Seeking justice within the system from the system – a fool’s errandIf you are the target of retaliation (of which I include reprisal) in the military, you are screwed – you just don’t know it yet. And you don’t know it likely because you are naïve, just as I was prior to being a victim of institutional reprisal. I say naïve because you believe that you will be offered a fair and just avenue of redress in order to rebut the retributive act(s). However, the sad reality is that those avenues either don’t exist or are in such a state of moral and functional disrepair that you have very little chance of restitution. I typically frame advisees’ predicament to them with a rhetorical question: what is the likelihood that the very system that either carried out the reprisal, or allowed you to be a victim of it, would then somehow have a change of heart and find itself culpable of that act? Of course, the answer to the rhetorical question is: zero. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop people from filing suits and pressing with litigation and filing reams of paperwork worth of complaints…and what is the ultimate result of that? 99% of the time it is an exhaustion of the victim’s time and finances and the perpetrators and government roll on unscathed. Just shortly after the publication of the Wall Street Journal article, I approached several law firms to ascertain what services they could offer me. Their responses were all eerily similar: Ryan, you are going to pay me a lot of money and there is little chance you are going to get anything out of it. Pro bono? Ha! Contingency basis? Not in your life – no money / headlines in these types of suits. The foregone conclusion for those who begin a legal crusade against institutionally-backed abusers and wrongdoers is usually this: in two years, they’re out X thousands of dollars (sometimes that X is in tens of thousands) and their career or reputation or mental health or any combination thereof are no better off than when they started, probably worse.
So many of the cases my Foundation has dealt with over the past year follow this general pattern: a victim highlights something wrong with the institution, then the victim is subjected to reprisal, to which they then report the reprisal, to which they receive no recourse and are instead subjected to further abuse(s). Why? This question perplexed me for many months – why would entities such as the chain of command or the Inspector General not intercede and see justice through? Why would they instead seemingly at each turn “double down” by compounding a wrongdoing with yet another wrongdoing, or a cover-up, or stall an investigation that could have offered the victim some sort of restitution? I believe the answer lies in that with these issues, such as abuses and other wrongdoings in the military, quickly become an “us versus them” battle. The people within the institution who carry out or allow the wrongdoing feel like the institution’s authority or legitimacy is challenged when a victim complains. These same people depend on the institution for their money, power, and reputations. So, in response, they “circle the wagons” and, in most cases I’ve seen, focus all efforts not on resolving the problem, but instead squashing he or she who highlighted the problem.I witnessed this both as a former IG myself, as well as victim of reprisal: when a whistleblower files a complaint it is received as if they are challenging the authority of the institution and that is met oftentimes with retributive measures. “How dare you question the sanctity of command!” – something I heard in my personal case as well. Inevitably, the knee-jerk response from those protecting their “rice bowl” follows: attack the person that highlighted the problem, but never address the problem itself. For now, I won’t delve further into how placing Inspectors General subordinate to commanders removes any semblance of hope of objectivity or fairness in the process. And as for the “sanctity of command” argument, for me that resonates very much to the stance the DoD made for years against allowing sexual assault cases from being tried outside the military…and how did that pan out?
Summer Soldiers and Sunshine Patriots
“These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”-George Washington
When people ask me what the most difficult part of the past year has been after going public, this is it: the feeling of disappointment when people you think are going to be there for you aren’t (compounded by the feeling of betrayal when your government says it has your back, but really doesn’t). But what I consistently struggle with is not harboring resentment towards those people, but rather the constant mental see-saw I find myself, the two sides being:
“They should have done the right thing despite the risk”
“I completely understand that the risk involved wouldn’t meet most people’s cost-benefit threshold and so I really can’t blame them.”
In authoring my two reports to Congress on toxicity in DIA, I asked everyone who was a victim or witness to the wrongdoings to come forward. It was critically important that everyone did because otherwise a few complainants would just be written off as one-off whiners as complainers, a commonly-used tactic in the Agency used to discredit complainants. When people didn’t provide a statement, I was miffed…but at the same time I also wasn’t. By and large, people are rational animals – they gauge the cost-benefit of most of their actions and if the cost is above their personal threshold, they won’t undertake an activity. Coming forward on the DIA case was no different. People who abstained from providing a statement came to the conclusion that the cost (in this case, the risk to their career and personal life) far outweighed the benefit (the seemingly low likelihood of bringing about change in the system). I can’t say I blame them…well, somewhat. You see in a purist discussion, we can talk about cost-benefit decision as it pertains to a human. However, that is, I would argue, not applicable in the guise of military service.
Last year, I visited the Yorktown Battlefield. A short jaunt down from D.C. it is the site of the veritable birthplace of America – the scene of the final battle and ultimate victory for the newly-formed United States. When I was there, I thought about what I would be thinking if I were some Army Private ordered to capture British Redoubt 9. In today’s vernacular, it may go something like “You want me to run straight at that fortified position getting shot at the whole time for what!? – So we can capture what is essentially a mound of dirt!? So, I’m basically going to get shot/killed/maimed…and for what exactly!? The war’s pretty much over anyways!” But they didn’t cower, despite the unpromising risk-reward probabilities that awaited them. Instead, they charged the redoubt capturing it after taking heavy casualties. Five days later, the British surrendered. America was born.
I would not blame you if you, at this point, said I was making too grandiose of a leap: to compare the actions of officers who witnessed the wrongdoings occurring during the DIA affair to those of the Revolutionary War. The point of my juxtaposition was merely to say that in the military, we are sometimes not afforded the “luxury” of making purist cost-benefit decisions. If that were the case, how many people would charge that hill? How many would instead say “um, sir, my personal cost-benefit threshold is not met, so I’m going to sit this battle out.” So, is it that immense of a logic leap to say that if officers are apt to adjust their risk-aversion based on self-serving motivations when it comes to simpler issues in peacetime today, it isn’t indicative of a potentially slippery slope tomorrow?
“Every American servicemember is prepared to sacrifice their life for their country. Very few, however, are willing to sacrifice their career.”
And in this context, it really does boil down to that simple paradigm. Many of my contemporaries were proud of the risks they took on the battlefield, placing their lives in harm’s way, several of them many times over. For that, they should be proud – they are the select 1% of Americans who served in this nation’s military who sacrificed and risked a great deal during the past two decades of war. But this is what also initially flummoxed me because those same decorated combat veterans were so averse to taking risks for their country outside of a war zone. And it is this duplicity which provides a constant source of inner struggle in me: how is it that a military officer can be so willing to risk so much for what they feel is right, but at the same time be so risk-averse when it comes to fighting for other issues which they know to be equally as (or more) just?
Launch off an aircraft carrier at night, fly an eight-hour mission into a combat zone in a war that you don’t particularly believe to be completely just, return later that night horrendously fatigued and now made to land on that carrier in stormy seas? Yes sir!! Three bags full!!
Write one page about how you witnessed your friends and colleagues get abused by DIA and sign your name to it? Ooo…well…uhh… (insert teeth gnashing here)
I’ll talk later about an organization’s true value systems, which I submit play an immense factor into this discussion. That notwithstanding, this paradox of when people, and especially those of our military and especially those of our officer corps, choose to fall on their sword and when not, is something that has continuously frustrated and fascinated me over the past twenty-four months. Beyond just mere curiosity, however, it does force me to pose this question:
If so many leaders of today’s military are seemingly so choosy about when they fight for what is just and when they simply “opt out,” how will that play out on the battlefields of tomorrow?
It’s a lie, a lie that few in the military still believe
I spent the better part of 2021 in mental health therapy. The fallout of the DIA affair, along with several other personal issues, put me there. However, as I was going through therapy, especially at the early stages, I often wondered why I was there. I mean, aside from the shit transpiring in my personal life, I thought about why the events of what had occurred to me in my professional life had so fundamentally shaken me. I thought about having gone to war and dealing with death and dying and killing and loss and although that affected me, it did not have nearly the same psychological impact that being a victim of reprisal did. I found that to be very curious. I would oftentimes ask myself, “ok, so you go off to war, see people get literally vaporized, see 18-year-olds who won’t see 19, lose friends, lose roommates, etc., and this is what puts you into mental health? This petty office crime of reprisal!? Get a hold of yourself, Sweazey!”
Eventually, with the help of my counselor, I was able to arrive at the answer. I want to first say that I do not in any way minimize the trauma that people suffer from having been to war. I can only imagine some of the horrors others witnessed and now deal with long after we ‘excused ourselves’ away from those conflicts. The point of my above juxtaposition was that I found it perplexing that my depression and anxiety did not come from the war zone, but rather a proverbial cubicle farm.
And here is, I have since discovered, why…
You recall from a previous paragraph my reference to the disappointment of thinking people are going to be there for you and they aren’t and how that delivers with it a special sort of pain? What I’ve come to discover is that it really goes beyond just disappointment, it is much more foundational than that. Ultimately, a traumatic event, no matter what the flavor, is something that shatters your fundamental belief system. When that is broken, you as a person, the very fabric of who you are, is also shaken. You believe that when people say they will be there for you, they will be, and when they are not it challenges not only your faith in them, but more fundamentally, makes you doubt that what you believe in and have believed in for so long is even a reality. So, on a broader level, this is what happened to me and why I was thrown so far off-center for so long: I believed, for the better part of my career, in two “truths” that essentially were not:
1. That our military leadership was dedicated to “Service before Self,” the same credo that I was expected to commit my professional life to, and,
2. The system I devoted 20+ years of my adult life to would honor its commitment to protect me when I was wronged.
I discovered very quickly and very bluntly that both of these were simply not true. And this is what what put me in therapy: the military lied to me and betrayed me and this shattered my belief system, one I had built up over a 22-year career. At face value, this doesn’t read that jaw-droppingly shocking, does it? However, it’s different when you serve in a system in which these values, this belief system, are such a fundamental part of your organization, and by extension, of you. When you devote two decades of your life to something because you believe in it – and I really did believe in my calling to serve and I really did have faith in my leadership and the system’s vow to protect me – and you come to discover it’s built on a foundation of half-truths and lies, it shakes you. It fundamentally shatters how you think, how you approach life, how you approach others and relationships, and how you look back at your life and career in retrospect.
The other day, I was at the airport (a place I now spend a considerable amount of time at). As is customary in the U.S., military personnel in uniform were allowed to board the plane before the main body of passengers were. Everyone else boarded the flight and when all were seated, the captain, in his welcome announcement, thanked the military personnel onboard for their service, to which most of the passengers applauded. If you’ve ever flown in the states, you know this is a relatively common scene. I always thought it was fairly classy of the airlines to treat our military in this manner and I was always proud to be part of a military that was so honored and respected by the general population. Ironically, though, I feel something much different nowadays. I watched these young men and women board my flight in uniform, and instead of feeling a brethren-like sense of pride, I felt something different: pity. As these 18 and 19-year-olds marched by, I thought to myself: “if only you knew what I know…if only you’ve seen what I’ve seen…the lies, the betrayal, the corruption….” But then, I think: “Thank god you haven’t seen it…because if you had, I wonder if you’d be so proudly and eagerly donning that uniform and so readily flying off to god knows where…. ”. This of course leads me back to myself: I was that starry-eyed naïve patriot. People thanked me and applauded for me when I was on the flight and I was proud of that – proud to serve, proud to devote twenty years of my life to a cause I believed in and a system I thought was right and just. And now…? I think it’s fair when I say I question it all. I look at my government, my military, our conflicts we involved ourselves in, my career, myself, all with a different lens. I think it’s safe to say that many people in the military are arriving at the same juncture: they see the corruption, the self-servitude and they hear the lies, lies many are no longer believing.
Walking the talk…
The military can hang all the pretty posters they want and its leadership can wax poetic with all the correct rhetoric, but a true test of an organization’s values is shown in what it rewards. General Officer / Flag Officer revisionist history has quickly become some of my favorite reading of late, and not for any good reasons. I chuckle every time I read the latest retirement reflections about “moral courage” and “bold leadership” and “outside-the-box” thinking, because a lot of it is hypocritical garbage…they are either actively selling propaganda, or they miraculously never saw the corruption, or if they did, they didn’t see it for what it really was.
Recently, I’ve seen this quote floated around quite a bit. It’s from former SECDEF Mattis:
“Take the mavericks in your service, the ones that wear rumpled uniforms and look like a bag of mud but whose ideas are so offsetting that they actually upset the people in the bureaucracy. One of your primary jobs is to take the risk and protect these people, because if they are not nurtured in your service, the enemy will bring their contrary ideas to you.”-GEN James Mattis
I love this quote. I also have to ask: where are these leaders? Where are those that nurture the maverick and welcome the contrary ideas? I sure as hell haven’t met them. Furthermore, show me these renegades…I want to meet these unicorns. I want to see their OPRs, their FITREPs, their promotion recommendations, their decorations and awards. I say: bullshit. And I say that because who’s really rewarded in today’s military? The sycophant. The yes-(wo)man, the lemming. You don’t agree? Fine – prove me wrong. Show me that “maverick” then – the one who went against the grain and who found that to be career-progressive. When I meet this mythical creature, the first round’s on me.
Here is what I have come to believe is the military’s true value system:
Value 1: Don’t rock the boat. From squadron command and beyond, the mantra was “just don’t get fired.” Do all the right things so they can’t hang you on something. And by “right things” I don’t mean do right by your people, don’t hang it out there for them, or a cause, or a course of action that is counterflow…by “right” I’m saying do right by you and for you: follow the rules, fall in line, cover your ass, not others’. And that mindset continues beyond the O-5 rank. In my final assignment on active duty, I worked for a 2-star on the staff who demanded that everything we sent to him for signature have with it the regulation(s) quoted that authorized him to be the signatory. Everything. How does one spell C.YA.? And we’re not talking life-or-death here, this was banal Papierkrieg bullshit…imagine if that guy were under fire! He would talk about the risks he accepted by allowing for abbreviated training for pilots. Ah, sir, that risk is levied on the pilot, not you; it is levied on the new wingman on his first night sortie on the tanker after having his training waived…not by some self-serving G.O. trying to shine his ass for his third star. The sad irony of it all was: that general knew the risks…that young fighter pilot did not. But it’s the General who talks of the risks they accept. YGBSM.
I studied for two years at the German Command and Staff College in Hamburg. Can you guess whose bronze bust is situated in the entryway lobby of the student Hörsaal building? You’re first guess is probably von Clausewitz, it’s not…. it’s von Stauffenberg. Colonel Claus Philipp Maria Justinian Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, to be precise (how about that for a Prussian name!). If the name is not familiar, think Valkyrie – the plot to assassinate Hitler. Colonel von Stauffenberg was the architect of the plot to kill Hitler, and now an homage to him sits in the German military’s staff college. Why? It is not because of the attempted assassination of Hitler per se, rather this premise of acting on one’s moral beliefs despite the risks (the Germans would come to coin it as “Innere Führung”, practically translated to “leadership from within,” the topic of which was my graduate thesis at the course…when in Hamburg, feel free to borrow it from the library there – it’s absolutely atrocious). This concept of Innere Führung was the basis of the moral code of the newly-formed German post-war military in the 1950s, this idea that a military member is led by, yes, his/her superiors, but is first and foremost led from within, i.e. their moral code. We in the U.S. military profess the same, but do we reward those who speak out against the system because they believe what they say to be moral and just? Would we have events like My Lai, Haditha, and Abu Ghraib and the like if that really were true?
Value 2: Inaction versus bold action. I penned this earlier in my book-in-works: the Golden Commandments of the Self-Preserving Leader:
*** To not commit is to not be held culpable ***
*** To not decide is to not be wrong ***
In May 2021 and July 2021, I sent reports collated from over 30 witness statements that alleged rampant abuses and wrongdoings occurring in the Defense Attaché Service (DAS) to the DIA Director LTG Scott Berrier. That report, and a subsequent report which cited 158 allegations of wrongdoing, would eventually make its way to Congress and the Wall Street Journal. For 10 months after I sent the report to Berrier, he did and said nothing. Why? See Value 2 above. It was not until Berrier was embarrassed into action in both the press and Congress that he felt motivated to act…or, more accurately, “act” like he was acting. In April 2022, nearly a year after submitting the report to DIA, I was contacted by the then-DIA Director of Operations Major General Michelle Schmidt, who told me she had been tasked to look into the DAS affair. Three things struck me during that brief phone call with Schmidt:
1. The timing (almost a year after the initial report to Berrier),
2. How she was quick to wring the Agency’s hands of past transgressions, pointing out that cases had been investigated and resolved – an obvious overture to my case which she erroneously claimed was closed (it wasn’t…and it’s still open…32 months after filing),
3. How she was due to leave DIA within a matter of weeks (the inquiry was nothing more than a PR move – clearly, there was no real long-term plan, given her imminent departure).
And what became of Berrier and Schmidt? Nothing. They both carried on as usual, because they did what the military rewards: nothing. To not act…to say the right things and spew the correct PC platitudes is enough. To act and be wrong…then you’re crucified. But to not do anything – carry on, soldier! So, can I fault Berrier for sitting on his hands for a year with the DAS report? Not really. Easier (and more career progressive) to not shake the tree, says our modern-day military. And as the leadership of DIA fiddled and its IG slow-rolled and stalled investigations, careers were derailed, personal lives were upended, and lives were literally endangered (if you haven’t clicked on the report linked above, I invite you to now).
The cautionary tale here is this: there are hundreds of Schmidt’s and Berrier’s leading the military now, and hundreds behind them ready to take the reins. They didn’t get there by raising their hands and calling out injustices or identifying those who carried them out. They didn’t rise to their ranks by being that ‘maverick’ that Mattis alluded to. They saluted sharply and expected others to do the same. To fall in line, to not be the critical thinker (outside our hallowed halls of War College, at least), to not be the “boat-rocker”: this is the formula for career success in the U.S. military. Fine officers and Americans, I have no doubt…but exemplifying bold leadership and moral courage? Hardly.
So you say we’re gonna have us a shootin’ war…
…great. I say then: “who’s gonna be around to do the shootin’?” If you believe the rhetoric and drum-beating about an impending war with China, then you should be very very concerned. I say that because the U.S. military, in its current state, is no more than a shell of its former grand self, steered by a group comprised largely of flaccid and self-serving leaders. Eroded by decades of fruitless conflict, our fighting force is no more fit to stand up to confront a PLA biker gang, let alone the entire PLA. Don’t believe me? You may want to read the Heritage Foundation’s 2023 Index of U.S. military strength which stamped a big ol’ “WEAK” on our report card when assigning grades to our military (it’s first ever), with cum laude honors to my alma mater, the U.S. Air Force, who received a shiny “VERY WEAK” gold star.
But this passage is less about our (in)ability to square off against what we used to call “near-peer” adversaries. (Incidentally, I always chuckled at the misplaced arrogance with that term: “near-peer” as if no one is a peer with regards to military strength, only a “near-peer.” I wonder if the Heritage Foundation would stick a VERY WEAK sticker on the PLAAF’s report card right now?). Instead, this is about why we got to where we are at and how to fix it. I don’t buy much into the impending-WWIII-with-China hype, but irrespective of that issue, I would hope we all agree that the U.S. requires a strong military and ability to project legitimate power throughout the globe.In a separate piece last year, The Heritage Foundation penned an article about the sharp decline in public trust in military officers. In fact, public trust in the military (as defined as the percentage of Americans who believe military officers possess “high ethics”) was the lowest in 20+ years, dropping in just one year from 71% to 61%. And right there in the “Key Takeaways” section in the article lie the problems and solution:
— Declining trust in military leaders will make it harder to persuade young people to join.
— If the U.S. military is going to reverse this dangerous decline in confidence, it is going to have to look inward and resolve to earn back the trust of Americans.
“Look inward.” Eureka! There it is! Quickly we arrive at the critical impasse that the DoD finds time and time again impossible to circumnavigate, for to “look inward” is understood in the military to be the equivalent of accepting culpability or fault, something that they just don’t do. (Recall the two Golden Commandments above?) And this lack of self-policing phenomenon relates to IG cases, specifically why one should never seek out recourse from the very system that allowed the abuses or wrongdoings in the first place. Why? Because that same system would then have to veritably say “we fucked up.” And the government rarely does that, the DoD almost never.
“A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”-Thomas Paine, “The Rights of Man”
Is that not the DoD today in its current state? With a corrupt and/or dysfunctional Inspector General system that outright refuses to hold itself and its military accountable? Is it any wonder why trust in the military has so drastically declined? Is it any wonder why would-be recruits harbor the same mistrust?
In the year since I established my Foundation, I’ve spoken with hundreds of people from the military, having served past and present. I can say with a high degree of confidence that these victims are good, decent, dedicated Americans who did the right thing by blowing the whistle and the system not only did not protect or reward them for it, it betrayed and punished them. So, when those people are talking about the military, recounting their experiences with friends and family and the like, what do you think they say? And what do you think those friends and family then tell their friends and family? Do you see the rapidly-expanding second and third-order effects unfolding here? Is it still any wonder why now only 1 in 11 service-aged adults in America express interest in enlisting? Should we really be surprised that after all the corruption we have witnessed, and watched go unpunished, the current generation is saying “no thanks” to military service?
Your best ally, their worst fear: the limelight
I am willing to wager that you at least once in your childhood sat in a math class and thought to yourself “I don’t understand this, but I am clearly the only one not getting it, so I’m just going to shut up.” I will also bet you that every time that happened, at least a quarter of the rest of the class was thinking the same thing. I don’t think our mindset is incredibly different as an adult as it pertains to raising your hand and proverbially “speaking up in class.” Of the many things I (re)learned this last year, one of them is this: if you are experiencing something in a certain environment, whether it be abuse, or discrimination, or hostility, there is a very good chance that others feel the same way. The corollary is also true: if you feel you can’t speak out about that, chances are some or many of your contemporaries also feel the same way. This was the phenomenon I came across in the DIA case. My friend gave me this great metaphorical parallel: “it’s like you’re in a dark room getting punched and suddenly someone turns on the lights and you see there are a lot of people getting punched.” No truer was this than the DIA affair!
If we continue with the dark room analogy, I, like many others, just kept getting punched and trying (in vain) to punch back. It wasn’t until months into the process that I flicked the light switch. (This happened the day I emailed 170 members of DIA and said essentially: “Hi, my name is Ryan Sweazey. You don’t know me, but I was victimized by the Agency and I am guessing there are more like me amongst you. If you are, let me know.”) I received 31 responses from that one email – there were definitely more people in that dark room being punched. Once armed with that knowledge, my aim shifted and with it was an untapped and virtually limitless source of energy and motivation: not just helping myself, but also, and what fueled my “grit”: helping others like me. And that “light” is your greatest ally. You see, the perpetrator of an abuse wants you to stay silent and they know with a high likelihood you will – you don’t want to risk further retribution, or embarrassment that so often comes with reporting a wrongdoing in the military. So, many elect to remain silent. This is an understandable reaction because in the worst-case scenario, they could potentially take away the retirement benefits you have been working toward for close to 20 years ( a threat that victims reported to me were used against them in several instances).
I once had a discussion with an advisee that epitomizes this victim cycle. He had reported to me that his superior in DIA consistently threatened to send him home from his overseas posting, along with his family. I urged him to report it to which he responded, “if I report it, they’ll retaliate and send me home.” I conceded that was a risk, however, what leg would he have to stand on if he didn’t report his superior? If she subsequently pursued his dismissal from his assignment, what retributive act could he attribute that to? Could he say, “this is reprisal for X”? No. So, to not speak out against wrongdoings is to in fact avail yourself to further unchecked abuse and to provide the perpetrator an “out,” because whistleblower protection only attaches once you have made a complaint (a “protected communication”, as defined in Title 10). Until then, the abuser can and will likely continue to abuse them, because that’s what they have likely always done, and likely with success.
I’ll conclude this segment with the same question I posed to this victim: to not report is to allow the abuser’s behavior to continue and also implicitly allow others to be victimized – can your conscience accept that? For me, this was and has been the catalyst for this crusade against retaliation and reprisal in DIA and the DoD at-large: I don’t want to have what happened to me happen to the next Ryan Sweazey. When I began this endeavor two years ago, I knew I had the tools and wherewithal and knowledge with which I could combat this epidemic, which made me constantly return to the question, to use a popular phrase, “if not me, then who?”
I would like to thank the contributors to this editorial, named and not, who reviewed and offered their insights and personal experiences from their journeys as whistleblowers. Thank you – for your continued support, and especially, for your continued courage.
vincit omnia veritas