The Maryland Army National Guard Cleaned House Recently, But Inside Sources Say It Missed Plenty of Dirt
"I think the general sentiment is, 'Holy shit--someone actually did something,'" Sgt. Cortez says over the phone. Cortez is speaking of fellow Maryland Army National Guard members' reaction following the Guard's administrative responses to recent findings of wrongdoing in its Recruiting and Retention Battalion, including fraudulent enlistment, fraternization, and misuse of government funds. Cortez is not his real name; he is speaking on a condition of anonymity, afraid he will lose his recruiting job with the Maryland Guard if his name is used in the press. "Fear of reprisal is overwhelming," he says.
In December and January, the Guard conducted two investigations involving some of the 100 personnel assigned to the Recruiting and Retention Battalion, based at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore as well as at several armories around the state. The first investigation was launched to look into allegations against recruiter Sgt. Richard Thomas, including reports of abusing a co-worker and falsifying recruitment paperwork, originally printed in a City Paper cover story ("Hard Sell," Feature, Dec. 6).
The second investigation was initiated to evaluate allegations posted by commenters, ostensibly members of the Guard, on the comments thread of the Thomas story on the CP web site. "What a sad time this is for all of us who wear the uniform, especially those of us who are part of the Maryland Army National Guard. However the sadder part is that this is only the 'tip of the iceberg' on what has been allowed to be swept under the rug," one reader posted using the online alias "pieinthesky." The commenter continued, "Why doesn't someone ask why they brought back a recruiter who was once removed for falsifying an entire enlistment packet. This is the punishment he got--relieve him from his [Active Guard/Reserve] recruiting position and then when everything 'has blown over' bring him back! Was he brought back because his spouse is also an officer in the same command?" According to a report detailing the investigation's findings, the recruiter in question was investigated for fraternization, one of 27 allegations against members of Recruiting and Retention that the Guard's Office of the Inspector General compiled from the CP web site.
In February, the Guard removed several individuals from their positions with Recruiting and Retention, including Maj. Travis Rambert, formerly the head of the battalion. The revelation of the investigations led to substantial coverage in The Sun and The Washington Post. "You wouldn't believe that City Paper would have so much influence," Cortez says. "A lot of faith was renewed in the system."
"On the whole, the National Guard is a great organization," Cortez says. "We've got great programs, we do great things." He mentions the opportunities the Guard provides for soldiers to get education benefits and points to the dedication of soldiers who volunteered their time helping out in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. However, Cortez says that problems he believes to be inherent to the Guard's leadership continue to plague it.
Cortez, along with two other Guard members, describe one such problem: the process of keeping discharged soldiers on the books to inflate the funding the Maryland Guard gets from the federal National Guard Bureau. "In the National Guard, there are a whole lot of what we call 'standard practices,'" Cortez says. "But they are not right by any means."
The issue of false reporting is not new, or limited to the Maryland Guard; in 2001, USA Today investigated the reporting of numbers by various Guard units across the country, including in Maryland, and found hundreds of so-called "ghost soldiers" on the books. The practice has not gone away, Guard members say, thanks to the constant pressure to obtain the personnel numbers needed to meet budget quotas. The same pressure, investigators say, causes other problems within the Recruiting and Retention Battalion.
"A key observation I made during this investigation," writes Lt. Col. Marco Harris, who was in charge of the investigation into allegations against Thomas, "is there is a culture in the Recruiting and Retention Battalion that discipline and bearing take a backseat to selling"--a culture that the two recent investigations examined.
Under the Maryland Public Information Act, City Paper obtained copies of both Guard investigations, with information redacted that would identify any individuals mentioned, including their names, Social Security numbers, and, in some cases, rank. Individuals named in this story were identified by corroborating details of the investigation documents with other sources. Because of privacy issues, the Guard's public affairs office would not confirm the identity of any of the individuals involved in the investigations.
On Dec. 14, 2006, Col. Annette Deener, the Maryland Army National Guard's chief of staff, assigned Harris to look into the allegations against Thomas. Harris commands the 115th Military Police Battalion in Salisbury and has been in the Maryland Guard for more than 15 years, starting as an enlisted military police officer and working his way up to his current rank. According to members of the Guard, Harris once worked for the Baltimore City Sheriff's Office. In his report, dated Jan. 16, Harris listed a number of allegations brought up in two CP stories as well as at least one allegation that commenters posted on the CP web site.
The initial Dec. 6 story discussed a woman referred to as Karen (not her real name), who alleged that Thomas recruited her in 2004, subsequently destroyed her paperwork so she would not have to be mobilized, got her pregnant, and re-recruited her in January 2005.
In his report, Harris found that Thomas initially recruited Karen in May 2004. In a sworn statement taken as part of the investigation, Thomas admitted to physical involvement with Karen while she was a potential recruit: "Question 22: Did you become sexually involved with [redacted] when she was a perspective recruit under your purview? Answer: Yes, we met in a club in [Prince George's] County. She said she was in the Arkansas National Guard and about to move to Maryland. I gave her a card. I had the first sexual encounter with her within the first week of meeting her . . . I put her in the [Maryland Army National Guard] in 2004."
The report includes enlistment paperwork for Karen for both a May 2004 enlistment as well as a January 2005 enlistment, both times for five-year terms. Despite the fact that Karen became pregnant with Thomas' child around December 2004, both she and Thomas denied in their statements to Harris that they were dating when Thomas recruited her. Harris writes that, "[Redacted] fathered a child with [redacted] on September 6, 2005. [Redacted] enlistment contract provided by the MDARNG Personnel Service Branch indicate the [redacted] enlisted [redacted] on 21 JAN 05. Calculations would suggest that [redacted] was in violation of AR 600-20, paragraph 4-15b." The cited regulation prohibits any relationship between a recruiter and recruit that is not required to conduct recruiting.
In her statement, taken over the telephone on Jan. 5 of this year (erroneously dated 2006 in the report), Karen told the investigator that she had not spoken with City Paper, though she sat down to detail her experiences with this reporter in August 2006. "Question 7: Did you talk to the City Paper about this? Answer: No."
While Karen had told City Paper that Thomas had intentionally misplaced her 2004 paperwork so she could avoid being mobilized with her unit, National Guard spokesman 1st Lt. Wayde Minami says that in the eyes of the Guard, Karen was recruited in May 2004 and, since she was already in the Guard, was not really a recruit in January 2005, so the prohibitions against the recruiter/recruit relationship would not apply. Personnel records included in Harris' report, however, identify Karen as an inactive member of the United States Army Reserve after her discharge from the Arkansas National Guard in 2003 until Jan, 21, 2005; her 2005 recruitment changed her official status to an Army National Guard unit member, while her 2004 recruitment did not. Why Thomas would recruit Karen in 2004 with a five-year contract and then again in 2005 with a five-year contract, Minami says he does not want to speculate.
Because a waiver for Karen's discharge from the Arkansas Guard had been signed in May 2004 (not 2005 as originally reported in the Dec. 6 CP story), Harris concluded that there was no evidence to substantiate the allegation that Thomas had enlisted Karen fraudulently. There is no indication in Harris' report, other than asking Thomas and others if Thomas had conducted a fraudulent enlistment, that Harris evaluated the claim on Karen's 2005 enlistment paperwork that she had no dependents when, in fact, she already had three children, whom Thomas had met.
According to court records from a paternity case against him, Thomas is required to pay Karen over $1,000 a month in child support and carry their child on his employment benefits. Karen returned a reporter's phone call for this story but did not leave a message and did not return subsequent phone calls. Thomas did not return a phone call for comment.
In response to allegations posted on the CP web site regarding Thomas driving a government car while intoxicated, Harris wrote, "There is no evidence or statements to substantiate that [redacted] ever abused alcohol on duty or operated a government vehicle under the influence of alcohol." However, in response to a series of questions concerning Thomas, a sergeant major from Recruiting and Retention indicated in his sworn statement that, "Yes, [I] had smelled alcohol on his breath on occasion early in the morning."
Two subsequent City Paper news stories ("Broken Whistle," Mobtown Beat, Dec. 27; "Erroneous Enlistment," Mobtown Beat, Jan. 31) reported the allegations of Melanie Willens, who claimed Thomas had forged her initials on her Maryland Guard enlistment packet. Harris found that Willens' enlistment documents had been initialed by someone other than herself, but that it was inconclusive who had initialed them. A member of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion told Harris that she had heard Thomas' superiors say he had initialed the documents, but had said, "So what?"
Harris reported that a fight between Thomas and Sgt. Alicia Kerber, reported on in the initial CP story, had been investigated in 2004 and that both had received reprimands at that time.
Despite his findings, Harris recommended Thomas be allowed to return to recruiting, with several administrative stipulations. Harris wrote: "I recommend that [redacted] be allowed to return to his duties as a recruiter under the following conditions: . . . That [redacted] undergo extensive retraining on the administrative duties that recruiters must perform. That he be given a written counseling statement for his continual administrative deficiencies. . . . "
Harris also recommended a letter of reprimand and a counseling statement for Thomas' superiors--such items in a soldier's personnel records would reflect poorly on his or her performance. Sources in the Guard say Thomas will be allowed to work until his retirement in September.
Lt. Col. Drew Sullins conducted the second investigation into allegations against members of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion, including fraudulent training trips, fraternization between officers and enlisted personnel, wrongful termination, and fraudulent enlistment. Sullins was previously enlisted in the Texas Guard and joined the Maryland Guard in 1994 as a first lieutenant. He had previously served as aide to the chief at the National Guard Bureau and with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. According to the Guard's public affairs office, Sullins now works as a strategic planner with the Joint Force Headquarters in Maryland.
In his report, Sullins states that the Guard's Inspector General's office reviewed the comments posted on the CP web site under the stories related to the Maryland National Guard and forwarded a list of allegations to Maryland Guard Chief of Staff Deener.
In a memorandum dated Jan. 28, Sullins wrote of his investigation, "I find there are systemic problems within the battalion and that the vast majority of these troubles are tied directly to the leadership."
Two training trips, presented as incentives to members of Recruiting and Retention, were investigated. In his report, dated Jan. 27, Sullins wrote that such rewards are common throughout the National Guard, however, "to make them legitimate, at least six hours of formal and planned training must be conducted for each day of the trip minus travel days."
All 14 members of recruiting group "Team West" of Western Maryland participated in a trip to Phoenix, Ariz., in April 2004. The trip was planned as a joint marketing seminar with the Arizona National Guard and involved attending the Subway 500 NASCAR race. While the Arizona Guard did conduct a welcome-home event for troops returning from Iraq at the race, members of the Arizona Guard told Sullins that the training required to legitimize the trip for the Maryland Guard personnel had not occurred. Sullins calculated that the Recruiting and Retention members had billed the Guard $20,879.77 for the trip.
Eleven members of the Maryland Guard's D.C. Metro Area Recruiting and Retention team traveled to Las Vegas in April 2004, supposedly for "SRP" training--the acronym was judged by Sullins to be a typo on the Guard members' travel orders referring to Recruit Sustainment Program (RSP) training. Though Maryland Guard members were reported to have visited with the Nevada Guard's recruiting station in Las Vegas, Sullins again concluded that the minor amount of training conducted did not legitimize the trip. He calculated the billed expenses for the Las Vegas trip to be $18,506.08.
Sullins recommended that the superior officers be held responsible for these trips and be made to pay back the amount they had claimed on their expenses but that individual recruiters not be punished, since they believed the trips were legitimate rewards for reaching recruiting goals.
Sullins' report mentions another training trip to Western Maryland's Deep Creek Lake in 2005, but he did not investigate it in detail. According to sources in the Guard, other training trips such as these have taken place in the past, including a trip to Florida in September 2006.
Two cases of fraternization were investigated, one involving a 1st lieutenant and an enlisted sergeant 1st class. The 1st lieutenant testified that she had disclosed the relationship with the enlisted man to her command prior to the couple marrying in March 2005, while she and her now-husband were serving in the same chain of command. At that time, the command did not see any problem with the relationship, but according to Sullins, the marriage violates Army regulation AR 600-20, 4-14, which states relationships between soldiers of different rank are prohibited if they "compromise or appear to compromise the chain of command." According to a member of the Guard, despite Sullins' conclusions, the husband and wife were cleared of all allegations of wrongdoing.
Sullins found fraternization was occurring in a second case involving a female officer and an enlisted man. Sullins identified four cases of leave taken by the two individuals at the same time (one of those breaks was near Christmas), and a number of Guard personnel wrote in their sworn statements that they had seen these individuals behaving as a couple. Sullins recommended reduction in rank and possible court martial for the second couple accused of fraternization.
Sullins also investigated several cases of alleged fraudulent enlistment. One involved recruiter Spc. Brian Ward allegedly changing into civilian clothes and taking an entrance test for an applicant. Another involved Joey Tucker, the nephew of Maryland Guard recruiter Sgt Jeffrey Tucker.
Jeffrey Tucker is alleged to have ordered the fraudulent activities, based on the testimony of Ward, and Guard Spc. Sue-Ellen Thomas (no relation to Sgt. Richard Thomas). According to Joey Tucker's sworn statement, Spc. Thomas drove him to take an entrance test at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Laurel in November 2006. According to Sullins' report, 15 minutes after Spc. Thomas was fired for lying to Maj. Rambert on a separate matter in December 2006, she reported that Jeffrey Tucker had Joey Tucker take an entrance test for another applicant. (Spc. Thomas denied in her statement that she had driven Joey Tucker to MEPS that day, contending that she was there with another applicant.) Sullins identified the recruiter who signed Joey in at MEPS, but the name was redacted in the report. Based on Sullins' report, the individual Joey Tucker allegedly took the test for was inducted into the Guard on Dec. 12, 2006.
Concerning Spc. Thomas, Sullins wrote in his report, "for her participation in fraudulent enlistment and then rightfully stepping forward to report it, [redacted] should not be punished or commended." Sullins recommended granting Ward immunity in exchange for his testimony and recommended that Jeffrey Tucker be court-martialed or terminated from the Active Guard Reserves and the National Guard, in part for allegedly "orchestrating" the fraudulent recruitment of his nephew.
Jeffrey Tucker remains adamant. "At no time did I ever send anybody down to MEPS to take a test for another fucking person," he says in an interview. "If the person doesn't deserve to wear this uniform that we are in, then they don't deserve to wear this uniform."
According to Jeffrey Tucker and Sue-Ellen Thomas, they both have lost their jobs because of their alleged involvement in the fraudulent recruiting. Tucker says his orders were to expire on March 9, effectively releasing him from the Active Guard Reserves. Spc. Thomas says in a phone interview that she was told she did not report knowledge of wrongdoing in a timely fashion and her orders ended on March 15.
On Feb. 23, the Maryland Army National Guard released a general statement indicating that a number of administrative actions were taken against unnamed members of the Guard for their part in the above alleged cases. "Among the allegations substantiated were misuse of government resources, fraternization, and at least two cases of fraudulent enlistment," the statement reads.
"The Maryland Army National Guard is taking strong, aggressive steps to correct these problems to ensure they are not repeated, including changes in personnel and policy," the statement quoted Col. Grant Hayden, acting assistant adjutant general, as saying. "Appropriate disciplinary action is being taken with regard to any individual found to have engaged in any wrongdoing. We take our relationship with the community extremely seriously and feel strongly that the actions of a few do not reflect the hard work and professionalism of the thousands of men and women that make up the Maryland Army National Guard."
The commander of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion, Maj. Travis Rambert confirmed when contacted by telephone that he was removed from his position on Feb. 22. Guard spokesman Minami says Lt. Col. Nathan Crum was appointed to replace Rambert, and, in a Feb. 23 press release, the Guard announced that it would be ending extended assignments to the Recruiting and Retention Battalion. Members of the battalion say that four-year terms are going to be implemented.
"It's good and it's bad," says one career Maryland Guard recruiter of the move. While rotating personnel in and out of the battalion might help prevent the kind of abuses that took place, he wonders what else he would do after a four-year term was up.
After the investigations were completed, Maj. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill, the officer who heads the Maryland National Guard, wrote in an e-mail to all Maryland Guard members: "Rest assured, there can and will be no tolerance whatsoever for misconduct or unethical behavior or for those who tolerate unethical behavior within our ranks." Gov. Martin O'Malley recently reappointed Tuxill as adjutant general, according to Rick Abbruzzese, press secretary for O'Malley. "At least for the foreseeable future," Abbruzzese says.
In Sullins' report, one officer wrote that then- Recruiting and Retention commander Rambert "is so focused on the numbers and making things look right, that it becomes a facade that hides the truth. I was told . . . to find out what I need to do to make my [recruiting numbers] look right. Since this data is based on automated systems that cannot be manipulated, I receive continuing pressure to fix it without allowing time to find the systemic problems that are feeding it (i.e. poor recruit quality)."
Numerous other sources within the Maryland Army National Guard say that the recent investigations didn't do enough to address problems that extend to the upper command levels and affect Guard readiness. Citing the pressure to have the right numbers, sources say that one common practice is the use of ghost soldiers.
In December 2001, USA Today reported that Guard units from a number of states, including Maryland, claimed soldiers on the books for up to two years after they left the Guard. Based on interviews with more than 40 Guard members nationwide, USA Today reported that as many as 20 percent of the Guard force on paper is made up of these phantoms.
Speaking on a condition of anonymity, a retired member with more than 20 years with the Maryland National Guard says it is common practice to keep soldiers on the books long after they have reached the end of their three-to-six-year contracts, a juncture that is referred to by Guard personnel as the "end time of service" (ETS) or "ETSing out." The Guard veteran, who will be identified here as Sgt. Edwards, says he also witnessed the commonly accepted practice of backdating contract extensions--placing a date before the ETS date on a soldier's contract extension documentation after he or she has ETSed out.
Guard spokesman Minami denies Edwards' allegations, insisting, "We do not backdate extensions." Minami says he remembers the news reports about ghost soldiers a number of years ago, but insists that soldiers are generally kept in the Guard's computerized personnel system for 45 to 60 days for processing, and that any names left on the system for three months or more would be flagged and dealt with as a "nonvalid pay" status. Asked if the nonvalid status was implemented in response to previous press coverage on ghost soldiers, Minami says, "I have no idea."
Yet other members contend that holding soldiers on the books is a commonly accepted practice in the Maryland Guard. "It is about money," Sgt. Cortez, a pseudonymous member of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion, says. Funding is allotted to individual states by the federal National Guard Bureau based on the number of reported Guard members--a figure currently around 7,000 in Maryland, according to Minami. Quarterly meetings are held to come up with an accounting of members in each unit, called a unit status report. The Guard culls together unit status reports to present an overall picture of the state organization. Funding for training, recruiting, and drilling are based on these statewide numbers. Without sufficient numbers, the Guard does not get key elements of its funding. According to Minami, the Maryland Military Department--which includes the Guard, the Maryland Defense Force, and the Maryland Emergency Management Agency--spent around $320.9 million in fiscal year 2006, of which 96 percent was federal funds. "Budget, budget, budget. Money, money, money," Cortez says.
While members ETS year-round, some members who ETS in the summer are held on the books through the fall, when the annual budget is evaluated, Cortez contends. Asked if this was a practice he witnessed recently, Cortez says, "That shit happens all the time--it's still going on." Including, he says, this past fall for the beginning of the current fiscal year. "That goes on every year," he says.
Cortez says that most recruiters who have been in the Recruiting and Retention Battalion for 18 or more months are aware of the practice of holding soldiers on the books and backdating contracts. "It is pretty much standard practice," Cortez says, adding, "If you look under Army regs, someone would go to jail."
The process ends up hurting the Guard in the long run, says another member of Recruiting and Retention, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity and is referred to here as Sgt. Ross. Once funding from the National Guard Bureau comes in and the backdated members are taken off the unit rolls, recruiting missions have to be reassessed to make up for the new deficit between the number of personnel the Guard said it had and the number of personnel it actually has. Meanwhile, Cortez says, while names are held on the books, actual Guard members are denied the opportunity for advancement because vacant positions above them are held by ghost soldiers.
If a soldier who has ETSed out but is still on the books agrees to extend his or her contract with the Guard, Cortez says that retention personnel will often re-enlist the soldier by placing a date prior to his or her ETS date on the re-enlistment documents to cover the lag in his or her contract, a lag that could otherwise reduce a soldier's re-signing bonus. Soldiers who extend their contracts for six years can receive bonuses up to $15,000; while soldiers who reenlist after discharge would be eligible for an equal amount over time, retention personnel use the prospect of an immediate bonus to entice potential reenlistees. "You are made to believe you are doing the soldier wrong by not backdating an extension," Cortez says.
Jeffrey Tucker, the former sergeant recently dismissed from the Maryland Guard after Sullins' investigation, claims that Sgt. Maj. Frank Wright personally oversaw the backdating of extensions. Wright was the sergeant major in charge of retention for the Recruiting and Retention Battalion and is being moved to recruiting as part of the administrative changes enacted by the Guard in February, sources say. Tucker refers in an interview to a specific potential recruit that he says Wright backdated, "an enlistment that I know for a fact that he backdated because I was going to [re]enlist the guy." The proper procedure would be to discharge the soldier and then re-enlist him, Tucker says.
"There's a freaking issue," Ross says of Wright moving to a leadership position in recruiting while allegedly having regularly backdated extensions. "I know he backdates extensions," Ross says. "I know for a fact he backdates extensions."
When contacted by telephone and asked about backdating extensions, Wright said, "What?!" After the subject of backdating was repeated, Wright said, "Yes--what is the question?" and then asked to meet with a reporter in person. Less than two hours later, Guard spokesman Minami called to say that he had received a call from Wright and stated for the record that the Guard does not backdate extensions. Wright did not return a subsequent phone call for comment.
Nonetheless, Cortez says of Wright, "the buck does not stop there," contending that higher levels of command in the Guard know about or even encourage backdating.
According to Cortez, more often than not, retention personnel fail to get soldiers who have ETSed out to renew their contracts. After the overall numbers have been reported to the National Guard Bureau each fall, units take soldiers who will not renew their contracts off the books. Meanwhile, recruiters work to make up for the loss of numbers. If the recruiters can't make up the personnel deficit with new recruits, soldiers who have more recently ETSed out are held on the books to show the necessary numbers to the National Guard Bureau the next year, Cortez says.
On April 4, the Guard announced that approximately 1,300 Maryland Guard soldiers would be mobilizing for deployment overseas. On the same day, an article on ArmyTimes.com reported that portions of the 58th Brigade Combat Team are expected to be sent from Maryland for training in May and June prior to deployment to Iraq. According to the Guard press release, there are currently more than 380 members of the Maryland Guard deployed elsewhere across the nation and overseas. "We are deeply indebted to these Citizen-Soldiers and their families for their sacrifices in the defense of our nation and state," Tuxill was quoted as saying in a press release. "They are well-trained, well-equipped, well-led, and I have every confidence in their ability to perform their mission."
Cortez, Ross, and Edwards all maintain that the practice of holding ghost soldiers on the books hurts unit readiness, although Cortez adds, "I don't think anyone has had the intestinal fortitude or testicular fortitude [to come forward]" on the record about the practice.
For the 1,300 Maryland soldiers preparing to say goodbye to their families, technicalities concerning the dating of contracts may be far from their minds. For those who remain responsible for the recruiting and retention of those soldiers, however, deployment makes the issue of readiness all the more pertinent. In his investigational report, Harris identified the focus on recruiting numbers as detrimental to the Recruiting and Retention Battalion; Sullins concluded in his investigation that the majority of the problems he uncovered were tied directly to leadership. While the Guard's recruiting arm may have undergone needed scrutiny and changes, the Guard Recruiting and Retention personnel who talked to City Paper for this story believe further scrutiny and changes are needed, especially since this is a time of war. As Ross puts it, "I don't see what is wrong with doing the right thing and taking care of that soldier."
Editor's Note: This story incorrectly identified a Guard member who was involved in the inquiries. Lt. Col. Drew Sullins, who conducted one of the investigations, says that Spc. Brian Ward was the recruiter alleged in his investigation report to have taken an entrance exam for a recruit candidate; the report recommended immunity for Ward in exchange for his cooperation with the inquiry. Spc. Kyle Ward, who was mistaken for Brian Ward in our reporting, was not mentioned in regard to Sullins' investigation, and there is no record or indication of any alleged wrongdoing on Kyle Ward's part. City Paper regrets the error and any misunderstanding it may have caused.
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