Commentary: An indictment of our Army's competence

McClatchy NewspapersMay 1, 2008 

The latest outrage is a father’s video of a U.S. Army barracks at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, the home of the famed 82nd Airborne Division.

It shows the quarters where his soldier son and other soldier sons were sent to live upon their return from combat. Mold and mildew and peeling paint are bad enough, but what about a big barracks bathroom ankle-deep in raw sewage?

Scandals like this latest one and an earlier eruption of public outrage over the miserably maintained quarters where wounded soldiers were warehoused at Walter Reed Army Hospital are an indictment of the core competency of our Army.

If the Army cannot afford to maintain minimally decent standards of housing and feeding our soldiers — and treat them with the best medical care and all the loving attention they deserve when they're wounded in combat — then, by God, the Army doesn’t deserve to have ANY soldiers at all.

There's only one real demand we place on the Army: That the institution turn out a well trained, well-armed, highly motivated American Soldier to protect our nation and defeat our enemies.

If this job is beyond the grasp of those who run the United States Army, then the Army needs new leadership that understands this demand and can get the job done every day, not just on those days when the hot light of scandal is shining in one dark corner or another.

One thing I know for certain: That barracks at Fort Bragg by now is sparkling and shiny and clean enough that you could eat dinner off the bathroom floor. Every barracks in the U.S. Army worldwide probably has been inspected, too, and those in scandalous condition have been or are being repaired.

That’s not the point, though. That barracks and every barracks in the Army should be inspected every week by a hard-eyed first sergeant who reports to an even harder-eyed sergeant major, and if something is wrong it gets fixed or else.

Just as every patient housing facility at every Army hospital should be inspected every week and every military dining facility — even if the cooks and helpers are contract employees — should be inspected for cleanliness and adherence to the basic rules of hygiene.

This isn't rocket science. This isn't an impossible demand. This is taking care of business at its most basic level. If Army leadership can’t do that every day, 24/7, then it has failed utterly and ought to be relieved of duty and drummed out of service in disgrace.

If the Army can’t do the job, then take the soldiers away and turn them over to, say, the Marines, and let’s see if the Marine Corps can take care of them properly and see that their most basic needs are met in a competent and consistent manner.

I have a lot of friends in the U.S. Army, from bottom to top, and this is going to stick in some craws. I know that I’m going to hear from them with all the usual excuses — some of this work doesn’t get done because Congress doesn't pass the defense budget bills in a timely fashion and that, in turn, means that a base commander is directed to skimp on things such as mowing the grass and painting the rocks and fixing broken toilets and blocked sewage lines so the money can be spent to continue fighting the war.

Sorry. That’s not a valid excuse. If money is short, stop running congressional junkets to Iraq and Afghanistan at a cost of millions to protect the little darlings during their photo-op market visits in Baghdad. Stop painting general officers’ quarters. Stop mowing the grass on base golf courses. Close the Army Congressional Liaison Office until the budget bills are passed.

Cut the fat first. Cut the perks for fat cats first. Cut out the BS first.

We don’t want to see a single American soldier living like a dog in government quarters so filthy and broken they'd make a slumlord blush. We don’t want to see another American soldier wounded in battle being treated and housed with any less care and attention than a retired general with hemorrhoids routinely gets at an Army hospital.

This is the bottom line, the core competency, for Army leaders: Take Care of Your Soldiers First. See that they're sheltered and fed first. The best military leaders I've known never ate or slept until they'd first seen to the needs of their soldiers. Never. Got that? NEVER.

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