American military service members often complain of black mold growing in their barracks and in base housing. A staggering number of veterans have died by suicide. The number of reported sexual assaults in the military continues to rise. And many troops wonder whether civilians even care about them at all after most Americans ignored the war in Afghanistan for years.
But if you watch cable news the most pressing national security issue these days seems to be the supposed sharp left turn of the Department of Defense into “wokeness” amid an embrace of “critical race theory,” though it’s unclear what the phrase actually means anymore. Several members of Congress recently debated whether the Navy’s top officer should’ve added Ibram X. Kendi’s book How To Be An Antiracist to his professional reading list after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officers last summer; critics say the reading program “undermines America’s security.” One television host suggested “wokeness” may explain an embarrassing 2016 incident in which Iran captured 10 sailors and held them hostage for about 15 hours. An op-ed published in May even argued that “the woke takeover of the US military endangers us all.”
The debate reached a fever pitch last week after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark Milley responded to questions about critical race theory in the military. (Critical race theory generally refers to the academic study of law and policy as it pertains to race.)
“We do not teach critical race theory,” Austin said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing about the Defense Department’s proposed budget. “We don’t embrace critical race theory and I think that’s a spurious conversation.” Milley’s response to questions from two Republican lawmakers, in which he argued that studying a range of issues facing America is important for present and future military leaders, set off a chain reaction of outrage, with pundits like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson taking to the airwaves to sling personal insults at the decorated general and Special Forces soldier.
Most Americans support the U.S. military but have little understanding of it, which may explain why the purported rise of “wokeness” in the ranks has generated so much interest. But there are larger and more pervasive issues impacting service members and their families than the debate over whether or not the military should teach critical race theory or if it is becoming too woke.
The issues go beyond party and politics. As a matter of fact, they’ve persisted regardless of which president was in office or which Congressional majority was in power. And as Jacob Silverman recently argued, no one can credibly claim that “wokeness” is somehow responsible for strategic missteps in the Global War on Terror, nor can critical race theory be blamed for troops having to dodge roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. “ISIS wasn’t inspired by Americans’ use of gender-neutral pronouns,” Silverman writes.
These are just a few of the issues facing the U.S. military today that merit your attention, your energy, and in all honesty, no small measure of outrage.
Far more service members have died by suicide than were killed in post-9/11 conflicts
A recent study by Brown University’s Cost of War project found that the number of service members and vets who have died by suicide is four times greater than the number of post-9/11 war deaths. The study estimated that as many as 7,057 service members have been killed in post-9/11 military operations. As many as 30,177 service members and veterans have died by suicide in the same period.
On the issue of veteran suicide, the factors are numerous, varied, and complex. There is no one size fits all solution, because there is no single cause. Instead, there exists a myriad of challenges that adversely impact members of the military and veteran community.
One such obstacle facing service members and veterans is that they sometimes leave the service and rejoin their civilian peers, only to discover that most Americans have little knowledge of the military, or the country’s most recent conflicts, which can contribute to a sense of isolation.
According to a 2018 poll, about 42% of American voters were either unaware of the continuing conflicts in the Middle East or believed that the War on Terror was over.
“Such a realization must make the reality of fighting a war on behalf of an uncaring public difficult,” wrote the author of the Brown study, Thomas Howard Suitt, a Ph.D. candidate in religion at Boston University.
Further adding to the disconnect between the military community and the civilian populace it serves is the fact that a surprising number of Americans believe that the majority of people with post-traumatic stress disorder are violent or dangerous and that 23% said they thought PTSD was not treatable.
“If there is something novel to the Global War on Terror, it may be the diminishing approval and ignorance of the public coupled with persistent veteran stereotypes, which further alienate them from civilian society,” Suitt wrote.
Moreover, the number of non-combat deaths outpaces combat deaths in the military
According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, a total of 18,571 active-duty service members died while serving in the U.S. military between 2006 and 2021. Roughly a quarter of those deaths — 4,602 — occurred in a combat zone. The remaining 75% — 13,969 service members — died as a result of non-combat operations. As many as 93% of those non-combat deaths occurred in the United States. Some of those deaths were the result of accidents, some of which occurred in training, while others were the result of illness or injury, and 4,315 were deemed to be “self-inflicted.”
On July 30, 2020, eight Marines and one sailor drowned when their amphibious assault vehicle sank, marking the deadliest training accident involving an AAV in the Marine Corps’ history. The Corps inspected its entire fleet of amphibious vehicles afterward and most failed. A command investigation found the platoon involved in the accident had been provided with vehicles in “horrible conditions.” Eight of the service members who died had not completed training on how to escape from a submerged vehicle. The Marine Corps’ former inspector general was eventually fired for not adequately preparing his Marines and sailors before the exercise.
Meanwhile, the Navy’s surface fleet was rocked by two deadly ship collisions in 2017 that showed how overworked, fatigued and undertrained sailors were constantly deploying in an attempt to meet combatant commanders’ insatiable appetite for resources to show China who’s boss. A total of 17 sailors died in the separate collisions involving the destroyers USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald. Four years later, the Navy is having a hard time retaining surface warfare officers, perhaps due to only 14% of officers saying they’re getting adequate sleep and the service routinely assigning “fewer crew members to ships than … are needed to safely operate them,” as the Government Accountability Office recently reported.
Military leaders are struggling to get a handle on sexual assault and harassment
Military service members continue to face sexual assault and harassment despite leaders’ repeated assurances that there is “zero tolerance” for such actions. In 2020, a total of 6,290 assaults were reported, a slight increase from the year prior despite supposedly ramped-up efforts to curb it. The number of sexual assaults could actually be higher; as the 2020 report pointed out, “the number of individuals who report the crime to law enforcement falls far short of the number of individuals who have likely experienced the crime.”
While the Pentagon is considering a historic change to how assault is prosecuted — and Congress is moving forward with legislation that would do that and more — one thing is clear: the lasting, life-changing harm assault has on service members cannot be ignored. As the Pentagon Inspector General found in 2019, military sexual assault is more likely to result in post-traumatic stress disorder than combat.
The military is still dealing with racism in the ranks
On the topic of systemic issues that the military is wrestling with, for years the Pentagon sat on a survey about racial discrimination, and as Task & Purpose reported in January, when it was finally released, it became quite clear why the 300-page report had been hidden from public view for so long.
“Overall, about one in five active-duty members (17.9%) indicated experiencing racial/ethnic harassment and/or discrimination in the 12 months prior,” reads the survey.
Additionally, roughly a third of all Black service members and nearly a quarter of Asian military personnel surveyed said they had experienced harassment or discrimination based on race and ethnicity.
“These problematic behaviors violate a service member’s basic human dignity and jeopardize readiness of our military units; this misconduct is intolerable,” said Army Maj. César Santiago, a spokesman for the Pentagon. “Every incident of harassment or other impermissible discrimination is an affront to the Department’s values.”
The survey also revealed that nearly a third of all service members did not have faith that their complaints about racial harassment and discrimination would be taken seriously if they filed an official report. In fact, 30% of Black respondents and 22% of Asian respondents indicated they felt their chances of getting a promotion would be worse if they reported racial harassment and discrimination, the survey said.
“This is particularly problematic considering non-White military members are more likely to experience racial/ethnic harassment/discrimination, but also have less confidence in the complaint processes,” the survey said. “Thus, those who are the most vulnerable may be less likely to seek the help they need.”
In recent years, experts have sounded alarm bells over the rise of extremism within the ranks. For many, that issue was brought to the fore in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. This was in part due to revelations that more than 50 of those charged after the riot had a military or law enforcement history — raising fears that anti-government and other extremist sentiments had taken root within the military and veterans community.
Despite the vast majority of soldiers serving honorably, extremists have long seen the armed forces as a source of recruits. An FBI assessment distributed to law enforcement agencies in February concluded that white supremacists would “very likely seek affiliation with military and law enforcement entities in furtherance” of their ideologies, as ABC News reported. But the warning signs go back more than a decade: a 2009 Homeland Security report warned that military veterans possess combat skills and experiences that are attractive to right-wing extremists in particular.
But military leaders “are fighting this battle blind,” as Heather Williams, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, noted in February, since only two studies have specifically looked into military extremism and both are more than two decades old. “Like sexual harassment, extremism among the troops may not be reported; its pervasiveness may not be evident until one goes looking,” Williams wrote.
A Task & Purpose analysis documented 40 examples of extremists in the military since 2016, although it’s almost certainly an undercount. Several service members were found to be affiliated with neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups, and one soldier has been charged with planning a “mass casualty” attack on fellow soldiers. Newly unsealed FBI documents indicate that an active-duty Marine is suspected of plotting to kill Black people and bomb the Democratic National Committee.
The Defense Department has a weapons accountability problem
The U.S. military doesn’t exactly know how many weapons it has lost in the last decade, but it’s in the thousands. A recent investigation by the Associated Press found that the Department of Defense had lost track of at least 1,900 weapons, some of which have been used in crimes on American streets. This includes not only rifles but also several dozen machine guns, grenade launchers, and about 25 mortars that can fire high explosive rounds several miles away.
That said, this isn’t all that surprising when you take recent history into account, considering that over the last two decades of war, there have been numerous reports detailing how thousands more weapons issued to American allies overseas have gone missing.
Military recruiters are fighting an uphill battle to find qualified applicants
A shockingly small portion of young Americans — fewer than one third — are actually eligible to join the Armed Forces, and many more simply don’t want to. This has placed greater emphasis on recruiting campaigns, which are designed to attract future service members to fit the military’s changing needs. But those campaigns have faced additional challenges — beyond the daunting task of finding eligible and willing applicants — like when the Army disabled the comment section on YouTube for a series of commercials due to an outpouring of criticism. The campaign, titled “The Calling,” profiled a diverse cast of real soldiers who are currently serving, but was blasted by pundits and politicians alike for — wait for it — being woke.
The critique comes at a difficult time for the military, when 71% of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are ineligible for military service because they cannot meet the physical fitness or education requirements, or are disqualified due to criminal history, or a history of substance abuse.
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense sees a looming national security threat from a rising China, which has been rapidly modernizing its military and already has the largest army in the world.
Service members who suffer from malpractice and negligence are denied their day in court
Like everyone serving in the military today — and for the past 71 years — military personnel are barred from bringing lawsuits against the Department of Defense due to a decades-old Supreme Court precedent known as the Feres Doctrine.
If a military member goes to an on-base military hospital and is the victim of medical malpractice — let’s say doctors overlook a tumor on their lung or repeatedly misdiagnose stomach cancer as a hernia — they are barred from bringing a lawsuit against the military. They will never have their day in court; there will be no trial and no judgment rendered or punishment meted out. Yet a civilian at the same hospital could file a lawsuit if any of this had happened to them.
This prohibition on lawsuits extends beyond just medical malpractice and includes sexual assault, incidents during training, and even workplace violence. While there is now a workaround in the form of a military claims process for medical malpractice, some have raised concerns that the Defense Department has too great of a say in determining who is at fault, and to what degree the military can be held liable.
Video: A Green Beret describes how the military botched his cancer diagnosis (Editor’s note: Adblockers will need to be disabled to view the video)
Military families continue to endure squalid housing conditions, riddled with mold, insects, and rodents
Two and a half years after an explosive Reuters report exposed base housing riddled with rodents, mold, insects, and asbestos, many families are still fighting for clean, safe housing. Dozens of families are suing their privatized housing providers at Fort Hood and Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Fort Meade, Maryland, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with many alleging conditions that have led to health issues for them and their children. Families have repeatedly accused their housing providers of ignoring the issues they report, or out-right gaslighting tenants by blaming them for the conditions of a home they just moved into.
And it’s not just family housing. As many as 200 soldiers with 1st Special Forces Command were moved out of their Fort Bragg barracks due to reports of mold last year, and for Marines in Okinawa, Japan, mold seemed to be so pervasive that one told Task & Purpose there “isn’t a single Marine I know that doesn’t have mold in their rooms or rodent and bug issues.”
While the Pentagon moved forward with the Tenant Bill of Rights, which was meant to protect and empower tenants, Defense Department officials made clear last year that the concerns of service members and their families would come second to the demands of financial backers of the 1996 Military Housing Privatization Initiative, which allowed private companies to take over base housing and maintenance in an effort to improve service member quality of life.
Soldiers say they’ve been left in the lurch as the Army works to address issues in its tuition assistance program
One of the most attractive benefits of military service is financial assistance with education; having help with earning a college degree is a big factor for many service members who sign that dotted line.
That education plan appears to have been disrupted for many soldiers as the Army moves to a new system for its tuition assistance program. Soldiers say they’re being stuck with the bill for classes the Army was supposed to pay for and they are being forced to delay classes as the Army works out kinks in its new system, which at this point is relying on schools to accept a sort of IOU from the Army, that the bill will be paid eventually.
Army leaders have since said that no soldier should be paying an upfront cost for classes meant to be paid for under the tuition assistance program, and vowed that anyone who does will be reimbursed.
The U.S. has less than 80 days to keep its promise to Afghan interpreters
America’s longest war is ending, but its legacy will live on in the memories of the 2.7 million U.S. service members who deployed there. Even as it draws to a close, the many more Afghans who lived through decades of conflict now face an even more uncertain future. The challenges that have plagued the first, and longest-running of the so-called “Forever Wars” are too many to list here. They could fill multiple books, and they have.
At present, the U.S. plans to withdraw all of its remaining forces by Sept. 11, 2021 — if not much sooner — though many of those details remain in flux. One “detail” is how the U.S. government will keep its promise to the roughly 18,000 Afghan interpreters who have risked their lives and the safety of their families to support American military operations.
Tens of thousands of interpreters and their families are in grave danger if the Taliban retake the country, as many inside and outside Afghanistan fear. The Taliban has doubled the number of Afghan districts under its control in the two months since President Joe Biden announced a full U.S. withdrawal, according to the Long War Journal.
“The loss of terrain and the rapidity of that loss of terrain has to be a concerning one,” Gen. Austin Miller, the top American commander, recently told ABC News. “So as you watch the Taliban moving across the country, what you don’t want to have happen is that the people lose hope and they believe they now have a foregone conclusion presented to them.”
To quote a famous line from one of the many generals who have overseen portions of that war: “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over,” former defense secretary and retired Marine Gen. James Mattis once said. “We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.”
In spite of assurances from various government arms involved in the withdrawal, from the White House to the State Department and the Pentagon, they ignore the (armed and resurgent) elephant in the room: What if the Taliban continue to take ground and the Afghan government collapses before the withdrawal? And what becomes of the Afghan civilians, the interpreters, their families, and others who worked alongside U.S. troops?
“It’s OK if I die, I will die fighting the Taliban,” one interpreter said recently. “But what have I done to my children?”
Let’s get our priorities in order
While members of Congress — and the army of talk show hosts and social media personalities filling up the airways and your newsfeed — are well within their rights to pound their desks over what books people may or may not be reading, or opine at length about the changes individual military branches are making to be more inclusive, the real question is: Is any of that worth your time, and outrage, compared to all of the above?
Perhaps we should refocus our collective attention on trying to tackle the real and tangible problems that are destroying careers, ruining troops’ lives and, in many cases, actually impeding the military’s ability to fight effectively.