The following editorial appeared Monday in The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer:
As long as there’s been an American military, someone has tried to gain from it improperly. From the time of the Revolutionary War to today’s conflicts, a few merchants have always overcharged and under-supplied.
Those caught scamming the U.S. military are punished. Members of the armed services involved face dishonorable discharge.
A new scam surfaced last week as we learned that payouts enticed members of the National Guard to forfeit their honor. Widespread fraud in a program to reward civilians for referring recruits has some 1,200 individuals under Army investigation.
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Many of those upon whom suspicion has fallen were uniformed recruiters. But some ranked all the way up to general.
Some appear to have engaged in elaborate conspiracies. Maj. Gen. David Quantock, head of the Army’s Criminal Investigation and Corrections commands, described one case in which five people split about $1 million. The investigation will attempt to bring justice to those who cheated, including some at the highest levels.
But for so many to succumb to greed and disgrace their uniforms isn’t just deplorable; it points to “fundamental breakdown,” in the words of Lt. Gen. William Grisoli, director of Army staff.
Once auditors in 2012 saw rampant abuse, they shut down the bonus program. But that was seven years after it began.
While National Guard commanders admit the program had problems, they appreciated its effectiveness at boosting recruitment. About $300 million was paid out for some 130,000 referrals. But deceptive personnel may have taken 10 to 30 percent of those payouts fraudulently.
Punishment for wrongdoers should discourage future abuse. Even so, better oversight would have eliminated much of the opportunity for mischief.
This didn’t happen in a vacuum. Also last week, the Navy revealed its probe of sailors cheating on qualifying tests for instructors in a nuclear power program. Last month, the Air Force disclosed investigations of dishonesty by nuclear missile launch officers.
These crises prompted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to call for emphasis on “developing moral character and moral courage in our force.” That’s appropriate, but not sufficiently preventive.
A beefed-up military inspection regime to monitor programs for abuse will go a long way toward encouraging good character. We won’t be scandalized by investigations and crackdowns after the fact if we visibly increase the chances of tripping the alarm up front.