Military vehicles parked at the Papago Park Military Reservation in Phoenix. (Tom Tingle / The Arizona Republic)
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A five-month investigation of National Guard conduct and culture by The Arizona Republic has uncovered a systemic patchwork of criminal and ethical misconduct that critics say continues to fester in part because of leadership failures and lax discipline.
According to interviews with military officers and records obtained by http://www.azcentral.com/news/arizona-national-guard/">The Republic, Arizona Army National Guard members over the past decade engaged in misbehavior that included sexual abuse, enlistment improprieties, forgery, firearms violations, embezzlement, and assaults.
The wrongdoing, most of which has not been previously disclosed, was concentrated among military recruiters who often visit high schools in search of teenage recruits. National Guard investigators found that non-commissioned officers, known as NCOs, engaged in sexual misconduct, collected recruiting fees to which they were not entitled, forged Guard documents, and committed other offenses such as hunting the homeless with paintball guns.
Investigators asserted that National Guard commanders failed to hold subordinates accountable, in part because many supervisors also engaged in unethical behavior. Many high-ranking officers contend an atmosphere of disdain for discipline persists.
After The Republic shared its findings with Gov. Jan Brewer's office, she announced plans for a wide-ranging inquiry directed at Arizona military operations by a high-ranking National Guard officer from another state.
"The governor is calling for a full, fair and independent review of the Arizona National Guard, its operations, the personnel and discipline handed out in response to some of these incidents," said Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Brewer.
The National Guard is a state organization of more than 9,000 military and civilian personnel serving their state and nation. Most are part-timers assigned to weekend duty. Corruption and other misconduct appear to be confined to a small minority of the roughly 2,300 soldiers and airmen who are full-time employees. Many of these were in the Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Command, according to The Republic's review of more than a dozen military and police reports.
Maj. Gen. Hugo Salazar, the Arizona National Guard's top officer, said in an interview that a rogue atmosphere in recruiting was detected and quietly addressed in the past few years.
"I acknowledge there was a problem," said Salazar, who has been adjutant general for four years and was second in command before that. "We should have had more command emphasis. We should have paid more attention ... It would be ridiculous of me to say we are not going to have some misconduct in the National Guard. We have people who do stupid things. (But) I do not believe we have an ongoing problem in the National Guard."
Salazar was appointed by Brewer as the Guard's top officer, or adjutant general, in April 2009 to complete a term that expired this April. Because of a change in Arizona personnel law this year, he now serves at the pleasure of the governor with no set term, Benson said.
Salazar said recruiting operations were reorganized with greater command oversight, and the most culpable soldiers were discharged or demoted. Training has improved, all misconduct reports are investigated and officers strive to mete out appropriate discipline.
In an opinion article published in The Republic Monday, Salazar emphasized the good service of Guard members and said "it would be a gross injustice if the mistakes of a few individuals were used to impugn the character and service of the entire Arizona National Guard."
But other high-ranking officers who talked with The Republic disagreed that problems have been dealt with. They said the National Guard suffers from lax discipline, cronyism, cover-ups, whistle-blower abuse and other systemic flaws. To this day, they note, the Guard has never successfully court-martialed an officer or soldier despite serious wrongdoing uncovered by investigators.
Lt. Col. Rob White, who conducted a command climate investigation in 2009 to assess whether commanders were at fault, said he is sickened by the failure of National Guard leaders to root out misconduct and impose punishment.
"The way the Arizona National Guard is today, I would not trust it with my son or daughter," said White. "It disgusts me ... People don't get fired, they get moved."
White, who oversees future operations at the Guard's Arizona Joint Forces Headquarters, is a soldier of 23 years with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He and others said attempts at reform have repeatedly failed, in part because appeals to Brewer or the National Guard Bureau's inspector general have been simply referred back to Arizona Guard headquarters.
"The organization is there to take care of soldiers. That's what we're supposed to do," White said. "But what they're doing is taking care of good ol' boys. And, when victims come forward, the Arizona Guard turns on them and eats them."
Benson, the governor's spokesman, said Brewer remains confident in Salazar but believes an in-depth inquiry is needed. "If you're going to get to the bottom of something like this," he said, "you have to bring in somebody from the outside."
A few bad apples?
White and several other officers came to The Republic with their grievances out of frustration that the problems were not being addressed. Others shared their views confidentially for fear of losing their jobs.
"I'll probably get retaliated against," White said. "I'll be gone. I think they're already going for me."
Lt. Col. Paul Forshey, who recently retired as the National Guard's top lawyer, or JAG officer, said he was dismayed that a list of reforms suggested by a panel of high-ranking officers was disregarded by top leaders. "I have never seen a board like that ... where command did not follow the recommendations of three senior officers."
The Guard last week accused Forshey of violating attorney-client privilege and threatened him with a state Bar complaint for speaking with The Republic, but he said he won't be silenced. He said an ethical breakdown has created a culture of arrogance.
"It's hubris," added Forshey, who reviewed disciplinary cases as part of his job. "They (wrongdoers) know nothing's going to happen. Nobody can touch them ... This is the inbred stepsister of the active-duty military."
White, who was among three officers who uncovered widespread misconduct in the Recruiting and Retention Command during 2009, said recommendations were mostly discarded and culpable soldiers received minimal discipline.
Salazar denied ignoring recommendations for reform. He said suggestions were carried out, though with modifications. He also rejected inferences of a problematic culture.
"We do not have a corrupt command climate in either the National Guard or in recruiting," he said. "We address misconduct. The criticism is neither fair nor true."
Asked what message he would offer to potential recruits and to family members who might have concerns, Salazar said: "Don't view the organization according to a couple of bad apples. I'm extremely proud of the AZNG, and we do some amazing things ... Military service will make you a better person regardless if you serve three or 30 years."
The Republic's inquiry focused on issues in the state's Army Guard. However, similar problems in the Air Guard, which also serves under Salazar, resulted in the dismissal of five top officers in recent years. As The Republic reported in September, commanders of the Guard's F-16 wing were fired in connection with harassment of a female fighter pilot, and leaders of the Predator surveillance group were fired after auditors uncovered what they alleged were fraudulent expense payments totaling $1.1 million.
Salazar relieved the Air Guard's commander, Brig. Gen. Michael Colangelo, after an Air Force inspector general report found Colangelo abused his authority and retaliated when he fired the subordinate officers. An Air Force spokeswoman, Capt. Candice Ismirle, said questions concerning Salazar's conduct were referred to the Secretary of the Army's inspector general.
Colangelo has denied allegations against him and, in letters of appeal, claimed he was ousted for trying to uphold the military code of conduct.
Salazar said any portrayal of the National Guard as being corrupt would be inaccurate and a disservice to thousands of honest and courageous personnel serving their state and country.
"We do not tolerate misconduct. We don't ignore complaints," he said. "There are a lot of people doing great things. I hate the fact that a few are going to tarnish the image of the organization, because the National Guard doesn't deserve that."
Questions of discipline
The Republic filed public-records requests and obtained more than a dozen military investigative files dating back to 2006, many of which show recommendations for reform and tough discipline. Yet, in interviews and sworn testimony, Guard officers say egregious offenders frequently face minimal consequences.
Non-commissioned officers caught driving drunk in military vehicles were given reprimands. Recruiters found to have forged enlistment records or taken fraudulent bonus pay received transfers. Sergeants who had affairs with teenage recruits were given counseling.
One NCO who allegedly got drunk with privates and had sex with a female enlistee was allowed to deploy overseas, where he was disciplined for inappropriate sexual relations with two more subordinates. Instead of being discharged from the military, records show, he transferred to the California National Guard as a recruiter.
Some who sought to uphold Army standards by reporting unethical behavior were shunned, harassed and threatened with demotions.
Records obtained by The Republic also describe how a former prison inmate allegedly was used to retaliate against one whistle-blower. Police records contain allegations that the ex-con, who now faces criminal harassment charges, issued a death threat, obtained stolen personnel records, made false criminal accusations and posted derogatory fliers near the National Guard headquarters.
Hostility and paranoia escalated to the point where, in violation of National Guard regulations, some NCOs in the Recruiting Command sneaked guns into their offices at a shopping mall out of fear of a violent reprisal, records show.
Corrupt conduct is described in numerous investigative reports by military officials. One completed in 2009 by Maj. Nathaniel Panka focused on fraud and improper relationships. It noted: "Several comments were made by an alarming number of NCOs in this (recruiting) command. The two most troubling were: ‘It doesn't matter how much you investigate, nothing is going to happen ...' and ‘I don't want to make a statement because, if I do, the first time I screw up and don't make mission, I'll be fired. There is a network of people that have dirt on each other here, and if you're not ‘in' then you have to watch your back.'"
Panka wrote that soldiers gave similar answers when asked why they allowed wrongdoing to go unchecked: "Every single one of the NCOs we interviewed said, ‘It will cost us our job if we bring this up.'"
Over and over during investigations in 2009-10, soldiers testified that high-level commanders in the National Guard were in no position to reprimand subordinates because some of them had fraternized with subordinates in violation of Army Command Policy which prohibits other-than-professional relationships between officers of differing ranks, officers and enlistees or soldiers and prospective recruits.
White said the Guard's full-time work force of about 2,700 employees is equivalent to a high school student population, except that most of the personnel have been together for more than a decade. The result: Friendships, promotion powers and mutually destructive information make it difficult to root out wrongs especially sexual misconduct.
"It's good ol' boys," White said. "It's like a college fraternity. It's not an Army organization. It's a frat house."
Litany of offenses
Allegations of criminal or ethical violations are the subject of military reviews known as 15-6 investigations, command-directed inquiries and inspector general reports. Documentation typically includes detailed interviews, findings and recommendations.
Behavior at the Arizona National Guard documented in military records include:
"Bum hunts" Thirty to 35 times in 2007-08, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Amerson, a former "Recruiter of the Year," drove new cadets and prospective enlistees through Phoenix's Sunnyslope community in search of homeless people.
Military investigators were told that Amerson wore his National Guard uniform and drove a government vehicle marked with recruiting insignia as he and other soldiers some still minors shot transients with paintballs or got them to perform humiliating song-and-dance routines in return for money. During some of these so-called "bum hunts," female recruits said, they were ordered to flash their breasts at transients. Homeless women, conversely, were offered food, money or drinks for showing their breasts.
Amerson, during military interviews, denied paintball assaults but admitted to some wrongdoing. He was demoted to private and given an other-than-honorable discharge. Amerson declined to be interviewed for this story except to say that allegations against him were untrue.
Sexual misconduct Military investigative records describe multiple cases of sexual relations, abuse or harassment by male recruiters against female cadets and enlistees, as well as fraternization in violation of military regulations.
In a case last year, two investigators concluded independently that an NCO in the National Guard's Human Resources Office had retaliated against a female soldier after she rebuffed his alleged attempt to kiss her while at work.
According to military records, both investigators found that Chief Warrant Officer Jerardo "J.C." Carbajal was unfit to supervise any personnel, especially women. Earlier this year, Carbajal was assigned as the Army Guard's TAC officer (training, advising and counseling) for enlistees striving to become warrant officers. Salazar said Carbajal no longer has supervisory responsibilities.
Recruiting violation Investigators uncovered several schemes where recruiters collected unwarranted bonus pay.
Under a Pentagon program known by the acronym GRAP (Guard Recruiting Assistance Program), soldiers credited with enlisting others can collect awards of $2,000 each.
In 2008, Sgt. Cirra Turpin admitted $12,000 in bonuses for which she was not eligible. Although investigators recommended termination, 29 supervisors and colleagues wrote letters saying Turpin should not be so severely punished. She was reassigned as a military police officer.
During a 15-6 inquiry, officers asked the recruiting commander, Lt. Col. Keith Blodgett, to explain.
Question: "What if she had robbed a bank?"
Blodgett: "That would've been a crime..."
Question: "What's the difference?"
Blodgett: "Good question."
Military records contain no evidence that Turpin was referred for criminal prosecution. Blodgett testified that he notified the Defense Department's National Guard Bureau of the improprieties. "It sounded like they weren't very concerned about it at all, which to me, indicated that that was something that was common," he said.
In an interview with The Republic, Blodgett said Turpin expressed remorse, paid back the money and had an otherwise clean record.
Today, GRAP fraud is the subject of a nationwide probe by the Department of Defense. According to a March report in the Washington Post, more than 1,700 recruiters are suspected of engaging in fraud. Salazar said fewer than 10 Arizona Guard recruiters are under suspicion, and he believes one will be referred for a full criminal investigation.
Meanwhile, Turpin allegedly used a Department of the Army stamp to falsify military documents and wound up getting discharged, according to National Guard records.
Turpin could not be reached for comment. She now is founder and owner of a Phoenix non-profit group known as Cirra's Cloud, which says it raises money for financially distressed families of deployed soldiers.
Forgeries Investigators also found that recruiters falsified academic documents, medical files and fitness tests to make potential enlistees eligible for service, or to qualify for promotions.
One Tucson recruiter forged the signatures of commanders on numerous documents and lied about it when first confronted, according to investigative records. He received a reprimand as discipline.
Blodgett was asked by an investigator, "Do you think that set a new standard inside the organization that forgery and lying equals keep your job?" Blodgett's answer: "When you put it like that, perhaps."
Drunken driving Several National Guard recruiters cited for DUI in military vehicles were either sanctioned lightly or faced no discipline.
One example: In October 2010, a top recruiter in Tucson was arrested on suspicion of DUI with other Guard members in his government vehicle. Military records indicate it was a repeat offense. The NCO initially was given a letter of reprimand, which was withdrawn and replaced with a less severe letter of concern.
Blodgett told investigators he requested an Article 15 proceeding a formal, non-judicial disciplinary procedure in the military which might result in discharge or severe punishment, but was overruled by the Guard's chief of staff. Records show that, after the recruiter was convicted and sentenced to jail, he was transferred to a transportation unit and demoted to staff sergeant.
The outcome seemed fair, Blodgett said, because higher-ranking soldiers also had been arrested for driving while intoxicated and were not fired.
Dishonesty In many of the documented cases of misconduct reviewed by The Republic, soldiers lied to investigators. Dishonest National Guard personnel in those investigations typically kept their jobs.
By comparison, outright dishonesty at civilian jobs often results in termination, said Steven Mintz, a professor and ethics specialist at California Polytechnic University. "Lying or covering up is always worse than the crime itself because it raises issues of trust and reliability."
Mintz said workplace discipline depends on employment contracts or conduct codes. However, in reference to the Guard issues, he added, "In private industry, those things would be firing offenses."
Salazar said it is misleading to compare civilian disciplinary standards with the Guard's. He said most non-military jobs are "at-will," which means a person can be fired without cause. By contrast, soldiers have extensive due-process and appeal rights under Arizona law and military regulations.
The goal of most Guard discipline, Salazar said, is not to punish or set an example, but to rehabilitate the offender.
Recruiting and Retention Commands are unique in the military structure.
Often based in strip malls, recruiters deal directly with the civilian community, visiting high schools and family homes. They work without direct supervision and face pressure to meet enlistment quotas of two or three recruits per month especially in a post-9/11 military with no draft.
In over a dozen interviews, officers told The Republic the conditions produce an environment in which military regulations and ethical standards are eclipsed by a "mission-first" mentality. As one soldier put it, "We need to up the numbers. We want people in boots."
Enlisting new soldiers is a tough job. Those who succeed are lionized and rewarded. Many fail and are dismissed from full-time jobs in the Army Reserve Guard, becoming weekend warriors.
The high turnover makes recruiting nearly the only easy gateway into full-time employment with the National Guard. And it means commanders, who are measured by recruitment statistics, are hesitant to get rid of top performers.
During one investigation, Master Sgt. Keith Stall described how an NCO arrested for drunken driving got the proverbial slap on the wrist because he'd been named a top recruiter. "They looked at production, you know, how well you've done," said Stall. "Production, production, production. Numbers, numbers, numbers."
Sgt. Maj. Donald Wilcox Jr., with 27 years of military service, told investigators the recruitment mission trumped other values, with this message emanating from the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau: "If you drink our Kool-Aid, then we'll take care of you."
"I've gone to recruiting conferences where they had Michael Jordan as the speaker, Kid Rock, ice sculptures, crazy trips to spring break," Wilcox added. "Setting up, to me, an atmosphere of, ‘Hey, if you're a recruiter, you're a rock star.'"
In late 2008, Lt. Col. White and two other officers conducted an investigation of leadership in the Recruiting Command.
They found numerous NCOs were dishonest and complicit in corruption. They found that Blodgett, the former recruiting chief, had failed to uncover gross wrongdoing or to take appropriate action when it was exposed.
Salazar, the adjutant general, initially reprimanded Blodgett for dereliction and "inexcusable" leadership failures, blocking promotion. But Salazar months later removed the letter to a restricted file, enabling Blodgett to this year win a coveted appointment to the Army Senior Service College, where he is virtually assured advancement to full colonel.
"How can this be?" White asked. "He failed as a commander. How is this in keeping with Army values?"
Salazar said under military regulations a reprimand is meant to rehabilitate, not punish. He said Blodgett did not engage in misconduct but failed to detect an outlaw culture. That merited corrective action, Salazar said, but not a permanent black mark for an officer with an otherwise clean record.
"A lot of this is subjective," Salazar added. "And I get second-guessed a lot ... (But) Col. Blodgett is a good officer. He works hard. He's conscientious. And since he was taken out of Recruiting Command, he has performed above and beyond."
Records show Blodgett argued he did the best he could after inheriting a recruiting operation where soldiers had no concept of Army standards. "I was aware of a pattern of unethical and illegal conduct going back at least two commanders and took aggressive action to eliminate this pattern," he wrote in protest of the reprimand. "My efforts to instill discipline and ethical standards were consistently impeded when my disciplinary action requests were downgraded, delayed or not acted on."
Blodgett told The Republic that much misconduct escaped his attention because of derelict subordinates. "I should have asked more questions," he added. "You trust, but verify. I should have verified more."
Like Salazar, Blodgett said recruiting oversight has improved.
But White and other officers said they've lost faith, especially when it comes to protecting female service members from harassment and sexual abuse. They said leadership is compromised, the Defense Department's inspector general is a "toothless tiger," and complaints to the Arizona Governor's Office are punted back to Maj. Gen. Salazar.
"As a female, you don't have any outlet," said one NCO who reported sexual harassment and retaliation. She asked not to be identified for fear of further reprisal. "Nowhere to go ... They don't want to be accountable. I don't think they want to do a damned thing."