A Catch-22 Keeps Willing Army Officer Out Of Iraq

A Catch-22 Keeps Willing Army Officer Out Of Iraq
April 5th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: A Catch-22 Keeps Willing Army Officer Out Of Iraq

A Catch-22 Keeps Willing Army Officer Out Of Iraq
Wall Street Journal
April 5, 2007
Pg. 6

New Schooling Requirement Ends Career as Military Faces Manpower Shortage
By Yochi J. Dreazen
TIKRIT, Iraq -- As U.S. Navy Capt. Leonard Hatton pinned a Bronze Star to the lapel of Army Lt. Fred Nicholson, who spent the past year serving alongside him in one of Iraq's most dangerous cities, he said, "You know this means you're always welcome in the Navy."
"Good -- the Army doesn't want me anymore," Lt. Nicholson replied.
Indeed, the 45-year-old's return to the U.S. is triggering a forced discharge from the Army, ending his military career -- and preventing him from receiving a much-needed military pension.
The reason isn't Lt. Nicholson's performance, which by all accounts has been stellar. It is the Army's shifting educational requirements, and its unwillingness to bend them in his case.
When Lt. Nicholson was commissioned as an officer in 1992, the Army required just two years of completed college course work. That is what he has. Today, the military requires all officers to be college graduates -- and the military says the rule change leaves them no choice but to expel Lt. Nicholson, who never finished his degree.
"If the speed limit changes, you can't fight a ticket by saying that the law used to let you drive faster," Army Lt. Col. Eve Seibel, a reservist who handled the Nicholson case for the Army during her own recent year in Iraq, said in an interview. "The educational requirements are set in stone."
The Nicholson case is at odds with the military's current trend toward looser personnel standards, though. The manpower strains caused by the prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have led the military to break with longstanding policies by recruiting soldiers who lack high school degrees, have criminal records or are so overweight they would once have run afoul of military physical-fitness requirements. Lt. Nicholson is in many ways precisely the type of officer the military is desperate to retain, but the Army is nevertheless insisting on discharging him.
Lt. Nicholson is trapped in a Catch-22. "I've put my life on the line. But when I get back, the Army will say, 'You're out. We're through with you,'" he said.
Lt. Nicholson joined the military in 1986 at age 24 to escape what he describes as a "dead-end life" in his small Colorado hometown. He excelled, and was allowed into a prestigious program that gives enlisted soldiers a chance to become commissioned officers. Of the 43 soldiers who began the course with Lt. Nicholson, fewer than a dozen others made it through.
He was soon promoted to first lieutenant, his current rank. At the time, young reserve officers like Lt. Nicholson didn't need college degrees. He had finished two years of course work and was taking evening classes toward a planned degree in architectural engineering.
In 2000, the Army sent him to Germany for several months for a war-game exercise. By the time he returned to the U.S., he had lost his spot in the university and didn't have the money to resume his classes.
In the meantime, Congress approved the Reserve Officers Professional Management Act, which put in place a new requirement that all officers have college degrees, part of a peacetime effort to raise the overall educational level of the military.
The shift meant Lt. Nicholson was on borrowed time: The Army discharges anyone who twice fails to win a promotion, and without a degree Lt. Nicholson couldn't be elevated to captain. In the summer of 2000, he received formal notice that he was being discharged because he lacked a college degree.
Lt. Nicholson returned to Colorado and opened a small construction company.
Then came the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which dragged on far longer than expected, triggering widespread manpower shortages that forced the Pentagon to look for ways of bringing old soldiers back to active duty.
In the summer of 2005, an Army human-resources officer in St. Louis called Lt. Nicholson and told him he would be promoted to captain -- potentially salvaging his military pension, for which he needed five more years of service -- if he agreed to a yearlong stint in Iraq, Lt. Nicholson says. Army officials, at the time desperately short of officers for Iraq, weren't being rigid about the educational requirement.
At the officer's direction, Lt. Nicholson sent a written request for a waiver of the educational requirements and made his way to Fort Jackson in South Carolina.
In February 2006, two months before he was slated to deploy to Iraq, the Army sent a letter telling Lt. Nicholson the education waiver had been denied. The personnel officer told Lt. Nicholson that he "must be discharged" no later than Aug. 1.
Lt. Nicholson says his only solace was that his scheduled discharge date was a few months after he was supposed to be sent to Iraq. He doubted the Army would send him to Iraq in April and bring him home in August.
The Army had a different solution: Officials told Lt. Nicholson they would delay his discharge until his unit returned from Iraq.
He arrived in Iraq in April 2006, and was assigned to a reconstruction team in Salahaddin Province. He made regular trips into Samarrah, one of Iraq's deadliest cities, and was awarded a Bronze Star for chasing down gunmen who ambushed him one afternoon in the nearby city of Bayji.
The Army's decision to discharge Lt. Nicholson has infuriated some high-ranking officers here, several of whom have written senior Army officials asking that he be given time to complete his degree and resume his career.
"There is very strong feeling on this side of the world that being told on one hand that you can die for your country but on the other that you are being kicked out for lack of a college degree is a travesty," retired Maj. Gen. Eric Olson wrote.
Capt. Hatton, Lt. Nicholson's commanding officer in Tikrit, wrote the Army last fall that Lt. Nicholson "served his country only to be used and thrown out on the back end of his mobilization," a situation he called "appalling."
"He gets a medal and a shove out the door," Capt. Hatton said in an interview.
Senior military commanders say Lt. Nicholson's case represents an extreme example of a broader problem: Soldiers and officers who confront shifting rules about how often they can be deployed to war zones and how long they have to spend in the military before resuming civilian lives.
For the moment, the military's decision stands. Col. Ken Sanchez of the Colorado National Guard, Lt. Nicholson's former unit, said the education rule can't be waived. "Each of us has individual requirements placed upon us to remain in service," he said in an email interview.
Lt. Nicholson plans to drive to the military human-resources center in St. Louis to make a final attempt to press his cause in person. A retired marine general has promised to help him in any potential litigation.
To Lt. Nicholson, it is a matter of economic necessity. He wasn't able to save much money when he ran his construction company, so his ability to retire one day depends on receiving a military pension that would be approximately $2,000 a month.
"We're not talking about a lot of money, but it's an issue of survival for me," he says. "And it's an issue of fairness."
April 6th, 2007  
Use em up and toss em aside. Don't join the service for any other reason except to serve your country kids.

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