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Soldiers in sensitive posts had abuse, drug histories

Jun. 9, 2014 - 04:38PM   |  
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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who heads the personnel panel on the armed services committee, said she found the Army's account lacking. She is requesting more information about what disqualified the soldiers, their positions in the Army and whether those kicked out of the Army received honorable discharges. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — More than 350 of the 588 soldiers the Army has disqualified from sensitive posts, including sexual assault counselors, had committed offenses ranging from sexual assault to drug abuse to theft, according to Army data obtained by USA TODAY.

They make up the largest group of the soldiers the Army has deemed unfit in the past year to serve as sexual assault counselors and victims' advocates, recruiters and instructors. They were swept up in a screening of troops in sensitive positions ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in light of the military's sexual assault crisis. This is the first time the Army has broken down the offenses that had disqualified them; it did so at the request of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

"We'd be lying if we said we had fully understood this problem," Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the Army's personnel chief, told USA TODAY in an interview. "Now that we understand this problem we're saying we did not always pick the right people in the past. So let's get the people right."

Among the Army's findings:

■ Fewer than 60 soldiers were disqualified because they were being investigated for sexual assault or harassment.

■ About 140 soldiers were disqualified "due to a history of family member or child abuse."

■ About 88 were disqualified "due to a history of alcohol or drug abuse."

Gillibrand, who heads the personnel panel on the armed services committee, said she found the Army's account lacking. In a letter to Bromberg on Friday, she pressed for more answers about what disqualified the soldiers, their positions in the Army and whether those kicked out of the Army received honorable discharges. The Army has moved to discharge 79 of the worst-offending soldiers.

"The military has been saying for over two decades 'we got it' and it is clear they dropped the ball," Gillibrand said in a statement. "So now they are saying, 'now we really got it' but continue to be less than fully transparent with data my office has requested on multiple fronts. I will continue to ask questions as there is much more work to be done."

Most of the soldiers have been reassigned to jobs that do not involve contact with what the Army considers "vulnerable populations," mostly young people being recruited or who recently joined the Army.

The Army screened the backgrounds of about 20,000 soldiers working as recruiters, drill sergeants, sexual assault response coordinators and victims' advocates, said Christine Altendorf, director of the Army's program to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and assault. The 588 who were disqualified represent less than 3 percent of the total screened.

Soldiers are now screened extensively before being placed in sensitive posts, Bromberg said.

Just as important, Bromberg said, is a change to evaluations of officers and non-commissioned officers that includes an assessment of whether they foster a climate that does not tolerate sexual assault or harassment.

"We used to just evaluate officers by mission readiness," said Lt. Col. Geoff Catlett, executive officer for response and prevention office. "Are you ready to go to combat? Now we're evaluating officers and NCOs on whether you're ready to go to combat and have you created a command climate in which everybody is treated with dignity and respect."

Combating sexual assault is the top priority of Army Secretary John McHugh and Gen. Raymond Odierno, the chief of staff, Bromberg said.

"This is a complex problem that requires a comprehensive, detailed plan to change a culture over time," Bromberg said. "We're on the path to do that."

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