Fraudulent enlistment: one soldier’s story
My battle buddy reminds me to drink more water and tries to check my alertness. My attention is elsewhere — another soldier is at the clinic desk. He is clutching a paper and seems too alert to be another heat casualty. “I have asthma and I want out,” he tells the sergeant. I’m living proof that one can play by the rules and still come up a loser. Asthma!
In Indianapolis, a military counselor told my group of prospects about an asthmatic young man who’d concealed his condition. He went off his medication and inhaler. He died from a severe asthma attack during Basic training. The sergeant glares at the paper. It is a Moment of Truth (MOT) sheet — meaning the soldier confessed a disqualifying condition during a last chance for amnesty.
The sergeant scowls, and roughly hands the sheet back to the soldier. “You just wasted $30,000 of your country’s money,” he says. I shudder, thinking about my own MOT condition. No, not me, I say to myself. That won’t happen to me. I don’t want out. I want this bad enough. I’m strong and some discipline will keep this in check. One week later my MOT condition will put me in the hospital.
“No means numerous opportunities; yes means your enlistment stops”
Fraudulent enlistment is neither new nor unusual in the Army. During World War II, some young men falsified their birth certificates in order to enlist. Today, people lie about medical conditions, criminal records or financial obligations. Technically, fraudulent enlistment is a crime: The maximum penalty in military court is a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and two years confinement. This is stated at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), and prospects are warned to not trust their recruiters.
Prospects are asked if they were coached to lie — as if someone will answer in the affirmative when asked, “Are you lying?” Concealed disqualifying conditions are part of the reason 40 percent of military recruits do not finish their full term of service. My recruiter repeatedly said, “No means numerous opportunities, yes means your enlistment stops.” He would ask me, “Your favorite answer on the physical is?” and point to me, which was my cue to answer in the negative. He told me I wasn’t the first person he’d advised to conceal a condition. One prospect was allergic to strawberries. He told her, “Don’t eat strawberries,” told her to say she wasn’t allergic to anything and sent her for the physical.
When I swore in after the physical, my recruiter introduced me to another prospect. He told her to ask me anything about the physical. I gave her a brief rundown of what the physical was like, some advice on making weight and what to wear. My recruiter nodded, then turned to her and said, “What’s your favorite answer on the physical?” “No,” she replied. She passed the physical and signed up for a counterintelligence position. Sometimes I wonder what she concealed.
Why do the prospects lie?
The reasons vary. I lied because I wanted to serve my country in the armed forces. I’d been laid off from my job as a reporter when the recession started, and had worked in a restaurant for more than a year. I wanted to do a job that mattered. The military was the only option I thought I had — a common sentiment among many soldiers. While I was nervous about lying, my recruiter reminded me, “No means numerous opportunities, yes means your enlistment stops.”
Why do some recruiters coach their prospects to lie?
They are required to meet quotas — and it is easy to understand the temptation to look the other way when an otherwise desirable prospect has a concealable disqualifying condition. This happens often enough that about.com has a question about it in the FAQs about joining the military. Ron Powers, a retired Air Force sergeant who writes for about.com, alluded to this problem in his article “What the Recruiter Never Told You” and dealt with it specifically in his article “I Cannot Tell a Lie” (see sidebar).
The Army knows some recruits lie, hence the warning at MEPS and the MOT briefing. The MOT briefing is a soldier’s last chance to avoid an Article 15 for fraudulent enlistment. During my platoon’s MOT briefing, Lt. Morris explains that his job is to keep us in the Army. He is the wrong person to talk to about discharges. However, if we have disqualifying conditions we’ve lied about and would now like to reveal, he has the forms. He says he’s heard everything and cleared many soldiers to go to Basic training. More than half of us come forward to confess our conditions. They vary, from a misdemeanor weapons charge to a psychiatric hospitalization.
I step up, stand at attention and hand him my paper. He reads it and looks at me. “How do you feel?” “Ready to report, sir!” I bark. In spite of my condition and the fact that none of us know the latest about the Iraqi war, I am eager to train. I have accepted the fact that I will probably kill and could die. I am ready to fight. He signs the paper, clearing me to go to Basic. My condition is on record and unofficially waived. If the background investigation for my top-secret security clearance reveals I was treated for depression while in college, I will not be charged with fraudulent enlistment.
Another female soldier goes suicidal — the drill sergeant confiscates her shoelaces, orders two soldiers to be with her at all times, writes her last name on the board in charge of quarters (CQ) office and sends her back to her platoon. I shiver — it’s the third soldier I’ve seen crack. When I first arrived at Ft. Jackson, a sergeant “welcomed” us by dropping us into pushup position and yelling an orientation. When he finally allowed us to stand in formation, one of the female soldiers was trembling violently. He dismissed us and walked over to her. “You need to realize no one here’s going to kill you and eat you,” he said, attempting to ease her terror. “You’re a warrior!”
During my second night at Ft. Jackson, I stood CQ with another female soldier from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. Two soldiers were already on suicide watch. I was amazed people were snapping so quickly. A new, nagging, unwelcome thought comes. What if I break? Not me, I say to myself. I’m strong, disciplined, determined — I want this more than anything in the world. They can’t cuss at me and I don’t care when they “accidentally” forget and do. The yelling’s not a problem and I can stand the insults. They’re just doing their job. The sleep deprivation’s hard, but I’m adjusting. I can do this.
My seriousness is legendary — the other soldiers in my platoon tease me about it. I’ve earned the nickname “Ogre.” We’ve been on active duty for only a week, but I’ve already acquired a military demeanor. “You’re going to be a drill sergeant,” my buddies tease. I’ve already been ordered to report for airborne training, much to my surprise. I laugh with them. Then the symptoms start.
“Motivated, motivated, downright motivated! Ooh! Aah! I wanna kill somebody. Ooh! Aah! I wanna stab somebody! Hooah!” Why is this cadence so fun to sing? “Oberg! You are eating freakin’ applesauce! You need some carbohydrates in that body! You’d better eat that meat!” I nonchalantly finish the applesauce, then obediently wolf down a meat-like substance. “You see those male soldiers over there? They don’t think you females belong here!”
“You’re not gonna make it, Oberg! You have issues!” I have to survive. I am a 24-year-old kid without options. “Oberg! Are you from this planet?” “No, drill sergeant, but I’m a resident alien!” Just think it, don’t say it, it’s not worth getting smoked over. “You’re not gonna make it, Oberg!” “Oberg! E-4! E-4! E-4!” I knew this rank would be trouble. I’m one of the highest-ranking soldiers in the platoon — lucky me. “You’re not gonna make it, Oberg!”
We are mobilized for war. Desertion — being absent without leave (AWOL) for more than 30 days with no intent to return to duty — is a capital offense. Desertion means the firing squad — a fact we’re reminded of often. Some soldiers still attempt to go AWOL, much to my confusion. I want to be a soldier and I won’t allow myself to run, but the action puzzles me even from a practical standpoint. None of us know where on the base we are — we were ordered to keep our heads down on the bus to Basic. The base is more than 200 acres, large and confusing to navigate. By my crude calculations, a fleeing soldier’s chances of getting caught before getting off Ft. Jackson are almost 100 percent. In the unlikely event a fleeing soldier got off the base, where would he or she go? The consequences are harsh and the chances of success negligible — why risk it?
“Welcome to Alpha freakin’ Traz! This is worse than freakin’ prison!” yells the drill sergeant. “AlphaTraz. There is NO ESCAPE!” is boldly painted on the barracks wall. The bay is painted in a mixture of jail and slaughterhouse motifs. “Let the bodies hit the floor!” is painted near the bay entrance. A painting of the alien from Predator is beside it, guarding several skinned corpses in various states of dismemberment. “The Law” is painted on a column in the bay. We’re ordered to memorize it — I quickly learn some pieces.
“Welcome to AlphaTraz. You have entered the House of Pain. … Are we not men? No, we are not men. We are beasts, and you have made us beasts. … We will only gather in the night. … The last resort is cold steel. JAB between the first and second ribs and TWIST!”
The last program I saw in civilian life was The Twilight Zone. Now I know what the character feels when the existence of reality’s non-existence hits them. Something is horribly amiss. Every answer is the wrong answer. There is no truth. Things are not functioning correctly. Among those things, apparently, is my mind. Both the drill sergeants and my platoon know I am not doing well. I have panic attacks. I get confused following simple orders. I’m obsessed with blood and killing. Some of the other soldiers are afraid of me. I’m convinced the platoon is going to attack me after lights out. Drill Sgt. Guzman asks if I’m suicidal. I stand at parade rest and reply, “Drill sergeant, I know four different ways I could attempt it and why none of them would work.” I list each one and why it would not work. “We’ll get you some help,” he says.
Back in formation. More orders. Time passes. Dropped again. “Help” apparently isn’t a high priority. I’m getting worse. Drill Sgt. Parris yells something about weak links. We remain in pushup position. “Raise your hands and get out of my Army!” he yells. In a mix of sarcasm and crying for help, I raise my hand. “I know about you, Oberg!” Parris yells. “You oughta have both freakin’ arms and both freakin’ legs raised!” After he finishes smoking us, Guzman pulls me and two other female soldiers out. We march downstairs and stand at parade rest. “Oberg is on suicide watch!” he yells. There is no light in my eyes. I show no emotion. “Watch her ass! You two stay with her at all times! She doesn’t even go to the latrine alone! Buddies saying, ‘Shit, she’s crazy, drill sergeant, shit, we didn’t know she was crazy! You! Try any crazy shit and I got somethin’ for you!”
We lay down on the office floor — a cozy fit for three people. I take off my boots and wonder why they didn’t take the laces. My buddies try to talk. Who’s the blonde one? I know I should remember her name. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to wake up. Is it the stress, the sleep deprivation or a combination that is affecting me like this? What is happening to me and why?
“Get up!” barks a drill sergeant. Did I actually sleep? I mechanically put on my boots and we march upstairs. The drill sergeants march into the bay, blowing whistles and screaming. They order the platoon to stand in formation outside. Then my buddies and I march to the first sergeant’s office. I do not understand what is going on. My tall buddy reports that I spoke of wanting to die. My blonde buddy — why can’t I remember her name? — reports I’ve slowly become worse. One of them reports that I would jump as if I’d seen something and relax when I saw nothing was there. I report that I need treatment but want to continue training. “
Army’s not for everybody, soldier,” says the first sergeant, kindly. He orders my buddies to give their reports to the doctor and tells me to choose. Treatment will force me to accept a medical discharge. Training will make my condition worse. A drill sergeant drives my buddies and me to CMHS — the base’s mental health clinic. I will be admitted to 7 West, the psychiatric ward. My buddies try to cheer me up. “You’re going home! We wish we were. All you’ll do now is eat chow and sleep! You’re going home!” To failure and disgrace, I think.
A nurse evaluates me and asks if I want to see the psychiatrist. I’m confused — isn’t that why I’m at CMHS? I mumble an answer. The confidence in my voice is gone. The nurse calls the psychiatrist, a major named Dr. Thomas Gillespie. Gillespie asks the drill sergeant why they didn’t bring me earlier. Then he starts to talk to me. He remarks that apparently Drill Sgt. Parris causes conflict with a lot of people; I’m not the first soldier who’s mentioned his name. He asks about previous psych history. I refuse to answer. “I’m not trying to get you for fraudulent enlistment,” he says.
I start talking, and mention I brought it up at the MOT briefing. He looks at my paperwork, then at me. “I notice your answers were ‘no.’” I wince. “I wanted to enlist and I thought I could hack it —” “Why do you think those questions are there, Specialist Oberg?” I don’t have an answer. It was a gamble. Sometimes a soldier’s condition does not cause a problem. Sometimes it forces a medical discharge. Sometimes it kills the soldier.
I’m admitted to 7 West, issued a set of pajamas and foam slippers and briefed on ward rules. Staff Sgt. Patricia White, sensing my terror, smiles. “Relax,” she says gently, motioning for me to stand at something other than parade rest. The compassion is surprising, but welcome.
That night, a registered nurse, Lt. Tami Gazerro, walks up to me. As I start to snap to attention, she motions with her hand and says, “As you were, as you were.” She talks to me, figures out quickly I’m frustrated about not being able to train and tells me to quit ruminating on my collapse. I just jacked up my military career and I’m not supposed to be upset? She reminds me I should not have been allowed to enlist. While I like the first lieutenant’s blunt honesty, I resent the comment.
As I start to argue, she says firmly, “You are the one who decided to lie.” She’s right. I’m responsible for taking bad advice. I know I’m lucky I’m not being court-martialed. I know I’ll be lucky to get a general discharge. What I don’t know is the severity of my condition. Gillespie prescribes an anti-depressant, and allows staff to give me sedatives to help me sleep. The staff must watch me take any medication and check my mouth to make sure I swallow it. I’m ordered to tell night staff if I can’t sleep.
The next night, the medication is slow to affect me. Suddenly, I hear footsteps. I look toward the sound. Gazerro appears and checks each bunk. The light in the room and from her flashlight allows me to see for a few seconds — there is a mix of compassion, concern and professionalism on her face. I smile and relax. I know I am safe.
Another psychiatrist, a captain named Dr. Meredith Mona, makes rounds a few days later. We stand by our bunks at parade rest as she approaches and asks each of us how we’re feeling and if there are any problems. I report I am feeling violent and want to hurt myself. I want to hurt one of the other soldiers, but I don’t mention it since the private is still standing there. Mona makes a few notes and dismisses me. It is almost lights out before staff acts. I’m pacing and half-talking, half-growling as I talk to the other soldiers. They watch nervously, then one by one go tell a nurse about my behavior.
After the third private reports, a nurse comes and takes me over to a table. She tells me to talk to staff instead of creating a disruption and gives me something. I return to the room, dazed yet calm. We’re all disturbed. Why did it take so long? None of us dare ask what I’m sure we’re all wondering — what if I’d attacked someone? I make one of the other soldiers promise to knock me out if I turn violent. I rapidly deteriorate, and Mona orders me moved back to the assessment ward. I’m put on line-of-sight supervision and 15-minute checks. I drift in and out of logic. No one can bring me out of it. Mona prescribes an anti-psychotic drug, but it does not affect me for four days.
I start scratching my wrists, using either my fingernails or hospital bracelet. I pocket and hide a knife from chow. Later, I surrender it to the captain — which one? My memory is not working. The captain catches me scratching at my wrist with my glasses. She looks at me. I hand them over. Some time later — that day or another one? — they confiscate everything but the pajamas and my pen.
Within minutes they realize their mistake, and a civilian nurse asks me to surrender it. I reach into my pocket and grab it. Suddenly I stop. No, they can’t have it! It’s mine and they can’t have it! It’s what’s left of my identity! The nurse asks again, but I don’t respond. She walks out and returns with Capt. Gail Sawyer. “Give me the doggone pen,” Sawyer says. I start laughing — “doggone” from an officer? My laugh is almost maniacal, but Sawyer is calm. “You’re going to give me the pen,” she says. “You can’t write anything. We’ve already taken the notebook.”
“Give it back,” I say, still clutching the pen. I’m half laughing, half ready to fight. Sawyer is smiling slightly and waiting for me to respond. “You’re going to hand it over,” she says. She starts to count. I clutch the pen tightly, determined to force them to use force. I am getting close to being put in restraints. Sawyer’s voice grows firmer with each number. “Six … Seven …” I hand her the pen. She smiles and dismisses the nurse. “See, now that wasn’t so hard,” she says. “I’m proud of you.” All I can think of is the pen. Now the Army has taken everything from me.
Three days pass and I still can’t snap out of the psychotic state. My fear of confinement has escalated into outright terror. The dark impulses seem to be a demon taunting me — I barely keep from screaming, “Show yourself! Face me!” At times I slip into a trance. Other times I am alert but hostile. Gazerro tries to jolt me back to my senses. “You need to snap out of this.” I don’t know how. “Why are you acting out?” Because I despise every molecule in my body. I’m tired of suffering and I have no regrets.
“Yes, I can see how that negativity can exhaust you,” Gazerro says, starting to lose her patience. “You need to accept the fact you have a chemical imbalance.” I can’t accept the end of my enlistment. Finally Gazerro turns firm. “If you scratch your wrists, I will cut your nails.” It’s the wrong time to tell her I was using my hospital bracelet. “If you try anything with that knife, fork or spoon, I will see to it you eat every meal with your fingers from this day forward.”
I nod in understanding. I’m trying to recover. I want to fight. Gazerro fingers her BDU collar. “This is just a green suit,” she says. “There are other ways to serve your country. Do you think you’re doing that now, with these self-destructive thoughts?”
When I see the next psychiatrist, Dr. Spinelli, I stun the staff by asking if I can return to training. He says yes, although I will have to go off medication. He’s cleared soldiers in worse mental states. I ask for time to think about it and request to speak to a chaplain. A decision like this must not be made lightly.
Finally, the medication takes effect and the psychosis fades. I reluctantly accept the fact I am in no shape to train. Would I want someone that psychotic that recently defending the country? I should have left it a rhetorical question, for the statistics are disturbing. The National Mental Health Association reports that 649,814 veterans have a mental illness and more than 15,000 are not receiving treatment. According to National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), about 20 percent of VA patients have a mental illness. NAMI reports that 130,211 veterans have a psychosis that emerged in or was aggravated by service.
Spinelli lifts the restrictions and transfers me back to the open ward. The thought of home stings, but I try to reassure myself I gave it my best. I’m not used to failure — high school salutatorian, National Merit Commended Student, graduated from Baylor University with a 3.1 GPA. I’m living proof that one can play by the rules and still come up a loser.
Another soldier is admitted. She remembers me from Reception and says, “I wondered if you were going to make it.” She’d been standing CQ when I told my company first sergeant I was having panic attacks. He and a drill sergeant reassured me I would do well, and the drill sergeant threatened to smoke me. She tells me the first sergeant should have known I was starting to break. “He wanted to push it off on someone else,” she says, disgusted. I won’t have the chance to ask him — there’s a rumor he’s being transferred for failing to properly supervise two soldiers. Perhaps it is best I broke at Basic — the transfer of my first sergeant would have caused a lengthy paperwork delay.
Suddenly, I collapse from severe physical pain. The diagnosis threatens to keep me at Ft. Jackson longer. It is a kidney stone, and the Army is not obligated to treat me unless I am too sick to travel. A doctor prescribes narcotic painkillers and tells me to drink plenty of fluids. It’s ironic — if my mental condition had not forced me to accept a medical discharge, this would have. A mental health technician explains to me that I am receiving a general discharge under honorable conditions and can re-enlist when and if the condition clears.
She also explains that I am technically an Iraqi war veteran — apparently anyone on active duty is a veteran, although I find it far too generous a word. True, I did risk my life — people die during training — but my total time on active duty is a mere month. I accept a Chapter Two, which means the condition existed prior to service. The medical board rules I am disabled without pay and ineligible for any benefits.
I return to my family on May 7, 2003, still in excruciating pain. The kidney stone is lodged and will require surgery — I am forced to get temporary health insurance. I sometimes wonder who screwed whom. I lied in order to enlist and became a burden. In that case, I screwed the Army. Yet I was discharged with a condition that required surgery to correct and now I’m disabled — in that case, the Army screwed me. Sometimes I think we’re even. Sometimes I think I’m damn lucky.
Inpatient psychiatric wards allow people more than ample time to think. In hindsight, the recruiter’s willingness to look the other way should have warned me of potential trouble. The willingness of others in the Army to look the other way is problematic and disturbing. What if something had happened? Sometimes I think about soldiers who die because they conceal their condition. How can this be stopped?
• Drop recruitment quotas. This will eliminate the pressure on recruiters to lie and coach prospects to lie.
• Train recruiters to refer ineligible prospects elsewhere. I wanted to serve my country, not cost her money. I now know there are other options, such as VISTA and Americorps.
• Have a mandatory psychological evaluation for all prospects. This will identify and screen out people who may have trouble at Basic.
• Move the physical training (PT) assessment test to the MEPS instead of Reception. This will identify soldiers who cannot be physically fit enough for the military.
• Judge recruiters on how well their prospects do, not how many they recruit.
• Random checks. Send in a decoy to talk to the recruiter and see if the recruiter coaches the decoy to lie. Things cannot continue this way. Not only is it expensive, it is dangerous and in some instances deadly. For every soldier chaptered out, taxpayers lose at least $30,000. If the soldier dies, expenses can top $400,000. This is all taxpayer money — your money. Is it worth it?
• Forty percent of military recruits do not finish their full term of service. • About 20 percent of VA patients need mental health treatment. • The VA treated 36,649 psychiatric inpatients in 1998. • One hundred and thirty thousand, three hundred and eleven vets have a psychosis that manifested during or was aggravated by service. • One hundred and twenty-nine thousand, six hundred and ninety-four vets have post-traumatic stress disorder. While this is usually related to combat duty, training can cause it. • One hundred and four thousand, five hundred and ninety-three vets were treated for schizophrenia in fiscal year 1999. • One-third of homeless individuals are vets. Forty-three percent of these individuals are severely mentally ill, and 69 percent have a substance abuse disorder. Sources: “What the Recruiter Never Told You” by Ron Powers, National Mental Health Association, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill