DEFENDING AMERICA
BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
27 June 2000

MORE DIRTY TRICKS

It's a given that corporals and second lieutenants do dumb things and in the process take their share of hard knocks. If they didn't screw up, make mistakes or go charging off in the wrong direction, just how in the world would they become smart sergeants and smart generals?

By the time these leaders get a star or two, they've been thumped enough times that they've learned how to keep from being burned. At least that's the theory.

But Brig. Gen. John Craddock, who runs the 7th Army Training Command in Germany, is living proof that this isn't always the case. He just sets off booby trap after booby trap as he stomps his way through Master Sgt. Donald Neil's career.

Neil is the fine Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) soldier I wrote about in this space several weeks ago, the master sergeant who told his commanding general -- through his now-running-scared chain of command -- that his training areas were unsafe and needed to be cleaned of dangerous munitions before soldiers were killed.

Instead of responding "Thanks, Sarge, you're right" and fixing the problems, Craddock burned Neil by removing his security clearance, questioning his sanity and allowing the general staff to play fast and loose with the rules.

Now the game's getting dirtier. Craddock has sent a textbook-case letter of how our taxpayer dollars are wasted -- a "letter" that's actually a 200-page manuscript -- to have Neil's EOD badge removed. This is like trying to pull an M.D.'s license because the doctor made a correct diagnosis.

In the document, which for starters is riddled with errors and enough false statements to be laughed out of court, Craddock insists Neil was "grossly negligent and derelict in the performance" of his duties. But had the general closely read the "Get Neil" work of fiction put together by his staff, he'd have come across a memo in which Neil's predecessor, Master Sgt. Roger Hess, stated six months before Neil came on the scene that live artillery rounds were exactly where Neil reported them.

Craddock's rationale for removing Neil's EOD qualification has more holes in it than my grandmother's screen door after she unloaded her shotgun at a prowler.

Of course, if the general couldn't even spell "ordnance" correctly, as his 200-pager attests, how could he be expected to do the necessary homework to make his request to defrock Neil even guardhouse-lawyer correct?

The problem is that the request is going from one general to another, not to court. In a court, even a military one, Neil would get a fair trial. Not so with the old-boy network, where it's SOP for generals to scratch each other's backs.

Neil -- who's risked his life for 21 years defusing dangerous things that could've easily blown up in his face for what now proves to be a very vindictive Army -- is one of the best EOD guys in uniform. His record is beyond impeccable.

EOD guys all over the world who've worked with Neil say he's "the finest EOD man I know." They're uniformly outraged -- and not only about Neil and his fight with Craddock. They say that EOD guys and gals get similar hosings all the time.

Remember, these are the heroes who risk their lives for us 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And now, with terrorism being the new face of war, their job is even more dangerous.

In 40 years of writing military stuff, I've never received so great and so angry a response. Lawyers have written and want to defend Neil for free. EOD union officials are lining up their cannons.

Several lawmakers say if Craddock succeeds in stripping Neil of his badge, it will prove the federal Whistleblower Protection Act (Title 10 U.S. Code, Section 1034) has less teeth than Jell-O.

The problem with our all-regular military is that too many people are out to protect their jobs. If you had a draftee Army, every man would be a whistleblower, because whistles are issued at the Reception Center. But these days there are few folks around like Neil who put principles ahead of paychecks.

Craddock is on the major-general list. But he shouldn't be promoted until he can spell "ordnance." And exercise justice.