WASHINGTON — Struggling with an embarrassing series of misconduct and behavior problems among senior officers, the Army is putting together new mental health, counseling and career management programs to shape stronger, more ethical leaders.
The programs stem from a broader worry across the military about the need to bolster professionalism within the officer corps while holding accountable those who abuse their power. The Army plan appears to focus more on building character than berating bad conduct.
In recent years, general officers from the one-star to four-star level have violated the military code of conduct they’ve lived under and enforced — often for decades. Some infractions involved extramarital affairs, inappropriate relationships with subordinates or improper use of government funds.
“The idea that we’ll be perfect, I think, is unrealistic, but we can be better and we strive to be better,” said Lt. Gen. Ed Cardon, tasked by the Army’s top officer to review the problem and devise ways to strengthen the senior officer corps. “Competence is no longer enough. Character is as or even more important.”
Among the incidents leading up to the order was the suicide of Maj. Gen. John Rossi shortly before he was to become lieutenant general and assume control of Space and Missile Defense Command. Army leaders worry they missed opportunities to deal with the high levels of stress and self-doubt that reportedly led Rossi to hang himself.
In the past nine months, the Army found two senior officers guilty of misconduct, forcing them out of their jobs and demoting them as they retired. One lost two stars; the other lost three.
“We recognized senior executive leaders, with varying amounts of stress, lacked a holistic program that focuses on comprehensive health,” said Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s chief of staff. The military has strived to combat stress disorders, suicide and other problems, he said, but the focus often has been on enlisted troops or lower-ranking officers.
A new emphasis on senior leaders is needed, he said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Cardon said several pilot programs have started and others are under discussion.
The Army, he said, needs to better help officers manage stress, organize calendars, make time for physical fitness, take time off and reach out to mentors or coaches for support.
Cardon said a key effort is finding ways to build self-control and self-awareness, ensuring officers and their families can quickly recognize and deal with problems that arise. Ethical behavior should be reinforced.
“Most generals are very good at morphing themselves,” Cardon said. “They can be with the troops and they present this persona. They can be with the secretary and they present that persona. They’re very good at it and they get even better. The challenge is how do you uncover all that, and I think this is where that self-awareness, self-control, self-mastery has to help us out.”
Accurate numbers of senior Army leaders who have been disciplined or fired from a job for bad behavior are limited and unreliable. Some officers quietly retire or move to a different post, sometimes with an official reprimand in the file. Or sometimes without.
In response to a request for data, the Army said there have been nine general officers “relieved of duty” among active duty, the National Guard and Army Reserves since 2012. Two high-profile cases in which senior officers were forced out and demoted weren’t included in those statistics due to complicated legal or administrative reasons, making it clear the numbers underestimate the problem.
One pilot program, said Cardon, creates a one-stop health care facility replacing the military’s often far-flung, disjointed, multistep system. It’s modeled after executive clinics that take a more in-depth, holistic approach to medical care.
Other ideas focus on time management, encouraging high-level officers to take longer vacations. He said every general should take 10 to 14 uninterrupted days off each year to unplug, breaking with a military culture making them believe they’re too important to disconnect.
On schedules, officers would be urged not to overbook themselves. Packing their calendars with events all day and every evening can increase stress and make it difficult to prioritize.
The role that chaplains, mentors, executive coaches and colleagues can play is being studied, and how individual or group discussions might help.
Too often, three-star and four-star generals working as base commanders are posted in remote locations around the world and have few or no equals in rank to socialize with or ask for advice. They can become isolated, ego-driven or surrounded by subordinates afraid to challenge them on inappropriate behavior.
A possibility, said Cardon, are programs strengthening officers’ relationships with spouses, who often notice problems first. Ninety percent of the approximately 330 active duty generals are married, he said.
Army officials stress only a minority of general officers are problems.
“We have tolerated people doing things they shouldn’t be doing because we say all of them are extremely competent and really good at what they do. And that’s not good enough now because you’re not only damaging yourself, you’re damaging the institution,” Cardon said. “We have great trust with the American people, every time one of these things happens, you’re putting a nick in that.”