologically advanced videos of children used in pornography or worse.

And then there is war, the ones we’ve been waging now on the backs of a volunteer military and its valiant but exhausted support bulwark for nearly 12 years. Among myriad other things, war requires the prosecution and defense of combatants accused of atrocities and horrors more regularly than many grasp.

I blame Mahmudiyah solely on the men who conceived and carried it out. They represent nothing but themselves; not the US Army, not the stress of combat (which the vast majority of soldiers endure without resorting to murder and rape) and not even the war itself. Regardless, the men and women who must address legally what military conflict inevitably produces must be cared for during that process. Of its many poisons, war vomits things like Mahmudiyah regularly. It did so at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, at My Lai,Quan Ngai, in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It has done so in every war and under every flag unfurled since the beginning of combat.

The architects of the 2003 Iraq War, just as the drum-beaters for Vietnam, may argue with scholarly confidence that they were right, or with grave regret that they were wrong. But none may claim a lack of foreseeability for one single thing that occurred or will occur as a result of their decisions. No act, no matter how shocking, how damning, how soul-crushing and freakishly inhuman, is unforeseeable the moment war is engaged.

Similarly, the stress of sorting out, in courts of military justice, the details of anything war yields is also foreseeable and addressable. It’s not enough to own, no matter how deeply, what war really is. We must also support appropriately those who must seek justice in its wake.






Military Justice and Sexual Violence: An Ideal, or a Tool for Commanders?

iStock military justice“The purpose of military law is to promote justice, to assist in maintaining good order and discipline in the armed forces, to promote efficiency and effectiveness in the military establishment, and thereby to strengthen the national security of the United States.” 

Manual for Courts-Martial, Preamble, Section 3, Nature and Purpose of Military Law

In an honest discussion about what the US military values and pursues in terms of addressing wrongdoing within its ranks, it would be unfair not to point out that the promotion of justice is the first of three clauses defining its very purpose in the MCM, or Manual for Courts-Martial

That being said, in 32 months of civilian employment with the United States Army as an experienced sex crimes prosecutor, hired to assist the JAG in addressing sexual violence within the ranks, I heard far less about the first clause and much more about the second. As a singular concept, “good order and discipline” is at bottom the condition most crucial to enabling our military to do what must do. I was told again and again that military justice had to be understood in a different context than that of the civilian world. Justice in the military is an ideal, but more practically a “commander’s tool” to maintain good order and discipline.

A commander is an officer responsible for the development, maintenance, and actions of a particular military unit. Junior commanders include Army captains in charge of 150 or so soldiers in a company. A senior commander might be a general commanding tens of thousands of soldiers in a Corps. Regardless of their level of responsibility, all commanders must maintain good order and discipline. Without it, everything else they seek to preserve- including the very lives of their warriors- is at risk. So a cohesive, obedient and ordered fighting force is the ultimate goal. Most everything else, at least in terms of the mission to be carried out, is secondary.

Two things should clarified here: First, the JAG officers I encountered, in addition to commanders, were almost always deeply decent, honorable men and women who abhorred, among other things, sexual violence perpetrated by one of their own. Second, the concept of “justice” as we normally view it in the Judeo-Christian context, is appropriately intertwined with good order and discipline. Of the things that inspire servicemen and women to follow the rules and act as a unified fighting force, a belief that they’re treated equally and justly is probably first among them. So it’s not that justice isn’t a concern of military commanders. Rather, it’s a concern tempered by other imperatives, most not typically experienced or appreciated by civilian observers.

Enter sexual assault and military priorities.

More of the civilian world now knows, from the sexual assault case out of Aviano, Italy, that high-level commanders (with the authority to convene general courts-martial, or simply Convening Authorities) can overturn the findings of a military tribunal. No reason for doing so is required, and the action of the convening authority is not reversible.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) last week questioned a panel of Judge Advocates General about how justifiable it was to allow one commander to negate the findings of a military tribunal after months of litigation (the convening authority who overturned the panel verdict in the air force case never spoke to the victim). Gilibrand argued forcefully that the sole authority to negate the findings of a general court martial was anything but emblematic of or conducive to “good order and discipline.” Instead, she argued, the power of one commander to undermine the efforts of a full and concerted legal process only chills reports and emboldens perpetrators. This, in turn, eats away at good order and discipline by compromising the backstop of enforcement that aims to keep all servicemen and women safe from harm by- first and foremost- each other.

I suspect Gilibrand is right. But the issue of justice as an ideal versus justice as a means to an end must be fully understand by civilian decision makers before changes are made, if they are to be. Understanding the military view (as I understood it) did not change my perspective. But it helped to know why a different perspective existed.

Homeschooling At Its Worst: A Child Starvation Case in Oklahoma

Among the worst cases I’ve ever consulted on, this one involved a 10 year-old boy tortured through “discipline,” isolated from the community and ultimately starved to death by both his mother and her paramour. The paramour was an enlisted soldier at Fort Sill, Oklahoma; the case came under my purview because I was an Army civilian consultant at time the case was investigated. The children, including the dead young boy, were “home-schooled,” which for the murdering parents was simply a convenient way to isolate him from an otherwise decent and caring military community around them.

I’ve written on the dangers of home-schooling in this space before. I am not anti-home schooling, and in fact have great respect for people who do it right (a few are old friends). Further, I recognize how children can be and certainly are harmed in traditional schooling environments. But the isolation, secrecy and helplessness of the victim are never more accentuated or unanswerable than in a torturous, unregulated and out of control homeschool environment. Allowing for further deregulation of home education in the name of “freedom” will lead to more children stripped of not only freedom but also safety, health, and their very lives.