Investigations point to military system that promotes abusive leaders
WASHINGTON — There are miserable bosses, and then there are toxic military commanders.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Stephen Schmidt was unquestionably among the latter in the view of some staff members under his thumb. A profane screamer, he ran through six executive officers and aide-de-camps in a year. He retired this month after an Air Force inquiry concluded that he was "cruel and oppressive" and mistreated subordinates.
More than a dozen people who worked with Brig. Gen. Scott "Rock" Donahue, a retired commander with the Army Corps of Engineers, reported him as a verbally abusive taskmaster. One was so desperate to escape from division headquarters in San Francisco that he asked for a transfer to Iraq. An Army investigation cited the general for "exhibiting paranoia" and making officers cry.
Troops who served under Army Brig. Gen. Eugene Mascolo of the Connecticut National Guard, described him as "dictatorial," "unglued" and a master of "profanity-fused outbursts." An Army investigation found widespread evidence of "verbal mistreatment." He received a written reprimand but remains in the National Guard.
U.S. military commanders are not trained to be soft or touchy-feely. But over the past two years, the Pentagon has been forced to conduct a striking number of inspector-general investigations of generals and admirals accused of emotionally brutal behavior, according to military documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The affliction of abusive leadership has even infected some civilian leaders at the Pentagon, raising questions about the Defense Department's ability to detect and root out flaws in its command culture.
Inspector-general files show, for example, that Army officers described the working atmosphere under Joyce Morrow, a powerful civilian official at Army headquarters, as "toxic," "corrosive" and "like you were in a prisoner of war camp." Officers complained of menial servitude and said they were forced to fetch Morrow's iced tea, which she would refuse to drink if it was not served in a cup with a lid and a straw, but no ice.
Most military commanders are upstanding and well-respected by their troops. Many are hailed as heroes, particularly after more than a dozen years of war. But in recent months, the armed forces have been shaken by an embarrassing number of generals and admirals who have gotten into trouble for gambling, drinking and sleeping around, among other ethical lapses.
Some current and former officers say those cases are symptomatic of a more damaging problem: a system that promotes and tolerates too many lousy leaders.
"This is a larger issue of not only officer misconduct involving ethical issues, but let's call these guys for what they are: toxic leaders," said Christopher Walach, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and battalion commander who served two combat tours in Iraq.
Walach said he left the Army in 2008 largely because of what he described as a destructive command climate. "It destroys the message that draws many into the ranks of the military in the first place," he said.
Leaders at the Pentagon said they haven't looked into whether the number of toxic or unethical leaders has increased. But they said they recognize there is a problem.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has speculated that the military valued "competence over character" during wartime, and that it needs to place a higher priority on personal rectitude.
"It's very important that you have somebody who can lead you into a firefight who is not going to get you killed," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Stough, a senior official on the Joint Staff whom Dempsey has assigned to oversee changes in how commanders are trained and evaluated. "But it's also important that you trust they're going to act ethically as well."
Stough said the Joint Staff is reemphasizing ethics in training. To help flag worrisome behavior, evaluations will now include feedback from subordinates as well as superiors. Command headquarters also are receiving extra help to ensure that generals and admirals don't run afoul of rules regarding travel and gifts.
The armed forces are increasing the number of surveys and evaluations in which troops are asked to rate their commanders. But policies have varied about who gets to see the results. In many cases, the findings are shown only to the general or admiral under review, leaving it up to them to decide whether they need to change their ways.
To increase accountability, Congress adopted a measure late last year requiring that the surveys be provided to a commander's immediate superior.
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A review of inspector-general investigations of senior officers shows that Army generals are sanctioned more often for toxic leadership than in the other armed forces.
Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, the commander of the Missile Defense Agency, retired in January 2013 after a Defense Department inspector-general report found that he bullied subordinates. Numerous people testified that O'Reilly was intelligent, even brilliant, but that he browbeat them with obscenities at high volume. "Management by blowtorch and pliers," one witness told investigators.
In his response to the inspector general, O'Reilly said some senior staff members "were unaccustomed to having their work questioned." He said he never insulted or verbally abused anyone.
This year, in separate investigations, the Army inspector general cited two other generals — Brig. Gen. Mandi Murray, a Michigan Army National Guard officer, and Brig. Gen. Therese O'Brien, an Army Reserve logistician — for failure "to foster a healthy command climate."
The Army denied a request from The Washington Post to release those investigative reports because disciplinary action is pending. Neither commander responded to a request for comment.
At the Connecticut National Guard, several officers told the Army inspector general that Mascolo, a one-star commander, had the right military skills for the job but that he was prone to blow his stack during times of stress. When Hurricane Irene struck in 2011, they said, Mascolo screamed and cursed and lit into subordinates.
A colonel testified that he heard Mascolo berate the command sergeant major for not clearing an email with him before sending it. "Who the [expletive] do you think you are? Goddamn it, I am a general officer," Mascolo yelled, according to the colonel. "You get the hell out of my office. [Expletive]. I'm a general officer. I'll be goddamned if I will be treated like this."
Mascolo acknowledged to the inspector general that he used profanity but said that it was "loud and quick" and that he did not personally attack anyone. He received a written reprimand from the Army but kept his command position.
In a phone interview, Mascolo called some of the accusations "sensationalistic" but said he was sobered by the investigation. He said a more recent survey of his command style was "overwhelmingly positive."
"I had some command climate problems around a very challenging disaster deployment," he said. "I feel like I learned from the experience and I am a better leader for it."
Joseph Doty, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who works as a consultant on ethics and leadership, said the service has never placed enough emphasis on character.
Unlike proficiency in military tactics, personal traits are difficult to measure on performance reviews, he said, adding that the subject is rarely broached. "The assumption is, 'He's perfect in competence and he's perfect in character, otherwise he wouldn't be where he is.' "
Adding to the problem is a deep, cultural reluctance to question or challenge the misbehavior of senior leaders, Doty said.
"Who wants to air dirty laundry?" he said. "A lot of the ones that are in the news, people knew what was going on, whether it was peers or subordinates, but they didn't do anything."
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In February 2011, after an investigation, the Army inspector general found that Brig. Gen. Scott Donahue, the former Army Corps of Engineers commander, regularly mistreated his subordinates and that he was to blame for a "tense working environment."
Donahue disagreed. He said that the division was dysfunctional before he arrived and that he was undermined by junior officers. He asked for a new investigation. In a rare move, the Army obliged.
The second inquiry was more thorough, but came to the same conclusion in April 2013 that he "failed to foster a healthy command climate." Although the division was a military organization, it was staffed mostly by civilians who were "not accustomed to senior leaders yelling or raising their voice to express their discontent, invading their personal space," according to the second inspector general report.
Army officials said that they gave Donahue a "memorandum of concern" and that he has since retired. He did not respond to a request for comment made through an Army spokesman.
At the Pentagon, the roles were reversed in the office of Joyce Morrow, the administrative assistant to the Army secretary.
Morrow's title belied her influence. She oversaw four Army field operating agencies, about 3,000 personnel and a $1 billion budget. Most of her subordinates were fellow civilians or contractors. And the Army gave the operation high marks for efficiency.
But the uniformed officers who reported to Morrow complained to the Army inspector general that she was an autocrat who "constantly belittled" her staff and made the office a miserable place to work.
One colonel testified that Morrow asked a staff member "to take 14 pairs of shoes to the Pentagon shoe repair shop to get them fixed" and that the shoes "had to be done a certain way or Ms. Morrow was not going to pay for them," according to the inspector general's report.
Morrow's executive officers testified that they were expected to bring her lunch, as well as the iced tea. Others said she made them review medical documents for her mother, fax documents to help redesign her closet at home and order medication for her dog.
One major said she ruled "through fear" and would freeze out underlings who displeased her by giving them the silent treatment. Although many staff members said Morrow did not swear or yell, one said her "favorite word was 'crap.' "
Morrow was "officially reprimanded" and has since retired, said George Wright, an Army spokesman. He said Morrow also was required to forfeit her eligibility for more than $20,000 in annual performance awards.
In a statement to the inspector general, Morrow denied many of the allegations or said she could not recall specific incidents. She did not return a phone call seeking comment or respond to a request for an interview placed through the Army.
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The Army does not hold a monopoly on toxic leaders.
In November 2012, the Air Force inspector general opened an investigation of Maj. Gen. Stephen Schmidt, a U.S. commander based in Europe. Turnover was endemic among his closest aides, who said he yelled at them daily. One lieutenant colonel had been selected for promotion but retired instead, saying that life under Schmidt was "impacting his health and marriage."
One major was more accepting, telling investigators that he considered it "part of the job" to have to endure a tough boss. But fun it was not. "The screaming and the being called an idiot, yes that was an absolute daily event," the major testified, adding that Schmidt loved to taunt with his pet phrase, "No [expletive], Sherlock."
Another lieutenant colonel accused Schmidt of hitting him in the eye with a paper clip, something he said was no small hazard for a fighter pilot whose job demanded excellent vision. He said that he protested, but that Schmidt laughed and responded, "Maybe you should have been wearing some [expletive] racquetball goggles."
Other Air Force officers told investigators that working for Schmidt was no picnic, but that he didn't treat them as badly.
Schmidt told investigators that he did use "PG-13 profanity for emphasis" but only on occasion and never "to personally, you know, degrade somebody." He said he "tossed" but did not "throw" the paperclip and "didn't think it was possible" that it hit the fighter pilot. He said he apologized anyway.
The inspector general concluded that Schmidt's conduct "was abusive and otherwise unwarranted, unjustified, and unnecessary for any lawful purpose and it resulted in mental suffering."
Schmidt, who declined to comment through an Air Force spokesman, received a written reprimand and retired from the Air Force last week.