Stretched thin by 2 wars, military may have missed Hasan warning signs
By STEWART M. POWELL and GARY MARTIN
Nov. 14, 2009, 10:30PM
WASHINGTON — At a time when U.S. Army troops are fighting two wars halfway around the globe, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan possessed all the qualifications the military so desperately needs: He is an Arabic-speaking Muslim of Palestinian descent, a doctor, a psychiatrist and a midlevel commander.
But that was before Nov. 5, before, authorities say, Hasan opened fire at Ford Hood, before he was accused of murdering 13 of his colleagues, and before his case raised questions about whether the U.S. military may have relaxed its standards to keep Hasan and others in uniform to meet the unrelenting demand for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The Army is caught in a perfect storm,” says Larry Korb, the Pentagon’s top manpower official during the Reagan administration. “It’s had to lower standards to keep people coming in — and it’s made changes to keep people from getting out.”
Alarmed, the White House and Capitol Hill are vowing to investigate whether warning signs of potential trouble are being routinely ignored in a military stretched to — or beyond — the breaking point.
“The president has asked every agency involved … to investigate why this happened, how this happened, and to ensure that they can tell him that it won’t happen again,” said President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs.
In Hasan’s situation, there are many reasons why Pentagon officials wouldn’t want to lose an officer of his background. Arabic-speaking Muslims are in extremely short supply, as are doctors and psychiatrists.
Indeed, the Army has been trying to train and keep psychiatrists such as Hasan for years amid mounting cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers returning from multiple tours in the war zone.
The ranks of Army psychiatrists suffer some of the most chronic shortages among the Army’s 27 medical specialties, according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog. Physicians in general are in short supply. The Army fell short 159 doctors over the eight-year period ending in 2008, meeting only 93 percent of its goal of 2,421 physicians, the GAO found.
Some doctors are being forced to remain in uniform under the Pentagon’s “stop loss” authority that enables the military to keep soldiers beyond their official enlistment limits. At least 11,000 soldiers in the Army, the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard are being retained under “stop loss” rules.
Majors are needed
Hasan also was a valuable find for the military because he helped fill another need: Majors.
Because of enlistment cutbacks dating back to the end of the Cold War, the Army faces a shortage of midlevel officers, including a 15 percent shortage of majors in the medical corps. To ease a looming shortage of 3,000 majors, the Army has put young captains on the fast track to the rank of major. A decade ago, 78.1 percent of captains were promoted to the rank of major. In the past year, that percentage jumped to 94.1 percent.
Because of shortages among specialists — and also to maintain troop levels needed to fight two wars — the Army also has been forced to periodically rewrite standards for incoming recruits to keep up a flow of more than 70,000 enlistees each year.
It raised the maximum enlistment age from 34 to 42 in 2006. Fitness standards have been pushed to the breaking point: 25 percent of prospective recruits between the ages of 17 and 24 are now deemed medically obese — five times the percentage in the 1980s.
Educational standards have slipped, as well. The Army accepted nearly 14,200 high school dropouts among 67,395 incoming recruits without prior military service in 2007, for example.
The Army also has been flexible on recruits’ prior criminal activity. It granted 10,236 waivers for misconduct including felonies and 4,962 medical waivers including failure to pass drug or alcohol entrance tests to enlist 67,395 new recruits in 2007.
“They’ve taken people in who should not be in — and they’re promoting people quickly who should not be promoted,” said Korb, the military manpower expert. “Now we have to live with that.”
An Army Recruiting Command spokesman, Douglas Smith, says the service retains “high recruiting standards” with the quality of the force “always top priority.” But the military also offers “deserving individuals who have overcome mistakes an opportunity to realize their potential to be high performing soldiers.”
The nation’s deep recession has freed the Army to raise entrance standards again as more civilians flee poor job prospects in the economy to join the armed forces.
The Army is drawing its highest percentage of high school graduates since 1996, with 58,836 of the 61,933 recruits in fiscal 2009 holding high school diplomas.
Because of the manpower shortages, some lawmakers are asking if the military is ignoring potential warning signs in individual cases.
Hasan, for example, won a crucial promotion two years after cautioning colleagues at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that Muslims needed leeway to leave the Army as conscientious objectors to “decrease adverse events.” He reportedly said that the Koran took precedence over the U.S. Constitution.
But his superiors and his psychiatric colleagues apparently never had him evaluated on either security or psychological grounds.
Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee panel that handles military readiness, says the Army needs to “conduct a good, good background check on these people.”
“We need to ask, before these people become officers or are accepted into specialty schools like medical doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, about their commitment to our nation,” Ortiz said.
Hasan’s ability to remain in the military also raises questions about the lack of coordination between U.S. intelligence services. Months before Hasan pinned on the golden oak leaves of an Army major, he exchanged e-mails with a radical Islamic cleric in Yemen who knew three of the 9/11 hijackers and once presided over a mosque in Falls Church, Va., attended by Hasan.
The e-mails came to the attention of a joint FBI counterterrorism task force last year, but the exchange was never shared with intelligence agencies — an oversight that President Barack Obama ordered investigated on Thursday.