Average Soldiers Don’t Trust Their Generals and They Have a Point

A survey last year showed only 27% of the military felt senior leaders looked out for their best interests. To fix the morale crisis generals need to stop acting like politicians.

02.03.15 10:45 AM ET

Through a decade-plus of war, America’s military men and women, and the families that support them, have experienced their share of hardships. Separations through multiple deployments and the inherent dangers of combat are enough to press the emotional and physical limits of even the strongest individuals.

For some of these faithful defenders of America’s interests, there have been difficulties far beyond the battlefield—difficulties not imposed by any enemy or the distance and time that separates them from their loved ones. Most ironically, the assault against them—intended or not—can sometimes come from within the military institution for which they fought, bled and sacrificed so much.

It’s no wonder why there’s concern for morale in today’s force. Just recently, outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said he too is worried about the decline in enthusiasm, and he believes it will take some time to reversing the mindset and perspective of the force.

There’s no single reason for the decline in morale, although some reasons are more pronounced than others. Take for instance the question about whether “senior military has my best interests at heart.” In 2009, 53 percent of respondents answered yes. By 2014, only 27 percent answered affirmatively.

One recurring complaint involves what many service personnel perceive as the excessive politicization of the military during wartime, giving rise to high profile prosecutions, excessive punitive actions and decision making that is at odds with the best interests of service personnel. So much so, instincts necessary in combat have been replaced with second-guessing and hesitation, matched by a growing sense of distrust among the ranks.

The examples are plentiful. So too are the excuses—often given in defense of ambiguous and restrictive rules of engagement—that seem to ignore the realities of war or the fact that in combat, split-second decisions must be made for the purpose of preserving lives and attaining objectives.

In one case, a Special Forces soldier, Major Matt Golsteyn, was investigated by the Army for more than a year and a half under the suspicion that he violated the rules of engagement and illegally killed a known enemy fighter and bomb maker in Afghanistan. The allegation was presented through informal channels to the Army, which went to extraordinary lengths to investigate Golsteyn. The Army tried to turn up anything it could, but was unable to find one piece of evidence to corroborate the allegation.

Today, Golsteyn is still waiting for the Army to make a determination about his future. He’s been sidelined, his Special Forces recognition stripped, all while a guessing-game has ensued about what will happen to this decorated warfighter. Even the men who served under Golsteyn have been threatened at times, with the Army going as far to promise them full immunity several times over. None of them had anything to say.

If that wasn’t enough, the combat valor awards that Golsteyn received for heroism— including a Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross—were recently revoked by the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh. It’s McHugh’s belief that if the nominating and approving authorities were aware of allegation, Golsteyn would never have been awarded two of the Army’s highest awards for valor.

How unfortunate. The career of a decorated soldier and everything he has accomplished over a nearly fifteen-year service career has been taken away. The reason: an allegation that the Army was never able to substantiate.

That’s no way to treat one of America’s top soldiers.

There is also Clint Lorance, who is serving 19 years in military custody for giving an order to engage several fighters. The Army argues the individuals were not a threat, but evidence denied to Lorance’s legal team could prove differently. That same evidence may have been withheld by the chain of command for reasons that are still being examined and sure to be raised on appeal.

The case was reviewed and Lorance’s command was cleared of any wrongdoing, but there is still no explanation about why the Army refuses to produce the criminal investigation report and other information. Perhaps Lorance was not the best soldier, which may in fact be true, but is he a murderer who deserves nearly two decades in prison? Unlikely.

Another incident involves a soldier who received the Medal of Honor, but only after a major fight. That soldier, Will Swenson, found that his nomination for the top valor award was reportedly “lost” after he criticized commanders for denying him and others air support in Afghanistan out of concern for the rules of engagement, leaving them stranded. Swenson and his men fought their way out of danger, but not without taking casualties.

Swenson’s nomination was finally recovered and he received the award years after being nominated.  However, events that transpired during a period of investigation are unspeakable, giving credibility to the idea that the Army resisted the award at every turn.

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In fact, Swenson’s overall experience was so bad that the Army was forced to alter its process for Medal of Honor nominations and for the Secretary of Defense to issue him a direct apology. What most people and soldiers in particular took away from the whole episode was a warning not to criticize—when permissible—the chain of command for its failures.

Again, that is no way to treat America’s military heroes.

In another incident, several severely wounded Special Forces soldiers were twice nominated for Silver Stars, the second time coming after the initial paperwork was lost. The Army had said the awards were downgraded, but years later, a mistake by a private contractor provided information on the Army’s top award recipients. Within that listing, the soldiers in question were all listed as receiving Silver Stars. The Army responded that a “typo” by the contractor might have caused the error. What they didn’t say but was discovered sometime later was that there was an unrelated disagreement with the nominating officer.

A typo? No way. A poor excuse? More like it. All at the expense of soldiers who deserve better.

These occurrences certainly differ in their severity, but each is useful in demonstrating the pursuit of political ends to situations that begin with the battlefield actions of America’s sons and daughters who willingly and selflessly put their lives on the line. Unfortunately, there are many more incidents like these, which have only served to make servicemembers more suspicious of their leadership.

The services—and the Army, in particular—must look inward. There must be a desire to initiate a cultural shift that reassures service personnel that the institutions under which they serve won’t let them down, and they will receive the support—whether through legal, administrative or operational channels—that is worthy of their service. They want to know their best interests won’t be disregarded.

More than ten years at war and distressed budgets are sure to have an effect, but there is no denying the fact that a problem of equal size exists that’s been brought on by a propensity to question the actions and judgments of young men and women tasked with carrying out dangerous missions. With the right leadership from within, this could be the easiest change to make, and perhaps make the biggest impact.