Thursday, March 22, 2012

In Loco Parentis or Bureaucratic Cowardice

"I was hard on you when you was growin' up.  I did things
that made you hate me.  Now you can see why."
Much digital ink has been spilled of late over the Secretary of the Navy's announcement that he would soon be requiring breathalyzers for Sailors and Marines reporting for duty.  There is no disputing that alcohol has caused its fair share of problems in the naval services and that cracking down would likely save some of our young servicemembers from themselves.  What is more, unlike when an 18-year old leaves his or her parents' house to go work at a garage somewhere and room with buddies, when parents send their kids off to the military, they expect a degree of in loco parentis.  They expect us to "make a man" (or woman) out of their son or daughter.  They do not expect us to socialize their children to become alcoholics, or even binge drinkers, although one wonders why they wouldn't expect this with the reputation we have.

In any case, we have an obligation to maintain our units at the highest readiness and to develop the skills and character of our young Marines and Sailors.  Like it or not, our services have adopted a culture and a reality of providing some degree of in loco parentis supervision to our juniors.  With that comes some "intrusive leadership."  The commentators above, however, cite the blow to the concept of "special trust and confidence" and to the likely effects on morale as servicemembers are increasingly treated as suspects.  This is all true, in my book.  But it is not so simple as it seems at first glance.  This is not a blow to trust and morale solely because it is an imposition.  It is seen that way because it is just one more policy doomed to fail because it is based on institutional moral cowardice, risk averse thinking, and is part of a policy portfolio that is reflective of a lack of priorities.  I'll delve into each of these, but the best summation came from an infantry officer friend of mine: "I get weighed once a month so I don't get fat.  I pee in a bottle once a month so I don't take drugs.  Now I'm going to to have to take a breathalyzer on a regular basis so I don't come to work drunk.  Yet, no one is checking to make sure that I'm competent at my job and am not going to get anyone killed."  There is a lot to discuss in this statement, but don't start sniping it yet.  We are going to take a somewhat circuitous route to get back to the breathalyzer issue, but it all ties together.

All of these things are important in the military - physical fitness, sobriety, and competence.  I know some people will say that we do have ways of evaluating competence, which is true at face value, but due to moral cowardice, both individual and institutional, probably the last way to get fired in the military is incompetence.  In some fields, such as aviation, we have relatively clear standards and a regimented and documented process of regular evaluations on somewhat measurable skills.  Even this fails to weed out the incompetent and the dangerous.  (See this video for an example.)  Ask any military aviator and he will have multiple stories of commands that failed to weed out dangerous aviators.  These aviators are often relatively senior officers (field grade) and the instructors checking them are often second-tour captains.  It takes a massive amount of moral courage for these youngsters to call out an incompetent pilot (or worse incompetent instructor they are checking), especially if the pilot is just "bad" but not unquestionably over the line.  But when someone that others look to as an instructor and a go-to guy because he has thousands of hours and is department head in the squadron is just "bad," that can end up tragically.  Less tragically, but nonetheless damaging, these aviators taint others by their poor example and instruction.  Hopefully, there's someone in the chain, either the CO (who is often too busy running the squadron to be flying with all of his senior pilots and tends to want to fly with junior guys) or more likely the Operations Officer, who has the cojones to go to his schedulers and say, "Make sure Maj Binatz never flies as an instructor again."  There won't be any questions.  The captains all know why.

When you move away from aviation and to less defined and measurable skills, the test of competence becomes even harder.  It is extremely difficult to demonstrate that someone has failed as a staff officer when there is no check ride and the billet is so nebulous that only criminal negligence provides enough data to truly hang someone one.  And this is where we really get into the realm of institutional moral cowardice and the awful power of risk averse thinking.  First, many bosses, due to their own average competence, are not quick to pick up on their incompetent subordinates.  Once they figure it out, it is extremely difficult to torpedo someone, plus we have a culture of feeling bad about really putting the dagger in those who deserve it.  Even those majors who are clearly marginally competent at best and have already been passed over for promotion once are consistently given special silver bullet billets and fitreps because their seniors want to "give them a chance" and because the 20 year retirement/welfare system is seen as a right and, while we don't necessarily want to see Major Moron as a commanding officer, we sure want him to get that extra retirement pay.  It is disgusting, but it is also prevalent.  I state it this way to try to rub people's nose in what they are really doing, perhaps subconsciously.  Additionally, this is risk averse behavior because it is easier and less risky to give someone a pass on poor performance than it is to charge into the inanities of the performance evaluation and perhaps legal system to try to give someone what you really owe them.

I cited institutional moral cowardice for several reasons.  One is that the prevalent reluctance to truly take people to task on competence is an issue of institutional culture.  Our focus on superficialities plays into this.  For example, I was in a course at Quantico last year which included officers up to O-6, including representatives from the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Department of State.  One of the briefers who showed up was absolutely atrocious.  He was a lieutenant colonel and stood in front of the audience like a mouse, reading the slides verbatim in the voice of a mouse, and clearly knew absolutely nothing about the topic he showed up to brief.  This is unacceptable at that level of rank and pay and benefits.  No one said a word.  If he'd shown up unshaven with his uniform unbuttoned, surely someone from the school would have said, "Let's take a 5 minute break," then whisked him off never to be seen again.  We aren't afraid to step up a correct superficial issues, but when it comes to issues of real substance, all of that moral courage goes out the window and we all wince and shuffle our feet and let it go.  Cowardice!!  This is even reflected in our performance evaluation software which flags my statement "an average captain" as an adverse keyword.  Average is by definition not adverse.  It is what the middle, most common performer is closest to.  But the institution is so risk averse with regard to litigation and administrative action that our red-lines are set such that everyone must be either above average in the word picture, or an unsatisfactory performer.  No wonder we keep promoting complete morons to our upper ranks.  I think one of the best things we could do is add a weaknesses block and require at least one substantive statement.  You could read a lot into those statements.  Enough to lop the heads off the parasitic weeds that deserve it.

So why did I take you off on another tangent rant?  For two reasons.  One, you can bet that the 99% of your Sailors and Marines who are stone cold sober and blowing into a tube some morning prior to getting on a scale then taking a whiz quiz while a fat E-7/8/9 stands on one side and an incompetent CO, XO, or Opso stands on the other are thinking that the institution has its priorities all wrong. (After a comment called this sentence out, I must clarify here that I don't mean that all SNCOs are fat or all officers incompetent, but that when we hold our troops to a standard and let our senior leadership slide on competence, fitness, etc, we undermine their confidence in a just system, heightening their outrage at an intrusion). By the way, the 1 percenters will mostly figure out a way to circumvent the system.  Two, the institutional moral cowardice I outlined in the previous paragraphs shines through in our drug and soon-to-be alcohol testing policies, tragically denying commanders the tools they need to exercise good in loco parentis and save our troubled kids from themselves.  The cowardice I refer to here is the one-size-fits-all solution.  God forbid we exercised some actual parenting skills and treated Johnny like the straight A student that he is and focused more of our attention on Jimmy, who is failing and who we've caught drinking out of the cabinet before.

By instituting these cowardly policies, we are absolving ourselves of the real duty to take risk as leaders and parents pro tem and to give our commanders the leeway and the tools to exercise real and intelligent "intrusive leadership" (a growing buzzword used to describe the breathalyzer tests).  If our leaders are really on the ball, they are going to know who is showing up hungover, or still buzzing.  They will know whose life is in a tailspin.  They will know who is overweight.  Every once in a while, someone surprises us by getting drunk and doing something stupid that is completely out of character, but the people who are a real danger to themselves and others are known.  Due to our risk averse legal system and strict policies regarding drug and alcohol testing, however, we are afraid to call them out, test them, counsel them, and give them the tough love they deserve.  The system makes cowards of us all.

A few years ago now, I commanded a KC-130 detachment in Afghanistan.  One of my enlisted Marines was acting strangely.  He would have sunglasses on inside a tent, acted strangely boisterous at times, and sometimes seemed a little bit loopy.  The boisterousness was a single data point I wrote off, as were the sunglasses which I told him to take off.  Then one night I was talking to another officer in our billeting area (the entire det lived together in relocatable buildings, RLBs), when this Marine walked by us to the head, listing several degrees to port.  It was the middle of the night as I'd just come in from a night flight, but I still said to the other officer, "What the f#$%?"  When the Marine came out of the head, he was walking more normally, but still groggy.  Again, I chalked it up to him being a heavy sleeper, but my suspicions were raised.  Within a day or two, he came in late to work and the dots aligned somewhat.  I got several officers together, including my legal officer.  I stated that I thought he was on something and asked the legal officer if I could test him.  The answer I got was that the thin evidence we had was not enough for "probable cause" and that we did not have the means at our location anyway.  Instead, the Marine's direct officer-in-charge and a SNCO counseled him, told him of my suspicions, tried to put the "fear of God" in him, and got some slick excuses for his behavior and a promise that it wouldn't happen again.  The Marine was on his best behavior for about two weeks.

Somewhere around midnight, on one of the few nights I got to sleep that early, I was awoken by loud, urgent hammering on my door.  Knowing something was wrong, I jumped out of bed and opened the door to see one of my senior SNCOs standing there.  "Sir, we think Binatz overdosed.  His roommate found him on the floor and out of it.  We're taking him to the Role 3."  I shook my head.  I was not surprised.  I went outside and met the Marines as they were carrying him down the stairs, barely conscious.  His eyes were rolling around in his head as I grabbed his face and loudly asked, "What did you take?" in the vain hope of being able to tell the doctors since I figured he would be unconscious by the time we got him there.  My words didn't get through the fog.  Several SNCOs and our corpsman took him to the hospital in a van and I drove, alone, behind them.  The whole time, I was thinking, How the hell does someone get enough drugs to overdose in Afghanistan?  Well dummy, you thought he was high, didn't you?  He's going to die because you didn't have the balls to go with your gut and do something.

To make a long story short, Marines tossed his room at my direction to find what he had been taking and bring it to the hospital so they could treat him.  They found a small pharmacy.  He'd been buying cold medicine in bulk at the PX on base and someone was sending him heavier stuff from home.  Once I knew that he would be OK, the anger kicked in and I envisioned the Sopranos scene where Tony finally helped Chris get over his addiction.  But I was really mad at myself.  The Marine ended up being fine, and being sent home.  The funny thing is that the overdose was probable cause for a piss test and while the hospital labs showed what he was taking, the drug test did not.  We can't test for everything and like I said above, the 1 percent are slippery.

My point here is that breathalyzers and drug tests are not going to save Marines like this, nor are they going to save other Marines I know that have been killed due to alcohol.  Only targeted, caring, and truly vice superficially invasive leadership will do that.  Only officers and SNCOs that are competent and empowered will exercise this leadership to the proper extent.  One-size-fits-all testing and overly restrictive legal guidelines hamstring us from doing the real work of parenting.  We won't get them all, but we will get most of them if you let us.

Actionable suggestions - I know some of you are looking for that "Irish pennant" to comment on and discredit everything I say.  In aviation, when there is a mishap we do a safety investigation.  This investigation can never be used for legal action.  The sole purpose is to find out what went wrong in a non-punitive forum so that we may learn and save lives.  We interview aircrew, supervisors, friends, etc., explaining to each the concept of "privileged information," meaning that their words can never be used punitively.  I suggest that we move to a similar concept when it comes to targeted drug and alcohol interventions.  We can't use this tool to try to "save" every 22-year old who gets drunk hurts himself in a minor way, like almost all of us have done.  But since we are so risk averse as a service, we label these kids learning how to drink in a club that doesn't know how to drink as alcohol abusers, then go to the bar and drink 12 beers and talk about it, while we're afraid to intervene with a SNCO who we suspect might be tipping at work but we don't have "probable cause" to test him.  So, in order to rebalance these two extremes, we should consider taking punitive action off the table when we suspect someone needs help, conducting "privileged" testing and interviews, and sending these Marines to treatment if warranted.  Would we rather get a Marine the help he needs or have the airtight evidence to get a court martial if he refuses NJP?

This targeted model should be used across the board.  Does everyone really need to go to the same safety briefs time in and time out?  Do we all need to fill out holiday accident reduction forms, from the 18-year old valedictorian, to the 22-year old Lance Corporal second award, to the 35-year old major on his second divorce and a nasty drinking habit, to the 44-year old lieutenant colonel tee-totaler?  The more we institutionalize safety as a paperwork and reporting process, the less we act like parents and the more we act like cowardly bureaucrats.  Let's reconsider our policies to empower our leaders to exercise a more targeted and caring in loco parentis.

Finally, we need to have a concerted effort to recreate a culture of excellence in the organization.  When I came into the Marine Corps, I thought that one had to be a superman to be a Marine officer and was not sure that I quite measured up.  I quickly found out that my perception was mistaken.  I still, however, saw this more as a calling than a job.  Marine officers, Marine leaders have Marines' lives in their hands. They must be held to a higher standard.  In my exit counseling by my platoon commander at the Basic School, I was told that he was afraid that my standards were too high and that my Marines would never live up to them.  What he didn't understand was that I had separate standards for my officer peers than what I expected out of the Marines we lead.  As we reset the force and look to draw down, it is high time that we refocus on substance over superficialities and empower our leaders with the tools to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Weak people make bad leaders and bad parents.  No matter how many times you blow in the tube, we are not going to save our force with one-size-fits-all solutions implemented by mediocre bureaucratic cowards.


  1. I could build a deck with all the nails hit on the head in this one...

    Best way to do breathalyzers is to buy one or two for each unit and let the medical guys keep them. When a guy shows up drunk (or drunk'ish), the guy's NCO/SNCO could take him to BAS and get tested on the spot. This would keep it at the small unit leadership level and also alleviate having to go to the local on-base hospital to pull a blood sample to check for booze content (what a waste of time that used to be).

    Keep on chipping away at special trust and confidence and the services will be left with only the types of officers who can do nothing but read verbatim from PowerPoint slides and make sure their units get 100% participation in their unit urinanalysis program.

  2. Spot on, I have thought many of the same things myself just never could word them as appropriately as you.

  3. Interestingly, a MARADMIN about drug testing came out yesterday just after this was posted. They're now testing for more commonly abused prescription drugs, which is a good thing, but again testing will not save us if leaders are oblivious to the signs or hamstrung in responding to them.

  4. Well said, once again. It does boil down to concerned leadership-top down and bottom up.

  5. "Weak people make bad leaders and bad parents. No matter how many times you blow in the tube, we are not going to save our force with one-size-fits-all solutions implemented by mediocre bureaucratic cowards."

    What a great post. Everything here needed to be said, and said often enough that it can begin to rebuild the "culture of excellence" that you mentioned. Upon enlisting in the mid 90s and most every day since, I have feared that I am not worthy of the title "U.S. Marine." I wish others held this belief as well, as I believe that it would raise the bar across the board. I am continually frustrated and embarrassed by both SNCOs and Officers who not only fail to live up to the standards, but are also too cowardly to enforce the standards. I truly thought that the Marine Corps was the 1%, but as the years wear on I realize that unfortunately we are just like everyone else.

    One-size-fits-all solutions and sub-par leaders are driving our best and brightest out. We have to take control and fix this situation, though I'll admit it's a daunting task. While I don't know what the answer is, I know that it's not safety stand downs and endless MARADMINs.

    BTW, your infantry officer friend was right on as well. When are we going to REALLY start testing competence and not just pushing guys through so we don't "ruin their careers." Give me a break.