Paying a price for leadership

April 11th, 2012
The U.S. military thrives on leadership that never hesitates to take the initiative but the case of Capt. Roger Hill may be giving future warriors pause.

HERNDON, Va., April 10 (UPI) — What would you have done?

By JAMES ZUMWALT, UPI Outside View Commentator

Published: April 10, 2012 at 6:30 AM

Delta Company occupied a forward operating base in Wardak province in Afghanistan. During the six months it was deployed, it was stretched thin, having to cover three additional outposts as well. The 90-man company suffered heavy casualties — 28 wounded and two killed in action.

The Taliban seemed to know the company’s every move. Delta encountered ambush after ambush, mortar attack after mortar attack.

An intelligence report finally explained why: Delta’s Afghan translator and several other supposedly “vetted” locals at the FOB were reporting the company’s activities to the enemy.

Twelve Afghans were detained, triggering a 96-hour clock.

Due to the political fallout occurring after the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal in Iraq, the United States agreed to a NATO request that, once taken into custody in Afghanistan, detainees would be formally charged within 96 hours.

This burdened U.S. forces who dealt with detainees much more so than other NATO allies. The rule was an example of allowing political correctness to invade the battlefield, requiring a warrior’s focus to shift from fighting to investigation. Well-trained as a fighter, he was not as an investigator.

Afghan authorities would only accept detainees accompanied with evidence of guilt, such as a confession. Therefore, U.S. forces had to launch an investigation, obtain evidence, transport and turn detainees over to authorities — all within 96 hours.

Detainees knew silence bought them time and without evidence, they would be released within that timeframe. The system proved to be a revolving door for detainees, putting more than half back on the street for having outlasted the clock.

Delta’s commander immediately contacted his senior command, which repeatedly failed to take custody of the detainees. Isolated at the FOB, he was left on his own to meet the 96-hour requirement. Failing to do so meant the detainees remained a threat to his men.

(While the 96-hour rule was implemented in 2005, it was changed by 2010 due to the extreme difficulty in complying with it.)

As the intelligence source remained classified, Delta’s commander was restricted from sharing it with Afghan authorities. But without the source Afghan authorities wouldn’t take custody of the detainees. Thus, a confession was needed.

Time was running out for the company commander. The thought of having to release his “dirty dozen” detainees, who had abused the friendship of their U.S. counterparts and used treachery to inflict casualties upon them, didn’t set well with him. Knowing the evidence against them was damning, he needed to get the required confession even if coerced. Dire circumstances called for dire measures.

The 12 detainees were isolated in a building at the FOB. Delta’s company commander led three of them outside, out of sight of the remaining nine. Pointing his weapon at the ground, he fired three times, leaving those inside to consider the fate of the three. As he re-entered the building, the confessions flowed freely.

Unfortunately for Delta’s company commander, U.S. Army Capt. Roger Hill, his actions that August day in 2008 cost him his career.

Restricted by a questionable time regulation eventually deemed ill-advised for battlefield application, abandoned by a senior commander whose lack of leadership left him “hanging in the wind,” Hill did what he felt was right under the circumstances — and paid the price for taking the initiative.

An Article 32 investigation under the Uniform Code of Military Justice was ordered, leading to charges of prisoner abuse against Hill and others involved. While Hill never directly threatened the detainees or had any intent to harm them, the charge stemmed from his actions in intentionally placing them in fear for their lives.

Hill’s Article 32 investigation made it clear once again he was being abandoned by his senior command. Given the choice either to resign his commission or face a General Court Martial, which could require he serve jail time, Hill resigned. He was also required to accept a General, rather than Honorable, Discharge — meaning he lost full veterans’ benefits.

As the circumstances surrounding Hill’s charges have come to light, an effort has been mounted by numerous supporters to right an egregious wrong. Among those supporting this effort is the Article 32 investigating officer, U.S. Army Col. Robert K. Byrd.

Byrd was very critical of Hill’s command both for leaving him in a precarious situation and over-stretching Delta Company’s capabilities by giving it a mission it later took 20-plus times the manpower to perform.

Byrd’s post-investigation memo makes it clear Hill did everything in his power with but one focus in mind — to prevent additional casualties to a company already decimated by losses and an enemy’s treachery.

The war in Afghanistan is being fought by less than 1 percent of the American population. We are blessed to have young men and women courageously volunteering to go into harm’s way to undertake this mission. We demand incredible sacrifices from them. Those sacrifices should give rise to an expectancy their commands will be there to support them in the field and, if not, then to defend them when performance is called into question due to the command’s failure to provide that support.

Hill deserved as much from his command. It failed him twice. By his own actions, Hill demonstrated he valued his men’s welfare over his career; his commanders, by theirs, demonstrated just the opposite.

Hill is asking the secretary of the Army to upgrade his discharge to Honorable. The failure to do so will deny a courageous soldier his due and deny a senior leadership failure was at fault.

The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan proved disastrous for Moscow. One reason was it discouraged small unit leadership for fear it might one day turn on its master. The U.S. military, however, thrives on a leadership that never hesitates to take the initiative. But in abandoning Captain Hill, the U.S. military may be giving future warriors pause to do so.

(James. G. Zumwalt, is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer who heads Admiral Zumwalt and Consultants, Inc. He is author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will — Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields” and “Living the Juche Lie — North Korea’s Kim Dynasty.”)

(United Press International’s “Outside View” commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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