The Army has relieved 129 battalion and brigade commanders since 2003 and implemented several initiatives in its ongoing effort to hold leaders and commanders accountable for their actions, senior leaders told Army Times.
"I think the narrative comes out of many soldiers who rightfully or wrongfully believe that the Army doesn't hold senior leaders, senior military officers accountable in the same fashion they hold junior officers or enlisted," Army Secretary John McHugh said. "I view it as a multilevel challenge, and we're trying to respond in a number of different ways."
Since 2003, the Army has relieved 98 battalion commanders and four lieutenant colonel staff officers, according to information provided by the Army. Twenty-four of those reliefs were conducted in combat.
In that same time period, 31 brigade commanders and four colonel staff officers were relieved; one of those was conducted in combat.
In addition, according to Army data:
• The Army has administered non-judicial punishment (Article 15s) to 1,472 officers since 2008.
• It has court-martialed 41 lieutenant colonels or higher, including two general officers, in the last six years.
• Seven general officers have been relieved from their positions since 2008.
• Since 2010, 29 general officers were referred to Army Grade Determination Review Boards.
• Since 2001, the Army vice chief of staff has issued 100 memoranda of reprimand, 147 memoranda of concern and conducted 45 verbal counselings of general officers.
"You've got to convince soldiers by your actions," McHugh said during a wide-ranging interview with Army Times. "While I understand that the narrative is that we don't act against leaders who may have strayed from our standards, I think the record's a little bit different."
The Army is "absolutely committed to leaders of character at every echelon," and the "vast majority" of Army leaders are doing a good job, said Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel Allyn.
"The rate of misconduct is actually a little bit lower than the historical average, but that doesn't make you feel any better," Allyn said. "Every case is a disappointment, it's frustrating, but it is the exception. The vast majority of our leaders are absolutely living up to our values, providing the inspiring leadership that's required to lead our formations through this period of very high optempo and critical missions in support of the nation."
In addition to rooting out toxic leaders, the Army also is focused on picking the best leaders, McHugh said.
"You've got to convince soldiers that you're picking the best leaders," he said.
The Army has taken steps to improve its leader development program, and it has initiated new evaluation systems for officers and commanders, including 360-degree assessments that include input from not only superiors but peers and subordinates as well, he said.
"Those kinds of things don't happen overnight, and soldiers don't respond to them overnight," McHugh said. "But I think it's absolutely essential. We're doing everything we can to rid our ranks of so-called toxic leaders, moving those out, and acting on credible cases where they exist."
When a leader is found to be deficient or if there is cause for relief or punishment, the Army has several tools and options to properly adjudicate those cases, McHugh said.
"[There have been] several recent high profile cases where I've pretty dramatically downgraded the conditions of retirement, the rate of retirement, for general officers," he said. "We just need to continue to do that."
In June, former Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair was stripped of two grades and forced to retire as a lieutenant colonel after he pleaded guilty to having a three-year affair with a female subordinate. Sinclair, who originally had been charged with sexual assault and whose court-martial drew national media attention, had already received a judge's reprimand and a $20,000 fine.
Brig. Gen. Bryan Roberts was relieved of his command at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in July 2013 after it was discovered that he had allegedly gotten into a physical altercation with his mistress from an extramarital affair.
Roberts was given an Article 15 for assault, adultery and conduct unbecoming an officer. He also received a written reprimand and was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.
McHugh later reduced his rank to colonel.
In another recent case, Maj. Gen. Michael Harrison, former commander of U.S. Army Japan, was demoted to brigadier general after he was punished for failing to properly address a sexual assault claim in his command.
Each incident is handled on a case-by-case basis, Allyn said.
"The accountability is there, the actions available to senior leadership to make those decisions are commensurate with both the level of responsibility and potential actions for which they're being held accountable," Allyn said.
Allyn said he's "confident that there is not a double standard."
"We have a standard by which every allegation brought against an officer is investigated," McHugh said. "But we do have to be reasonable and make appropriate judgments based on the evidence that's placed before us, and that's a human endeavor and there's no formula by which you can perfectly construct it."
The Army must strike a balance between holding leaders accountable and being careful that it is not creating a "zero tolerance Army," McHugh said.
"Leading soldiers is a science, but it's also art, and even a good leader can make a mistake," he said. "The best way to go about that is just use common sense in how we judge leaders who may have strayed."
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.