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How we found out the Army let hundreds of soldiers back in after previously kicking them out — and all kinds of other sh*t
How We Found Out explores recent reporting from Task & Purpose, answering questions about how we sourced our stories, what challenges we faced, and offers a behind-the-scenes look at how we cover issues impacting the military and veterans community.
Over the last two weeks Task & Purpose has published several stories based on the Army's annual Crime Report for 2018. The expansive report yielded articles on: 10 'known or suspected terrorists' who tried to access Army bases in 2018; and that hundreds of soldiers were able to rejoin the service after being kicked out for 'adverse reasons'; and then there was the soldier who stole a 155mm artillery round during training and nobody noticed for six years.
On Oct. 15, Task & Purpose published its latest piece from the report, which found that marijuana use has shot up in states where weed is legal.
The internal document was provided to Task & Purpose's editor in chief, Paul Szoldra, and given that it offered insight into how the Army tracked and assessed crime in the service in 2018, senior reporter James Clark, spoke with Szoldra to ask how the stories were selected, what additional sourcing was necessary, and how we, as a news team, approach leaked documents.
This is the second installment in the recurring column How We Found Out.
James Clark: So, Paul, last week Task & Purpose got a look at the Army's Crime Report for 2018, and over the next several days published a number of stories based on what was in that document.
First off, tell me what an annual crime report is, and then give me a brief overview of the stories that came out of this one.
Paul Szoldra: Sure, so the Army Crime Report is a document put out every year by the Army's Office of the Provost Marshall General. In civilian-speak, the office is akin to the Chief of Police in whatever town you may be in.
It's marked "For Official Use Only" and not publicly-released. It's an internal document Army law enforcement puts together to highlight whatever trends they are seeing on various crimes, whether that be drug use, sexual assault, or any number of other offenses, while also offering Army leaders tips on how to mitigate crime in the ranks.
I ended up getting a copy, and it's kind of a treasure trove of bad behavior in the ranks. No organization is perfect, and the Army is no different. It's actually really good that they put this together to look internally and try to figure out how to fix problems.
JC: Who worked on what stories for Task & Purpose? How was it divied up?
PS: Since this was such a large document, after I went through highlighting what was interesting, I sent that off to the rest of the team in an email. I basically said, hey I got this doc that's full of interesting stories and I've run through it with a highlighter, but please go through it yourself and pick out what things you'd like to hit.
And we just sort of tag-teamed the doc over email and each person called what they wanted to write about. For Haley Britzky (Task & Purpose's Army reporter), that was the terrorists at the gate. Jared Keller (Task & Purpose's deputy editor) did a great job writing about the artillery guy, and even worked in some jokes. And then I did the story about weed and soldiers coming back in after being kicked out. It was a true team effort.
JC: Now, walk me through this: You get a 100-plus page document in the middle of the week that covers criminal activity in the Army over the last year, and obviously, there's a lot in that document to unpack.
How do you decide what's worth covering?
PS: Like I imagine a lot of people would do, I started first with the executive summary and seeing what the authors themselves highlighted as being important.
Right up front, the document lays out some of the big stats they've found. In FY18, for example, most soldier offenders (89%) were below E6 rank.
Then it has crime trends from FY11-18 and whether one thing is going up or down. Overall crime, fortunately, is on a downward trend. But there were some areas I found interesting right off the bat: Domestic violence is trending upward, and there's also been an upward trend of marijuana use in states where it's legal.
And then there was "soldiers titled in multiple felony cases," which I didn't understand upon first reading. But it went on to say, "The number of these Soldiers still serving in units (approximately 2,400) continued to decrease, both in counts and as a percentage of the force."
What this was saying, as I figured out later, was that there are about 2,400 soldiers who have been credibly accused of multiple felonies and yet are still serving. I found that super strange, and it turns out even the Army does, too, since they call the soldiers "a threat to readiness of the force" later in the report.
So after I do my initial read on the exec summary, I basically pulled out a highlighter and ran through the entire thing and marked portions I found interesting, and then it was taking that and trying to figure out which ones could be good stories or which weren't actually all that important.
JC: Now for folks reading this who aren't reporters: When you come across something like that — with a bunch of jargon or unclear terms — and need context, what's the next step? It's not like this came with a press release and some points of contact.
How do you find sources to comment on them, or provide context on a leaked document?
PS: Google is your friend a whole lot the time, and that was definitely the case here. But I also was fortunate enough to be able to ask the source of the documents about terms in there, or whether a part I thought was important was actually important.
And then for some things, like the term "titled for felonies," it took me a little while to figure that out. I'm a Marine veteran, and we have our own terms that we use for things, but titled is not one I'm familiar with. So I asked around about what that was supposed to mean, and all the soldiers I spoke with told me their opinion of it, but were not sure and said I should ask a JAG.
Thankfully, I did a Google search for something like "Army felons titled meaning" and found something on the official website of Fort Benning, which explained it in great detail.
JC: Great, thanks for exposing all our trade secrets: We just Google it, everybody.
Bullshitting aside: Once you had a handle on what was in the report, did you reach out to the Army for comment? What did they say?
PS: Yes, absolutely. One of the tenets of being an ethical journalist (and frankly, just not being a dick) is to make sure you reach out to the people or organizations you are reporting on and allow them a chance to comment on things, especially when what you are reporting is not going to make them look all that great.
Most of the time I'm reporting, I might reach out early to get a comment or get an answer to a question I might have. But in this case, I didn't really need the Army's comment here, since they were telling me everything I needed to know in this document. Still, I wrote what's called a "no surprises" letter to the public affairs officials explaining what I'd be writing about and offering them a chance to put in a statement.
Not-so-fun-fact: I sent this to the wrong email address, though it wasn't my fault. On the Facebook page of the Army's Office of the Chief of Public Affairs website is an email, which I used for my query. And I got zero response. So I published, and the Army public affairs folks at the Pentagon were kind of mad at me about surprising them. I was a whole lot more surprised they didn't get the email or whoever got it didn't forward it to the right spot!
JC: I mean, doesn't really seem like it's on you. In any case, I imagine you guys worked it out.
PS: Yeah I had a nice conversation with an Army lieutenant colonel about the mix-up. He wasn't really all that mad about me having the report or writing about it, but didn't like that I had that line in there: The Army declined to comment.
I took it out so they'd have a chance to respond after the fact if they wanted to. But given that we're now about a week after, it looks like I'm going to popping that line right back in.
JC: On the topic of Army input: This is supposed to be an internal document just for Army leadership, right? What's the value of getting a look at something like this and then getting it out to a broader audience?
PS: You're absolutely right. It's supposed to be an internal Army doc, but we don't work for the Army. We (and I mean journalists here) work for the public and try to get them the facts and information that matters to them, and in this case, with these stories, we're able to illustrate some of the Army's ongoing struggles with crime in the ranks and how they're dealing with it. A better informed public, who are paying taxes and therefore paying soldiers' salaries, should have insight on whether their money is being well spent or if a government agency is doing good things or, well, screwing up. I think in the case of the Army allowing soldiers back in after adverse separations, it's clear it's the latter.
JC: And for our readers in the military, and in this case, in the Army: They should probably know what's going on in that service, too.
PS: Exactly. And I think one thing worth noting here is how I got this doc. I'm not going to talk about my source, but I will say that the majority of my stories on problems inside the military come from people on the inside wanting to get that news out there. They want me to investigate a topic and look into things, because that often is the only way to shine a spotlight on it and get it fixed. One only needs to look at the incredible work of Reuters in exposing the problems in private military housing with mold and rats and everything else — and more recently, our own Haley Britzky doing even more on this — to see how journalists can sometimes work a whole lot faster than the Inspector General's office in getting problems addressed.
JC: Yeah, that's the benefit of community reporting: Our readers are often our sources.
Alright, my last question for you: Were there any portions of the report where you read it and thought: Holy shit, there has to be more here. My mind immediately goes to the soldiers who were kicked out and then let back in, and the 10 known or suspected terrorists who tried to access Army bases. What stood out to you?
PS: There were actually a couple of those things that stood out for me. The interesting thing in here for me is how this helps me learn a little more about how the Army does things and how they report on crimes, or what kind of statistic is measured and who measures it.
These little nuggets help me with future stories or maybe investigate more. Like, one thing in the drug crime part of the report was that there were 11 deaths investigated by Army CID as heroin or fentanyl overdoses. Another part of the report on corrections mentions that 15% of soldiers serving a life sentence were convicted of other crimes. In a parenthetical, it says (e.g. rape, aiding the enemy). We all know sexual assault is a huge problem in the military, but I had no idea there were more than a few soldiers charged with "aiding the enemy," which makes my ears perk up and think I need to start asking some more questions about these things, and perhaps, submit some Freedom of Information Act requests for documents.
JC: Awesome, that covers it.
Editor's Note: You can always reach out to Task & Purpose journalists through our confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also say hi to the reporters on this story via Twitter: Paul Szoldra; Jared Keller; and Haley Britzky.
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