Dark Secret of the US Military -- Neo-Nazis and Criminals Are Filling Its Ranks
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The military not only ignored Eastridge's extremism, but on his return from combat awarded him a Purple Heart and Army Achievement medals. Eastridge's lawyer, Sheilagh McAteer, becomes palpably angry when I speak to her. She claimed that the military were now knowingly sending mentally unstable young men to Afghanistan and Iraq. "The military is to some extent desperate to get people to go to fight – soldiers who are not fit, mentally and physically sick, but they continue to send them," she told me. "Having a tattoo was the least of his concerns."
In March 2012, a US soldier, on his fourth deployment in a decade, walked out of his base and went on a shooting spree in southern Afghanistan, murdering more than a dozen Afghan civilians, including nine children. Then news came that US army staff sergeant Robert Bales, the 38-year-old suspect, was from Joint Base Lewis-McCord, in Washington state, which just four months earlier had convicted a member of an Afghanistan "kill team" of murder via a military jury.
PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] was not a new phenomenon for the military, but sending soldiers still suffering from severe mental health problems back to the frontline in such large numbers was. "I'm concerned that people who are symptomatic are being sent back," said Dr Arthur S Blank, Jr, a Yale-trained psychiatrist. "That has not happened before in our country." The army's top mental health expert, Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, explicitly accepted that the reason so many mentally ill troops were being sent back was because of the demands on the military for more and more personnel. "The challenge for us," he said, "is that the army has a mission to fight. And, as you know, recruiting has been a challenge. And so we have to weigh the needs of the mission with the soldiers' personal needs."
Bradley Manning, the alleged US military source of the WikiLeaks data, is another example of the mental health of recruits being ignored. Manning was a "mess of a child" who "should never have been put through a tour of duty in Iraq", said an officer from the Fort Leonard Wood military base in Missouri, where Manning trained in 2007. Chase Madar, the author of a recent book on Manning, told me, "He would never have been kept in the army if not for record low recruitment levels in 2007 when he enlisted." The only reason Manning made it on to active duty in Iraq, after repeated warnings about his fitness at all three of his stateside deployments, was the army's "utter desperation for soldiers with IT and analytic skills during its historic low in recruitment".
New recruits were physically, as well as mentally, unfit. In 1993, around 23% of prospective recruits would have been overweight – a pretty significant tranche. By 2006, this had increased to just over 27%, or more than a quarter of potential recruits, due partly to the use of "medical waivers" to make exceptions for overweight recruits.
The three most common barriers for potential recruits were failure to graduate high school, a criminal record and physical fitness issues, including obesity. The criminal record had been dealt with by "moral waivers" and the obesity problem by "medical waivers", but dropping the standards on educational attainment would not be so easy without seriously affecting operational readiness. There was a way for non-graduates to get into the military, however: the general equivalency degree, or GED, which can afford recruits a waiver if they score well enough on the military's entrance exam. The army accepts about 15% of recruits without a high school diploma if they have a GED. Alive to this loophole, the military instituted another program in 2008, the so-called GED Plus, to give more of America's youth the requisite qualifications they needed to go and fight. It opened its first prep school for the purpose, targeted at tough, inner-city areas.