Recycling Servicemembers: A System to Mitigate Personnel Shortages and Societal Harm During the Era of Great Power Competition
The United States military anticipates a manpower problem in the era of great power competition that will require creative approaches to filling its ranks1. The need for servicemembers may necessitate prioritization of able-bodied males and females to operational billets and combat specialties. This prioritization must naturally draw capable personnel away from non-combat roles. Maladapted servicemembers, who at one time were considered candidates for expeditious involuntary separation, must be recycled to rear missions to allow the maximum number of mission-capable servicemembers closer proximity to the fight. Expeditious involuntary separation must become a rare process that occurs only under special circumstances. Recycling servicemembers to rear missions will concurrently provide a venue for supervised rehabilitation of the problems that made them unfit for forward missions. The recycling of unfit servicemembers benefits not only the military mission but also society, which will not receive influxes of ex-servicemembers with unmitigated social and psychological problems.
The United States armed forces involuntarily separated 48,061 servicemembers in 2016.2 The Army, specifically, involuntarily separated 23,776 enlisted and officers that year. Of those, 17,608 servicemembers were separated for some form of failure to conform to military requirements, expected behavior, or standards of performance. An additional 5,271 servicemembers were separated for legal problems or improper conduct.3 A large volume of separations, such as this, was justified by the need to maintain readiness and high standards of performance.4 Readiness and performance are Army-wide expectations, but in certain units, particularly the Brigade Combat Team (BCT), these expectations carried a great deal of practical significance because there were too few servicemembers in a BCT to carry the weight of inoperable Soldiers for too long. A typical recourse was to separate the Soldier if attempts at rehabilitation did not appear promising. An unreliable Soldier was simply too mission-costly to have at the combat level.
Handfuls of non-mission capable Soldiers will cause Clausewitzian friction for the unit. The Soldiers, Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO), and Officers who are taken away from the mission to tend to issues with unfit Soldiers erode mission effectiveness. Escorting non-mission capable Soldiers to appointments or tracking and processing administrative tasks particular to their unique situations takes focus and resources away from training for combat. Training can be particularly jeopardized when a Soldier in a critical skills billet is not able to meet mission requirements but is kept on station for a protracted and unsuccessful attempt at rehabilitation. The expeditious separation of these Soldiers suited mission needs during low intensity conflict by reducing friction within high-tempo deploying combat organizations. It made more sense to separate these Soldiers from service then to have them in the formation, where their presence could harm morale and block the acquisition of new personnel who could perform to standard.
Though the separation of Soldiers in this manner may have helped the unit’s immediate mission, the unchecked involuntary separation of personnel represented a loss in terms of time, training, and capital.5 This loss was perhaps more justifiable in a smaller Army, where light BCTs were deployed for stability or counterinsurgency missions that did not critically raise concern about attrition within the force. The separation of Soldiers in this manner, however, may not adequately serve the needs of the Army in the era of great power competition and certainly not during a high-end conflict, where expected battlefield losses are higher than what can be compensated for, possibly resulting in loss of a war.6 Specifically, the Army may be faced with simultaneous, long-term operations that require continuous force rotations against near-peer enemies.7
The expeditious involuntary separation of Soldiers is not feasible in the era of great power competition, but it is also not feasible in today’s societal context. The expeditious discharge of these servicemembers is counterproductive to civil society because their putatively service-connected problems have not been mitigated when they leave the service. Societal partners in law enforcement may become aware of the discharged servicemember after a public disturbance. Yet, the servicemember may have been on the service’s radar for the duration of his or her rehabilitation and out-process. Some servicemembers may have been considered high risk by the service because of credible threats to harm self or others or because they have a number of risk factors present in their lives. The high-risk status likely required increased attention to the servicemember to ensure his or her safety and the unit’s while the servicemember was still in uniform. No formal process appears to exist, however, that communicates this perceived risk to law enforcement, which can be alerted to a potential problem as the servicemember enters civil society.
The hasty discharge of unfit servicemembers, some of whom are in tenuous psychological or social states, poses a significant challenge for both the service and society. The era of great power competition offers reason to take a new look at the disposition of these servicemembers as does the criminal offenses committed by some discharged servicemembers. To be sure, not all servicemembers involuntarily separated from service have difficulty conforming to the mandates of the law. A potential does exist, however, for servicemembers who were put out of the service because of difficulty conforming to military rules to have difficulty conforming to rules of civil society. It is also possible that servicemembers with significant unmitigated personal problems during service may bring those problems to civil society.
Servicemembers with psychological problems have a higher risk for drug-related discharges and punitive discharges.8 These servicemembers may be expeditiously separated from service because of their actions, leaving civil society to address their dysfunctional behavior. Unmitigated problems with servicemembers, which may be service connected or exacerbated by service, may contribute to encounters with law enforcement. A study of incarcerated Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF), and Operation New Dawn (OND) veterans indicated that these veterans were three times more likely to have combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when compared to other inmates.9
The involuntary separation process may also have unintended structural effects that are criminogenic. Economic disruption is one example of a potential criminogenic factor. Research suggests that crime, such as property offending, is associated with people who are unemployed for reasons stigmatized by society.10 An involuntary separation from the military can carry a derogatory characterization of service and may be viewed as undesirable by potential employers. Servicemembers separated under these unfavorable conditions represent a potential for chronic unemployment, which may lead to crime. Even if the service characterization was benign, however, unemployment rates are generally associated with property crime.11 Therefore, a steady influx of newly unemployed Soldiers to military towns or other areas may create a potential for property crime.
Expeditiously separating servicemembers may be associated with more than property crime, however. During 2011 to 2012, the Department of Justice estimated that 181,500 veterans were incarcerated, either in jail or prison. Veterans tended to have a higher percentage of incarceration for violent sex offenses when compared to the civilian population, though as a group, veterans still represented a small percentage of the overall incarcerated population.12 Quick separation from the service may be an important strain on the veteran that creates a context favorable to criminal behavior.
Veterans are also conspicuously present among mass shooters. An examination of mass shooters from 2000 to 2013 indicated that 24% of the mass shooters who were age eighteen or older had some military background.13 When comparing the presence of veteran/active duty mass shooters during the period of 1989-1999 to the period of 2000-2015, the veteran/active duty category comprised a consistent 10% of the shooters during both time periods.14 A number of recent mass shooters were veterans, some of whom had dubious service records. The 2016 Dallas mass shooter, Micah Johnson, the 2017 Sutherland Springs, Texas, mass shooter, Devin Kelley, and the 2018 Thousand Oaks, California, shooter, David Long, all served in the military before committing their attacks.
A recycling system for active duty servicemembers may help address the personnel shortfalls during the United States’ great power competition with near-peer rivals, while also supporting societal interests. A recycling command will provide social and psychological rehabilitative services to Soldiers based on an assessment of their needs as they support the mission from the rear. It will also serve as a formal channel of communication to law enforcement regarding servicemembers who leave the service with reportable matters. Soldiers who fill roles in the rear will enact an important part of the mission, while allowing for the prioritization of able-bodied Soldiers forward. They will also be better prepared to leave the service, psychologically and socially, because of mitigated criminogenic factors. Though a recycling command could be a magnet for malingerers, its structure would remain an unfavorable action that disincentivizes accession to its ranks, including punishment by the Uniform Code of Military Conduct (UCMJ) for malingering.15
Who Would Qualify for Recycling?
A recycling system can be considered for all branches of service, but this article uses the Army to illustrate details related to the recycling concept. Those Soldiers who were normally processed for expeditious involuntary separation would be prime candidates for recycling. This entails most categories of Army Regulation 635-200 and regulations governing officer separations. The reasons Soldiers are involuntarily separated under these conditions are varied, which suggests that the Soldiers’ capabilities will also vary. The recycling command will therefore have a heterogeneous makeup of attitudes, abilities, and Soldiering skills. The makeup of recycled Soldiers presents opportunities and challenges. Some Soldiers will have intellectual and experiential abilities that can advance the mission. Some Soldiers will have psychological and social problems that may present as a liability for the mission.
What Would A Recycling Command Look Like?
A recycling command would be part of a support mission assigned to command levels higher than the BCT. This may include a presence at the division, corps, and theatre levels. The military occupational specialties these Soldiers may support include those found in the combat service support branches. The largesse of Army personnel is in support or other overhead functions, offering ample opportunity for recycled Soldiers to contribute to the mission without causing friction at the combat level.16 Recycled Soldiers may also support emerging roles that come online with the evolving nature of great power competition or a high-end war. In these cases, recycled Soldiers may be needed in support of homeland security functions. Homeland security may require assistance with a number of areas consistent with the Army Homeland Security Operational Framework.17 Personnel may be needed to support operations related to migration, casualty assistance, and a number of other support functions during a high-end war that reaches the US homeland.
Recycled Soldiers would pool at higher levels where they would provide functions that support the overall mission. Their presence at higher levels necessitates the diversion of able-bodied Soldiers to forward assignments. Moreover, a large volume of recycled Soldiers filling roles in combat support branches would cause a decrease in recruitment for these branches. Soldiers who once were recruited for combat support roles would now be recruited for operational positions. The strength level of the recycling command would have an ongoing impact on recruiting goals.
Recycled Soldiers would undergo a needs assessment that would drive their roles and responsibilities. A needs assessment would detail the Soldier’s current MOS, education, and training. It would also incorporate performance evaluations and statements from the Soldier’s Commander and senior enlisted leader. This would provide an estimate of the Soldier’s generic skills that could be recycled and fitted to a role. The needs assessment would also detail the Soldier’s current psychological and social functioning to understand the Soldier’s mental state. A detailed assessment of the Soldier’s stressors, such as family, financial, and relational, would take place. The psychological and social information would be used to fit the Soldier into a rehabilitation plan that provides ways to mitigate problems emanating from these areas.
The Soldier’s duties at a recycling command would be the inverse of what they would be at a Warrior Transition Unit (WTU). Whereas the WTU is issue-centric, providing the whole duty-day for the Soldier to rehabilitate some issue, the recycling command is duty-centric by expecting the Soldier to complete tasks needed for the mission, while also structuring time for personal rehabilitation. Soldiers at a recycling command would report for duty consistent with their needs assessment. This may entail full work days with some days having time dedicated to therapies and other rehabilitative efforts. The rehabilitative efforts would be tracked along with performance in the workplace to maintain effectiveness of the recycling effort. Soldiers will have different levels of time dedicated to rehabilitation depending on their needs assessment. A Soldier with weight issues would be given time for physical training but most time would likely be spent executing his or her duties in the workplace. A Soldier with patterns of problematic behavior would likely have more time dedicated to the recommended psychosocial therapy.
All Soldiers in a recycling command would have a small percentage of their pay withheld and placed into a trust. The withheld funds become available to the Soldier at the completion of the service contract when separating from service. The withholding of pay until discharge is an effort to reduce the criminogenic effect associated with precipitous separation into civil society with little-to-no surplus of funds. A Soldier with a four-year service contract who enters the recycling command after two years of service would therefore have a percentage of his or her remaining two years of pay withheld. These funds would be retrieved at the end of the Soldier’s fourth year of service and during his or her out-processing.
The recycling command would have an important out-processing function. Rather than the relatively self-service transition currently available in the services, the out-processing from the recycling command would entail more of an active case management process. The needs assessment would be reviewed to assess whether problem areas have been mitigated. Did the Soldier with poorly controlled anger that resulted in patterns of misconduct complete anger management? Did the anger management program identify other deeper concerns necessitating referral to therapy? Does the Soldier have any reportable convictions? Each Soldier would be periodically reviewed for evidence of improvement to ensure adequate progress before the end of the servicemember’s service contract.
Each Soldier in a recycling command would receive certification that the recycling command was completed upon exit from service. This certificate would be annotated in the Soldier’s service record and even on the Department of Defense (DD) form 214. The recycling command certification would detail the reason the Soldier entered the recycling command and the rehabilitation that occurred in the recycling command. The Soldier’s progress in rehabilitation would also be detailed to show how the Soldier responded to therapies and other rehabilitative efforts. This certification would be important after service, such as when the Veteran’s Administration (VA) interfaces with the Soldier. It may, for example, help clarify claims related to PTSD by detailing whether the Soldier even entered the recycling command for issues related to PTSD. In a general sense, certification gives assurance to civil society that a Soldier with adaptation problems during service underwent a comprehensive rehabilitation for those problems before entering civil society. This does not guarantee that the Soldier is free of maladjustment, but it does show a systematic effort to mitigate problems that would otherwise be brought unmitigated into civil society.
The recycling command would have an important role in communicating with law enforcement. A Soldier with a reportable issue would have his or her matter communicated to the law enforcement agency in the area of responsibility for the Soldier’s discharge location. The recycling command would communicate whether a servicemember is prohibited from possessing firearms consistent with the Gun Control Act of 1968. This would include those servicemembers who are addicted to controlled substances, have restraining orders or domestic violence infractions, and those who have been committed to a mental institution.18 In addition, the recycling command may have to communicate whether the servicemember has any homicidal ideation. A Soldier may have had homicidal ideation towards a target up to the time of separation from the Army. The recency of homicidal ideation would present a reason for law enforcement awareness if an identifiable potential victim is articulated or if a potential zone of danger can be established.19
The case management process in the recycling command would also monitor rehabilitation for the possibility of return to the BCT. Since a range of problems could trigger a referral to the recycling command, the Soldier deficits at a recycling command will be varied. Soldiers with performance problems at their past assignment may earn, or be ordered, a second chance at a forward role. This recycling back to the forward mission would only occur after the Soldier’s rehabilitation has been verified by evidence, such as treatment notes and stable performance in the workplace. As such, the Soldier who failed to adapt to his or her past unit milieu may have evidence of improved social skills after rehabilitation. If sufficient time on the Soldier’s contract exists, or a stop loss is in effect, the Soldier may be recommended for return to an operational unit. Despite improvements, however, the Soldier would be scrutinized for fitness to return to a forward role, and without overwhelming evidence supporting the Soldier’s likelihood of success, would be discharged in accordance with his or her service contract.
The recycling command would be an unfavorable action. Though the duties may be less intense than the duties of forward operating Soldiers, the recycling command is no reprieve. Soldiers who matriculate to a recycling command must comply with strict expectations based on their needs assessment. Soldiers would be held closely accountable to the UCMJ during their time in the recycling command, which may be a necessity with Soldiers who have pre-existing conduct problems. A low threshold, therefore, would exist for court-martial when in the recycling command. Moreover, certain privileges are surrendered while in a recycling command consistent with the “flag” on the Soldier’s record. The involuntary surrendering of pay is one example of how the recycling command is not an appealing alternative to regular duty status in the Army.
The servicemember would be released at the end of his or her service contract. The servicemember discharged after participation in a recycling command would have contributed to the military mission and would be on a better footing to succeed in society. Though the servicemember’s initial failure to conform to standards resulted in referral to the recycling command, the Soldier’s transition would not represent a perpetual vacancy because the BCT would be prioritized with a new accession. The recycling system would be built for the rapid transfer of non-performing Soldiers with new Soldiers. Yet, the Army would not just fire and forget because the non-performing Soldier would be sent to the recycling command where contributions to the mission are continued while ensuring the Soldier has psychosocial readiness to enter society.
Despite the unappealing nature of being assigned to a recycling command, some Soldiers may consider it better than operational roles during high-end war. Such a perception may even result in the malingering of problems to appear unfit and secure placement in a recycling command. For this reason, the recycling command must be highly disincentivized. A number of aspects of the recycling command remain unappealing and may discourage malingering.
Perhaps the most obvious disincentive for malingering disability to attain placement in a recycling command is the UCMJ punishment for malingering. Malingering is a punitive article of the UCMJ that carries up to ten years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. Soldiers who malinger to gain entry to a recycling command must be held accountable according to the UCMJ because it serves as a natural disincentive. This will require greater fidelity to pursuing this punitive article, which in times past may have been considered superfluous or difficult to prove. Recycling commands must have access to forensic specialists to assist in validating claims, including forensic mental health practitioners. Most importantly, the military justice system must demonstrate its ability to prosecute this violation.
Aside from imprisonment for fraudulent entry to the recycling command, other disincentives exist that make the recycling command unappealing. The fact that Soldiers will have a percentage of their pay withheld for their duration in the recycling command is a powerful disincentive. If ten percent of pay is withheld from a Soldier for, say, one year, the temporary reduction in pay could seriously affect the Soldier’s lifestyle. This may mean that the Soldier no longer has surplus money for luxury items or other incidentals. A Soldier whose annual earnings, for example, was twenty-one thousand dollars would have two thousand one hundred dollars withheld for the year.
The question of quality assurance is a valid concern with recycled assets. If the Soldier did not meet Army standards at a forward role, will not the quality of the Soldier’s work be substandard in the rear? The answer to this question is multi-faceted and contextual. Soldiers who are involuntarily separated are let go for a range of reasons, including problems related to weight, performance, and behavior. The capability of these Soldiers will greatly vary. A Soldier who cannot meet weight standards or who cannot pass the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), may be highly able in administrative tasks. He may even have esprit de corps for the mission and have a positive attitude. A Soldier who is not fit or safe enough to serve as an infantryman may still be able to inventory supplies. Many current examples exist at the unit level, where a substandard performer is moved to a different role and able to function adequately.
In addition to the inherent capability of recycled Soldiers, Subject Matter Experts (SME) will oversee the work of recycled Soldiers in a recycling unit. The SME would be a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) from a combat support branch that also has troop leadership skills. The SME would provide quality assurance that the recycled Soldiers are performing their duties to the expected standard. The SME would also provide motivation to the recycled Soldiers as needed. The SMEs would work in conjunction with case managers who oversee the Soldiers’ rehabilitation of psychosocial issues.
Quality would also be assured by the low threshold for court-martial. Articles of the UCMJ, such as Article 91 Insubordinate Conduct and Article 92 Failure to Obey an Order or Regulation, would have an important organizing influence on conduct. Whereas in the operational units these offenses may have been transmuted into reasons to involuntarily separate the Soldier, in the recycling command these UCMJ offenses would result in actual prosecution and increased likelihood of sentencing to the disciplinary barracks. Good-faith pursuit of UCMJ violations in a recycling command would provide clear boundaries on acceptable behavior and promote good order and discipline.
A critique of UCMJ prosecution in a recycling command may claim that UCMJ prosecution defeats one purpose of the recycling command, which is to ensure Soldiers enter civil society on a better footing. A federal conviction (i.e., court-martial) would harm the Soldier’s chances at success in society. Though it is true that a court-martial conviction has harmful implications to one’s future, a court-martial is not convened haphazardly and would be precipitated for legitimate reasons. The threshold would be lower for a court-martial because a recycling command, depending on its composition of Soldiers, could easily develop a toxic milieu without tools to maintain order. Swift and firm consequences, such as UCMJ action, would be needed to ensure mission success. Swift UCMJ action is also justified because presence in a recycling command is an unfavorable action. Soldiers who receive a court-martial while in a recycling command eschew the second chance given to them by the service. Rather than receiving an involuntary separation, which carries its own ramifications, Soldiers are provided a chance to continue their contribution to the mission, while also undergoing rehabilitation to better their chances at success in society. Failure to comply in this setting would serve as strong evidence that the Soldier requires intervention by the justice system rather than rehabilitative efforts by the recycling command.
The observation that the recycling command is not a panacea for the Army’s personnel woes is accurate. The recycling concept will not foster success in all cases. Some recycled Soldiers may leave the recycling command with a court-martial conviction, and others may successfully complete recycling and out-process only to commit crimes in civil society. These possibilities underscore the limitations with institutional interventions and the realities of personal decision making. The recycling command’s purpose is not to serve as society’s guarantor that a class of veterans will function effectively in society. Rather, the recycling command makes a good-faith effort to mitigate problems, whether service-connected or not, that were identified on the service’s watch.20 This is done in a systematic way to assure fidelity to rehabilitation. When the Soldier is discharged, the good-faith effort extends to partners in civil society who have a stake in the successful integration of the now-veteran, such as law enforcement and the VA. This process may only mitigate criminogenic factors that were immediately present in the Soldier’s life when he or she walked off of post as a civilian. This may provide assurance that if the ex-Soldier commits a crime or has difficulty adjusting to society it is not because the military did not make an effort to help the Soldier become a better citizen.
In summary, a recycling command is needed by the US military to address its personnel challenges in the era of great power competition. A recycling command would concurrently serve societal interests by rehabilitating psychological and social factors that rendered the servicemember unfit for service. Servicemembers who previously would have been involuntarily separated can now enter the recycling command to act as force multipliers. Recycled servicemembers would serve in support roles, which would allow for more functional servicemembers or recruits to be prioritized to forward roles. Recycling serves the military mission, but it also serves societal interests because while in the recycling command, servicemembers rehabilitate psychological and social issues that may have been criminogenic if the servicemember was precipitously separated without mitigation.
The views expressed are the author’s and do not represent the official position of the US Army, Department of Defense, or US Government.
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