WASHINGTON – The number of U.S. soldiers forced out of the Army because of crimes or misconduct has soared in the past several years as the military emerges from a decade of war that put a greater focus on battle competence than on character.
Data obtained by The Associated Press shows that the number of officers who left the Army due to misconduct more than tripled in the past three years. The number of enlisted soldiers forced out for drugs, alcohol, crimes and other misconduct shot up from about 5,600 in 2007, as the Iraq war peaked, to more than 11,000 last year.
The data reveals stark differences between the military services and underscores the strains that long, repeated deployments to the front lines have had on the Army's soldiers and their leaders.
It also reflects the Army's rapid growth in the middle part of the decade, and the decisions to relax standards a bit to bring in and retain tens of thousands of soldiers to fill the ranks as the Pentagon added troops in Iraq and continued the fight in Afghanistan.
The Army grew to a peak of about 570,000 soldiers during the height of the wars, and soldiers represented the bulk of the troops on the battlefields compared with the other services.
"I wouldn't say lack of character was tolerated in [war] theater, but the fact of the last 10 or 12 years of repeated deployments, of the high op-tempo – we might have lost focus on this issue," Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's top officer, told the AP last week. "Sometimes in the past we've overlooked character issues because of competence and commitment."
His comments mirror concerns aired by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, several times in recent months. The ethical lapses, Dempsey said, can be attributed in some ways to 10 years at war when the military failed to properly balance character and competence.
"It is not the war that has caused this," Dempsey said. "It is the pace, and our failure to understand that at that pace, we were neglecting the tools that manage us as a profession over time."
Over the past year, a series of high profile scandals – from sexual assault and damaging leadership to mistreatment of the enemy and unauthorized spending – has dogged the military, leading to broad ethicsreviews and new personnel policies.
Those scandals included the demotion of Army Gen. William "Kip" Ward for lavish, unauthorized spending; sexual misconduct charges against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair; and episodes of gambling and drinking by other general officers.
More recently, there have been cheating allegations against Air Force nuclear missile launch officers and a massive bribery case in California that has implicated six Navy officers. Examples of troop misconduct include Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters and soldiers posing with body parts of Afghan militants.
As a result, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other leaders say ethics is a priority about which they now routinely lecture troops and officers. They also have undertaken initiatives aimed at identifying and dealing with problem service members.
"We're paying a lot more attention to it now. We are not tolerant at all of those showing a lack of character," Odierno said. "We have to refocus ourselves so we get to where we think is the right place."
In 2010, 119 Army officers were forced to leave the service because of misconduct; that number was fairly consistent with the annual totals since 2000. Last year the number was 387.
For enlisted soldiers, the numbers have seesawed over the past 13 years, hovering near 9,000 at the start of the decade and falling to 5,706 in 2007. Since then, the number has climbed again.
When the country needs a lot of troops on the front lines, more people with behavioral problems are allowed to come in and stay. When the military begins to shrink, commanders can be much more selective about who is kicked out and who is allowed to stay.
As the Army began to reduce its ranks in recent years toward a goal of 490,000 in 2015, leaders have been more willing and able to get rid of problem soldiers. That is likely to escalate because the latest plan would reduce the Army to 420,000 later in the decade if deep, automatic budget cuts continue.
The Navy went through a similar process.
When the decision was made to cut the size of the 370,000-strong naval force in 2004, the number of sailors who left due to misconduct and other behavior issues grew. In 2006, more than 8,400 sailors left due to conduct issues.
As the size of the Navy began to stabilize – it's now at about 323,000 – the number of problem sailors leaving also began to decline steadily, dropping each successive year to a new low of about 3,700 in 2013.
In nearly one-third of the cases each year over that time period, the problems involved drug and alcohol use. More than 1,400 cases each year involved a "serious offense" or civil or criminal court case.
The Navy has become known as the most transparent service, often quicker to publicly fire commanders for misconduct or poor leadership. But the number of Navy officers forced out has remained relatively constant, ranging from 84 to 107 annually for the past eight years. The bulk of those were for what the service calls "unacceptable conduct" or unfitness for duty.
The Air Force, which is smaller than the Navy and Army, reported far fewer cases of airmen leaving for misconduct, both for officers and enlisted service members. The number of officers separated from service since 2000 due to a court-martial ranged from a low of 20 in 2001 to a high of 68 in 2007. For enlisted airmen, the number ranged from a high of nearly 4,500 in 2002 to a low of almost 2,900 in 2013.
Data for the Marine Corp, the military's smallest service, was not broken out by officers and enlisted personnel. Overall, it showed that Marines leaving the service due to misconduct was about 4,400 in 2007, but has declined to a bit more than 3,000 last year.
Those forced to leave for commission "of a serious offense" has nearly doubled from about 260 to more than 500 over the past seven years. The number of Marines who left after court-martial has dropped from more than 1,300 in 2007 to about 250 last year. The Marine Corps also grew in size during the peak war years, and is now reducing its ranks.
Across the services, leaders are trying to deal with complex questions about how to identify and correct the problems.
"I don't think there is one simple answer to the issue of ethics, values, a lapse in some of those areas," said Hagel during a recent briefing. "Was it a constant focus of 12 years on two long land wars, taking our emphasis off some of these other areas? I don't know."
He said he is appointing a top officer to work with the services on the problem, and he will be addressing the topic at regularly scheduled meetings with his military leaders.
The military services have been adding more lectures on ethics in their schools, and are also targeting top officers.
"We are talking to senior leaders about the consequences of power and how that changes somebody's personality," said Odierno. "Some don't realize it's happening to them."
Lower-ranking service members are being asked to evaluate their higher-ranking superiors as part of the annual performance reviews. That process is slowly being expanded.
"As we conduct operations around the world we represent the United States with our moral and ethicalvalues," said Odierno. "We believe we should be held to a higher standard."
Follow Lolita C. Baldor on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lbaldor