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When Michelle came home from Iraq 14 months ago, she started getting serious about her career. So she followed her commander's advice: She cheated.
That's how the officer had made sergeant before being commissioned. And it's how potentially thousands of soldiers earn promotion points every year.
Now the Army says it's finally getting serious about the problem of cheating on correspondence courses. This week, commanders will start receiving letters from Training and Doctrine Command identifying suspected cheaters and requesting assistance in the investigation. The first 20 letters went out Sept. 25.
But as TRADOC tries to clamp down on a problem that has plagued Army promotion tests since their inception, it is seeking help from some of the same people who have facilitated and even, in some cases, encouraged cheating in the past: noncommissioned officers and junior officers.
And that raises questions about how effective this latest crackdown will be.
"How can noncommissioned officers, who cheated themselves, be expected to enforce rules against cheating?" asks Cpl. Robert Eckert of the 172nd Chemical Company at Fort Riley, Kan.
Eckert, 43, who's been in the Army three years, admits he, too, has cheated, earning about 20 points that way on correspondence courses. He shouldn't have done it, he says, but, as with Michelle, he didn't even consider cheating until he was coaxed to do so by his chain of command.
Michelle (not her real name) and Eckert are two of countless soldiers who have cheated — and continue to cheat — on correspondence courses to speed up promotions, all in violation of federal ethics rules spelled out by the Defense Department's Joint Ethics Rule.
According to the Army, in March 2009 (the latest available figures) 300,000 soldiers were enrolled in the Army Learning System. The vast majority of those soldiers are taking correspondence courses.
Cheating for points has been an open secret the Army leadership has known about since 1999 when courses were computerized. Pressure to stop it, however, didn't come until January 2008 when the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, reacting to published reports exposing rampant cheating through Web sites offering test answers, requested a congressional inquiry.
The Army responded by laying out a long list of initiatives that were to be implemented by mid-2008. But soldiers reached by Army Times say that cheating is as prevalent as ever. "Nothing's changed. They haven't cracked down," Eckert said.
And now, almost two years after getting its marching orders to fix the problem, the Army is still at least six months away from a promised crackdown. Nevertheless, Army leaders insist that the changes will come and cheating will be much harder.
One immediate change in particular will affect a handful of soldiers.
The Army Training Support Center, which manages the courses, was scheduled on Sept. 25 to send the first-ever "incident reports" to the commanders of 20 soldiers, identified as suspected cheaters, for investigation and possible prosecution under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The soldiers were identified by a test security manager hired in August. Over a three-week period, she used forensic computer technology to scan public Web sites and compare compromised test materials and soldiers enrolled in a particular course.
The incident reports are intended to put the onus on a commander to enforce Army ethics, the crux of the issue behind the cheating scandal. The reports will identify soldiers by name, with any associated screen names, and list indicators that the soldier frequented cheating chat threads or Web sites.
It is not clear what resources commanders will be given to investigate the alleged cheating, and the request from Training and Doctrine Command to help resolve the "incident" is not mandatory because individual unit commanders are not in the TRADOC chain of command, TRADOC spokesman Harvey Perritt explained.
There is palpable anxiety at TRADOC about nailing these soldiers because of the potential that someone could be unjustly accused based on an appearance of misbehavior. And cheating has historically been hard to prove.
"There's a name directly attached to the release of test material. That's where we're a little hesitant," said Thomas Daley, chief of the Army Institute for Professional Development at Fort Eustis, Va., a part of the Army Training Support Center. "We'd like to send them out as a batch because I think if we can address this as a group of individuals we think we'll be more successful in impressing upon the field the issue, and the problem as we see it, is a lack of Army values as we're addressing it."
The Army's incident report informs commanders of the potential that a soldier in their command has had "an association" with "an incident of compromised Army test materials" and requests that commanders reply, saying that it "would be extremely helpful" in eliminating the compromise of the materials. Included with the incident report is a letter to remind soldiers of the ethics program.
In addition, the Army is also revamping its promotion system for sergeant and staff sergeant candidates, including a redistribution of points in the six achievement categories on the promotion point worksheet.
The changes will place greater emphasis on soldiering skills and experience, such as combat tours, marksmanship ability and physical fitness scores. For example, the section on points for military training, which is currently worth up to 100 points, will increase to 300 points.
Other changes to the Army Correspondence Course Program designed to minimize opportunities for cheating have taken place over the past year, and most of them will be evident starting in March.
• Web patrols by a team of contractors have identified six test-sharing Web sites that are now banned from .mil domains. More are expected to be banned as the patrols continue. The test security manager is a permanent civil service position.
• The 1,186 sub courses in the program have been reduced by 744. Many courses have been eliminated as obsolete, and others have been retrofitted with information reflecting the current operational environment with the input and validation of 22 Army proponencies, a process TRADOC says has taken an enormous amount of time and effort, contributing to the six-month projection for implementation.
• All courses and tests will be behind Common Access Card servers by migrating the material from the publicly accessible Reimer Digital Library into the Army Learning Management System, which is designated "for official use only." The material will be off-limits and illegal for unauthorized users to post. All exams now being shared will be obsolete and will not apply to any of the migrated ACCP areas within six months, although they will remain publicly available.
• Test item banks are being established, creating a pool of more than 30,000 answers that will pop up randomly during tests. Contractors were hired to write three questions for each objective in the tests. So the size of the item bank has increased by three, which means it will be more difficult to have the same question come up over and over again even if the individual sees the test more than once.
• Soldiers will get credit for taking all the sub courses in one course category and in the future only for those that align with their specific MOS, once the migration is complete.
• The Army has established an e-mail address where soldiers can express concerns or ask questions about the tests — and presumably turn in fellow soldiers. The address of the Army test security office: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michelle predicted that the tougher measures planned by the Army would result in fewer promotions "for a while" because people won't bother taking the courses.
As for the incident reports, she quipped, "Where will that get them? Most people cheat, so, if they're looking for people going through classes quickly, that's everyone." She pointed to the officer in her own chain of command who encouraged her to cheat. "Are [the commanders] going to get in trouble, too? It's an Army-wide thing."
The Army correspondence courses have been around since the 1970s, and some of the exams have been around since then.
But Daley said he believes only a small fraction of soldiers are cheating.
"Many NCOs find the cheating abhorrent and are really opposed to what's going on," Daley said, citing chat threads on Army Knowledge Online.
The Army hopes the changes coming in the next six months will, at the very least, minimize cheating.
"They won't be able to cheat as easily as in the past so you would expect the numbers to go down. We've made it harder, and we're going to continue to make it hard," Perritt said.
For Michelle, who said she plans to make a career in the Army, stopped cheating because she knew it was wrong.
"If they made the courses shorter and gave more credit for each class," she said, "then more people would want to take it and they wouldn't cheat."