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Officials troubled over behavior of U.S. troops

May. 3, 2012 - 05:38PM   |   Last Updated: May. 3, 2012 - 05:38PM  |  
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to address discipline in the ranks during his remarks Friday at Fort Benning, Ga.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to address discipline in the ranks during his remarks Friday at Fort Benning, Ga. (Haraz N. Ghanbari / The Associated Press)
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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is growing increasingly concerned about the spate of embarrassing misconduct by U.S. troops that has tarnished the military's public image and jeopardized the success of missions abroad.

"These days it takes only seconds, seconds for a picture, a photo to suddenly become an international headline," Panetta told troops at Fort Benning, Ga., on May 4.

"And those headlines can impact the mission that we are engaged in. They can put your fellow service members at risk. They can hurt morale. They can damage our standing in the world, and they can cost lives."

Other top military officials have delivered the same message recently in what appears to be a broad campaign to shore up discipline in the ranks amid fears that a decade of war has eroded standards of conduct.

"These incidents concern me. And they have to concern you, and they do concern our service chiefs, because a few who lack judgment, lack professionalism, lack leadership can hurt all of us, and can hurt all of those men and women who serve this county with distinction," Panetta said. "They concern us because our enemy will seek to turn these incidents to their favor at the very moment that they are losing the war.

"That is why I'm here today, to tell you that I need you," he told several hundred soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division. "I need your leadership. I need your courage and I need your strength to make sure that we always abide by the highest standards."

Senior Army and Marine Corps commanders are also reinforcing the message in recent talks to midlevel commanders around the country. They say they recognize that part of the problem may be leadership stumbles by the young officers who have shouldered much of the burden of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Maybe we've gotten overconfident and maybe we've gotten a little bit comfortable in our young leaders," Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. "Realizing that they are young, they don't have a lot of experiences. We have to continue to assist them so they understand what is expected of them."

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos was blunter.

"We are allowing our standards to erode," he wrote in a recent letter to his commanders. "A number of recent widely publicized incidents have brought discredit on the Marine Corps and reverberated at the strategic level. The undisciplined conduct represented in these incidents threatens to overshadow all our good work and sacrifice," he wrote. "I expect each of you to hold yourselves and your Marines to the highest standards ... nothing else is acceptable."

The top-level attention to the issue underscores the wave of public-relations crises the U.S. has suffered this year, including videos of Marines urinating on dead bodies, photos of soldiers posing with severed body parts, and reports of troops burning Korans.

"I just think we have to be that much more conscious in making everyone understand how important it is to abide by the rules and standards that we set out there and to just be aware of the importance of good behaviors and good conduct," Panetta said in an interview Monday with Military Times.

The incidents are magnified by the advent of digital photography and social media, he added. "We are living in an era where people are taking pictures of everything, and this stuff immediately goes out on the Internet and … can become a headline very fast," Panetta said.

It's rare for a defense secretary to weigh in on disciplinary matters typically handled by noncommissioned officers. But the past few months have proved that lower-level misconduct can become a strategic problem if it drains public support for the U.S. mission or fuels attacks on American troops.

"When you look at the setbacks we've had this year [in Afghanistan], all of them are moral rather than operational in nature," said one senior defense official.

Bad press for all services

Embarrassing incidents that affect missions and morale have emerged recently in all four services:

Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos has called for a force-wide "ethics standdown" after a video surfaced online in January showing a Marine sniper team urinating on a dead body while making comments such as, "Have a great day, buddy." In February, Marine Corps officials denounced a photograph of a Marine sniper team posing with a Nazi-era flag with an "SS" insignia.

Questions about discipline in the Army arose after reports that Sgt. Robert Bales may have been drunk when he allegedly killed 17 Afghan civilians in Kandahar province on March 11. Also, the Associated Press recently reported that 56 soldiers in Afghanistan were investigated for suspicion of using or distributing heroin, morphine or other opiates during 2010 and 2011. And several high-profile hazing incidents this year prompted Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno to post a message on his Facebook page: "I want everyone to clearly understand that hazing is not compatible with Army values."

The Navy has seen an increase in commanders fired for misconduct. For example, a report released in April showed Navy Capt. David Geisler">was relieved of command near Manama, Bahrain, last year for, in part, swimming naked with junior officers in a publicly visible canal. He and other skinny-dipping sailors were in plain view of passers-by in the conservative Muslim city. Geisler was in charge of a logistics task force for the U.S. Central Command region.

The Air Force inspector general recently investigated a photograph showing an airman on a mortuary pallet with a noose around his neck, pretending to be dead. The IG">found no criminal conduct, but many troops were outraged because it came at a time when the Dover mortuary affairs unit was facing criticism for misconduct in handling the remains of fallen troops.

‘They have to be vigilant'

Despite the spate of incidents, Panetta said he does not believe the force has a systemic problem.

"The vast majority of the men and women in uniform are people of high character who really are trying to abide by the highest standards, trying to do the job they are told to do. I feel very good about the quality of the men and women who serve this country," Panetta said. "What we have to do is just continue to make them and others aware that they have to be vigilant about those few who will do stupid things, who make misjudgments and [show] bad judgment.

"What I think all of us are trying to stress … [including the service chiefs]: We just have to keep conveying the message to the rank and file that they have got to stress character, they've got to stress discipline, they've got to stress the kind of integrity that has made us the best fighting force on earth."

Odierno, who has addressed the topic during meetings with his two- and three-star commanders, as well as in talks with younger officers he sees during base visits, acknowledged the increased responsibility being placed on "young leaders, lieutenants and sergeants."

"We just have to remind everybody that we have to put the checks and balances in place, and we have to remind everybody about the importance of culture and the profession," he said.

He said that overall the force has behaved admirably over the past 11 years of war, and troops understand the importance of standards and discipline.

"I think it's important for them to hear from me and other senior leaders that it's very important to us as well," said Odierno. "And that we have to do this together."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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