Sunday, September 19, 2004

Make-ups, Buddies, and Physicals

One thing about the recent controversy over apparently forged National Guard documents is that the allegations are not particularly new or damaging. The author (forger) of the documents clearly knows military terminology, although there may be some allegation that the author used Army language instead of Air Force language.

My own relevant experience is as a drilling Army Reservist from 1988 to 1994, exactly 20 years after President Bush’s service. The first three years of that was as an enlisted legal specialist. To be sure, there is a difference between the Army Reserve during peacetime and the Air National Guard during a wartime draft. But the terminology and concepts in this debate are very familiar, based on my experience.

FULFILLING YOUR OBLIGATION

If you want to cure insomnia, spend some time learning how to compute reserve retirement. Check out this convoluted explanation in U.S. News. Confused? Imagine that you are not a national magazine reporter (or a military legal specialist), and you do not plan to spend a 20+ years in the Guard to qualify for retirement. Is it possible that pilots had things on their minds other than minor paperwork points? Is it any wonder that the record is incomplete and unclear? Here is a simplified explanation of the ways to earn points:

Weekend Drills – one point for every four hours
Active Duty – one point per day
Membership Points – 15 points per year

If you were able to wade through the U.S. News story, you would have noted that retirement points are not exactly the same as satisfactory participation. But retirement and pay records, inaccurate as they are, remain the best documentation of anyone’s military service. As far as the supposed lack of written permission to miss or reschedule drill, it is doubtful that such documents would have been retained for 30 years, if they were ever created in the first place. I know that I never obtained written permission to miss drill, and I am not the son of a congressman.

In theory, a Guardsman would earn 4 points per month, and then 15 points for annual training in the summer. This would be added to the 15 “free” membership points for a total of 78 points per year. For various reasons, this is never the case. The unit may add four hours on Friday night to some or all drills, while canceling drills in other months. In addition, except for those who enlisted exactly on October 1, the retirement year will always be different than the training year. The result is that there may not be an opportunity to earn exactly 78 points in a given year. To make up the gap in retirement points, Guardsmen and Reservists will often do things ranging from completing correspondence courses, to performing extra drills for no pay, to editing an article for Military Law Review (like I did, recently).

MAKING UP MISSED DRILLS

A further complication in analyzing retirement and pay records is that there are often legitimate reasons to miss a weekend drill. It is not unusual, even in wartime, to miss one or more drills. The absence may be excused, unexcused, or made up at a different time. Unexcused absences are carefully documented and sent to the servicemember via certified mail, return receipt requested. Following the U.S. News theory that every recordkeeping regulation was followed, and every scrap of paper was retained for 30 years, any allegation that President Bush has unexcused absences should be supported by documentation.

The Associated Press recently ran a story that interviewed Guardsmen on active duty regarding the possibility that then-Lieutenant Bush may have missed drills. One soldier replied that it was common for soldiers to miss four or five drills and that “[t]hey'll make it up later on, or they just won't get paid. That's really no big deal to a lot of National Guard soldiers."

Bored yet? Well, there are more details about making up for missed drills. A missed drill can be made up for pay with the same unit, as long as it is within a 30-day window surrounding the missed drill. This rescheduled training (RST) is best for the unit and the soldier, but whatever event conflicted with the drill in the first place may also conflict with the RST. The flexible alternative is to perform equivalent training (ET) at another unit, at another time, with or without pay. One of the “fake, but accurate” memos actually mentions “ET” as an option to allow then-Lieutenant Bush to satisfy his Guard obligation. It appears that this was how he became involved with the Alabama Air National Guard. Based on what I have read, he did not “transfer” to the Alabama unit. Instead, he fulfilled part of his obligation to the Texas unit by performing equivalent training in Alabama. For an example of how one current unit handles RST and ET, click here.

A friend of mine (an anti-war, Kerry-supporting, NPR-listening friend) remained a member of a Minnesota National Guard unit while completing graduate school in England. Some of his drills were performed with a U.S. Army unit in England, while others were made up when he returned to Minnesota during school breaks. His father never served in Congress, either.

Permission to make up missed drills is largely based on the discretion of the unit commander. If the missed drills were either 1) excused by the commander, or 2) made up with the permission of the commander, then President Bush fulfilled his duty.

Another line of inquiry is into what the Texas unit was doing while Bush was in Alabama performing equivalent training. It is particularly galling for those who have implied that President Bush was a coward for having joined the National Guard to now describe the Texas Air National Guard’s 24-hour active alert mission in 1972 as “crucial.” Suddenly the Air National Guard became worthwhile and honorable, but only in Texas for the second half of 1972.

It is also important to note that military duties may not show up on pay records if the duty is served as equivalent training. Also, although retirement point statements are frequently inaccurate, they are seldom corrected until the servicemember nears retirement. My own retirement points contained an error (hopefully it’s fixed), that did not give me credit for a week of non-commissioned officer training at Fort McCoy in August, 1990. You will recall that this was right at the beginning of Operation Desert Shield. Some day if I ever run for dogcatcher, my opponent will probably look at my retirement points and claim that I shirked my duty while my comrades were in harm’s way in Saudi Arabia.

REMEMBERING YOUR BUDDIES

In the military, including the reserve component, one develops a certain camaraderie within a unit. It is understandable that members of a cohesive unit, some of whom may have been on active duty for training or mobilization together, would not bond with a new guy who was with the unit temporarily. As a legal specialist, I spent a weekend training with a local JAG reserve unit in 1989. Even though all of the enlisted members had the same training as me, I was an outsider in the unit. I don’t remember any of their names (except for the sergeant major whom I reported to), and I doubt that any of them remember me. It is unlikely that I could prove that I ever was at the unit.

There would have been little incentive for the Alabama Guardsmen to bond with the lieutenant who was there temporarily, and little incentive for him to bond with them. It is difficult being the f-----g new guy (FNG) at a unit, particularly if you are not assigned there permanently. To bond with fellow trooper, you really need to have a common past or a common future. It is not surprising that only one person from the Alabama unit remembers seeing President Bush.

OFFICER EVALUATION REPORTS

Both the legitimate records and the “fake, but accurate” records talk about President Bush’s evaluation reports. These are the equivalent of report cards in school. Like high school letter grades, evaluation reports have a problem with grade inflation. The active Army instituted a new evaluation report in 1998 that is essentially graded on a curve. It seems that too many senior officers were giving out the top grade to everyone, so as not to hurt the junior officers’ careers. It is as though everyone gets an “A,” except for the biggest screw-ups, who each get a “B.”

Unlike schools, which have specified semesters or terms, officers never know for sure how often they will be rated. There are minimum and maximum periods of time that you must be “observed” by your raters to receive a valid rating. If your rater transfers in January, and you transfer in March, you will likely have two months of unrated time, because the new rater was not able to observe you for long enough to form a valid opinion. There is nothing scandalous about having unrated time, but an officer should try to have as little as possible.

In my own experience as an active-duty military lawyer, I had two months of unrated time. Those two months were spent in Bosnia, and was not long enough to generate an officer evaluation. There is nothing in my official personnel file that proves that I was in Bosnia. I am sure that there are scattered files at various bases that mention my name in connection with Operation Joint Guard, but my official file is silent about this portion of my career. (As an aside, it is to be expected that the Pentagon periodically find new records mentioning President Bush, as there are many files in many locations that could potentially mention a servicemember’s name.)

When I returned to Fort Riley, Kansas from Bosnia, I was set to transfer to a different stateside post in approximately three months. Fortunately, the staff judge advocate worked with the dates on my evaluation report so that I would not have more unrated time. Maybe he thought that my father served in Congress.

The intimation that there is something unusual or scandalous about President Bush having unrated time in the Air National Guard is laughable. To say that he was not “observed” at the unit does not mean that he went missing. Using the report card analogy, it means that he has had a different math teacher this semester, and therefore his name is not in this particular math teacher’s grade book.

LET’S GET PHYSICAL

Another interesting allegation surrounding the “fake, but accurate” documents is that President Bush “violated a direct order” to get a physical. The “fake, but accurate” document is ambiguous, but it seems to be telling then-Lieutenant Bush to contact the squadron’s administrative officer in order to schedule an appointment. This is understandable because a birth-month physical would not generally be available at a National Guard squadron. A unit of that size would likely have a medic (corpsman) or two, maybe a flight surgeon who attends drills, but probably not a full clinic facility to perform physicals year-round. If flight physicals were available each and each month right there at the unit, there would be no need to see the administrative officer to schedule an appointment.

It is likely that each pilot would have to schedule something through a nearby Guard or Reserve hospital unit. Those hospital units have drill schedules, just like every other unit, which may not correspond with each fighter squadron’s schedule. If President Bush were to have taken the physical in a “duty status” as the “fake, but accurate” memo says, he would have needed to perform rescheduled training, equivalent training, or obtained formal orders for one day of active duty. Based on my own experience, the hospital units do not offer physicals every month (they have to train and do maintenance like everyone else), and appointments fill up quickly.

It seems that conclusive proof that Bush “violated a direct order” would consist of more than just the “fake, but accurate” memo. There would have to be some documentation that a physical was available, scheduled, and communicated to the young lieutenant. Then there would have to be proof that he subsequently did not take the physical.

CONCLUSION

It is baffling that democrat activists and the media are still obsessed with service in the National Guard 30 years ago. It is more baffling that someone would forge documents which, upon close analysis, are not really all that damaging.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

<< Home