DEFENDING AMERICA
BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
13 June 2000

KING OF TRASH

Master Sgt. Donald J. Neil, who's attended the best foreign and American demolitions schools, is perhaps the finest EOD -- Explosive Ordnance Disposal -- specialist in the U.S. Army. He's protected presidents from Carter to Clinton and has defused, made safe, repaired, maintained, moved and blown up everything that goes pop from firecrackers to chemical and nuclear weapons.

Neil has more medals for doing his dangerous craft than a banana-republic dictator. His fitness reports for 21 years of exemplary Army service say he's not only golden, he walks on water.

But his personnel records also testify as to why he's in charge of the trash detail at Grafenwoehr, Germany -- a job for an overweight corporal requiring only enough brains to walk a reasonably straight line and chew gum at the same time. The phrases "moral courage" and "possesses the highest integrity" are repeated over and over again in his evaluation reports. They're his strength, but also, ironically, what got him in serious trouble with the brass.

Neil had the guts to tell the top guys at 7th Army Training Command in Germany that they weren't following safe practices. For example, live dud artillery shells that could've cooked off any second were left above ground just 50 meters from a well-used firing range. And if this and other violations of established safety procedures and environmental rules weren't corrected, he warned, American soldiers would die.

It turns out his commanding general doesn't particularly like truth-tellers. Neil was told to sit down and shut up while scores of dud rounds ticked away just waiting for a temperature change, a lightning strike or a curious soldier.

You guessed it. A man like Neil with a double basic load of moral courage couldn't be muzzled. Instead, he reported these violations to the folks above his boss: the Army Inspector General, Army investigators and finally, in desperation, to a U.S. senator. But officialdom only yawned and sent him to a shrink to have his marbles counted -- standard military drill when protecting vested interests and dealing with whistleblowers.

The shrinks said he had more than aKing full bag of marbles and marked him fit for duty. But the local brass wanted their pound of flesh. His security clearance was pulled, he was placed under investigation, his personal mail was opened by Big Brother, and he was told what he'd already figured out: The powers that be were very disenchanted with him. To put it mildly.

After the brass discovered his complaints were dead on target, especially when Neil's full-colonel commander admitted there'd been safety and environmental problems for years, Neil's thanks was "his position was realigned." And then he was marginalized to become the King of Trash.

Putting Neil in charge of garbage is almost as absurd as making Einstein the dishwasher at Los Alamos.

Noncommissioned officers such as Master Sgt. Neil are the backbone of the U.S. armed forces. They are the ones who run it -- always have and always will. They lead the small units in peacetime and combat, train green lieutenants while keeping them out of trouble and show young captains the tricks of the trade.

They're on the line from well before the rooster crows to way after dark, day after long day, year after year. They're not rotated into comfy jobs like most officers, but spend their 20-plus years down in the mud where the bullets sing. There they make sure your sons and daughters learn to do it right so their chances of making it through the storm of combat are as good as can be.

When senior NCOs are treated like Neil, the word gets out fast. No wonder so many of our nation's best NCOs are hanging it up prematurely or that the Army missed its recruiting quota by almost 8,000 new soldiers last year. Or that morale in the Army is the lowest I've ever seen.

Would you want your son or daughter to belong to an organization whose senior leaders try to fry the bearer of bad tidings, lie and cover up when shown the truth and aren't willing to punish one senior officer for this atrocious, self-serving behavior?

I don't want my kids led by such corrupt men. Do you?