Iraq / Military / Politics · March 8, 2007

The military punishes those, even the wounded, who embarrass their superiors

Soldiers on Medical Hold at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are being punished for speaking out about their treatment as patients. This is a sad affair, but it should be a surprise to no one. The United States Military has a long history of retaliating against those who embarrass it. Major General Billy Mitchell, father of the Air Force, embarrassed the Army long ago and was punished for it.

Every military member eventually learns that embarrassing those appointed over them is dangerous. Blowing the whistle should be done with the realization that it will end your military career. You should think long and hard before you decide to discomfit your superiors. Allow me to illustrate this with one of my boring stories from my time in the Air Force.

When I was still a Buck Sergeant I worked for a time in Air Traffic Control Radio as a repair technician (AFSC 304×4 – now called 2E1x3). Our maintenance center was located in the same big building as the radar repair center and the radar scopes with their operators.

One day we were notified that an extremely high-ranking General, a VIP, would be arriving for a “meet & greet” and inspection tour of the base, including our building. After much cleaning and painting we were prepared for the day of the General’s arrival, and stood by that day in dress blues as the shop supervisors, our squadron commander, the base commander (who was a one-star General himself) and the VIP walked through our building.

Finally the tour wrapped up, and we were all asked to gather around the VIP for handshakes. For each hand he shook this General asked how the Airman was doing, and if he had any problems. The correct answer was, of course, “I’m fine Sir.” “Anything I can help you with?” “No Sir.”

But one Staff Sergeant didn’t follow the rules; and as a 9 year member of the Air Force he really should have known better. “And how are you?” “I’m fine Sir.” “Is everything going okay with you Sergeant?”

“Well,” said the Staff Sergeant, “I do have some issues I’d like to see addressed.”

I didn’t know this guy; he didn’t work in my shop. The Staff Sergeant’s shop supervisor looked like he wished he didn’t know this guy either. Our squadron commander, a Lieutenant Colonel, started turning a delicately angry shade of red. Imperceptibly the rest of us (including myself) backed up a bit.

“Really?” The VIP Colonel radiated polite interest, “What can I help you with?”

“I have a list.”

A silent shockwave went through our group as the oblivious Staff Sergeant pulled a folded sheet of paper out of his back pocket. He started reading through it, and it seemed like a long list. The squadron commander got redder and angrier, and started to stammer while the base commander just looked amused.

“Okay, wait a minute,” interrupted the VIP General. “Have you taken this list to your chain of command?”

“No sir, when I heard you would be here I thought I could take the opportunity to get these items dealt with faster.” The squadron commander’s face got redder and angrier at this, and even the base commander’s expression turned to a slight frown.

“Well, you go through your chain of command FIRST, Sergeant,” said the VIP General, who no longer looked polite. “And then if you are not satisfied, you can come to me with this.” He paused, and with a deadly silkiness said, “Is that okay with you, Sergeant?” I don’t see how anyone could mistake the threat in his voice. Unfortunately the Staff Sergeant must have been tone deaf.

“You betcha! That’s great!” He said, cheerfully oblivious as he stuffed the paper back into his pocket.

There was an eruption – a detonation – that scattered us low ranks like so much confetti as the squadron commander and two generals came unglued. Above it all I remember hearing snatches of the VIP general’s words…

“You will address me as SIR, Sergeant!” “You BETcha? Do you think I’m your GIRL friend?” And the topper, “You seem awfully unhappy in MY Air Force, Sergeant! I’ll bet we can fix THAT for you!” Afterwards the VIP turned on our squadron commander and seemed to be asking pointed questions about his fitness to command.

Our shop supervisor rounded us all up, and herded us back to our maintenance center while the Staff Sergeant’s shop supervisor stood braced against a typhoon of criticism.

The next day I heard through the grapevine that the Staff Sergeant in question no longer worked in the maintenance center down the hall. A week later I heard he had been shipped back Stateside, a full year before the end of his tour. I don’t know what happened to him after that – I don’t know if he was assigned to de-icing duty in Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, or if he was just ‘processed out’ to civilian status, “failure to adapt to the military environment.”

Personally I learned two lessons that stayed with me throughout the rest of my career, and which also influenced my decision to leave the Air Force:

1 – Failure to use the “chain of command” is dangerous.
2 – Embarrassing high ranking officers is very dangerous.

I also realized that it was extremely stupid to embarrass your superior officers without knowing you were doing so. The whole experience made me appreciate Major General Billy Mitchell even more; he knew his career would be destroyed, and he still made the decision to blow the whistle on his bosses.

The patients at Walter Reed Medical Center are heroes to me, in the same way that General Mitchell is a hero. These soldiers have intentionally embarrassed their leaders, blew the whistle on them, because they were not allowed to solve their problems through the Army’s chain of command. These soldiers can’t be as stupid as the Staff Sergeant in my story; these soldiers tattled on the Army knowing they would suffer for it. That’s courage – that’s heroism.

And that is what is happening now. According to the Army Times, officials at the Walter Reed Medical Center, and officials at the Pentagon, have started systematic retaliation against patients who blew the whistle on conditions at Walter Reed. From the Army Times:

Soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s Medical Hold Unit say they have been told they will wake up at 6 a.m. every morning and have their rooms ready for inspection at 7 a.m., and that they must not speak to the media.


It is unusual for soldiers to have daily inspections after Basic Training.

The soldiers said they were also told their first sergeant has been relieved of duty, and that all of their platoon sergeants have been moved to other positions at Walter Reed.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Army public affairs did not respond to a request sent Sunday evening to verify the personnel changes.

The Pentagon also clamped down on media coverage of any and all Defense Department medical facilities, to include suspending planned projects by CNN and the Discovery Channel, saying in an e-mail to spokespeople: “It will be in most cases not appropriate to engage the media while this review takes place,” referring to an investigation of the problems at Walter Reed.

I don’t know about the Army, but in the Air Force the only time a unit is required to report to morning formation is during training, or when they are being punished. Fortunately for me, that only happened to one unit I was part of, and we only stood morning formation for a week.

The soldiers at Walter Reed embarrassed those appointed over them – and now they are suffering the consequences.