The excellent slacktivist discusses the abuse of potentially informative statistics in The Wire, then generalizes:
It happens everywhere. A perfectly useful measurement gradually becomes more important that it has any right to be and soon everyone’s life is shaped by the slightest variations in that measurement. People quickly figure out how to improve their “score” in dozens of ways that do not improve the performance or outcome that score was originally designed to measure and the institution eventually takes on the character of those whose power and influence rises because they are particularly skilled at gaming the stats.
And so we get the Army deploying seriously injured troops:
After arriving at Fort Irwin, many of the injured soldiers did not train. “They had all of us living in a big tent,” confirmed Spc. Lincoln Smith, who spent the month there along with Hernandez and others. Smith is an Army truck driver, but because of his health issues, which include sleep apnea (a breathing ailment) and narcolepsy, Smith is currently barred from driving military vehicles. “I couldn’t go out and do the training,” Smith said about his time in California. His records list his problems as “permanent” and recommend that he be considered for retirement from the Army because of his health.
Another soldier with nearly 20 years in the Army was sent to Fort Irwin, ostensibly to prepare for deployment to Iraq, even though she suffers from back problems and has psychiatric issues. Doctors wrote “unable to deploy overseas” on her medical records.
It is unclear exactly how many soldiers with health issues were sent to the California desert. None of the soldiers interviewed by Salon had done a head count, but all agreed that “dozens” would be a conservative estimate. An Army spokesman and public affairs officials for the 3rd Infantry Division did not return repeated calls and e-mails seeking further detail and an explanation of why injured troops were sent to Fort Irwin and housed in tents there during January.
The soldiers who were at Fort Irwin described a pitiful scene. “You had people out there with crutches and canes,” said an Army captain who was being considered for medical retirement himself because of serious back injuries sustained in a Humvee accident during a previous combat tour in Iraq. “Soldiers that apparently had no business being there were there,” another soldier wrote to Salon in an e-mail. “Pregnant females were sent to the National Training Center rotation” with the knowledge of Army leaders, she said.
One infantry sergeant with nearly 20 years in the Army who had already fought in Iraq broke his foot badly in a noncombat incident just before being sent to Fort Irwin. “I didn’t even get to put the cast on,” before going, he said with exasperation. He said doctors put something like an “open-toed soft shoe” on his foot and put him on a plane to California. “I’ve got the cast on now. I never even got a chance to see the [medical] specialist,” he claimed. The infantry sergeant said life in the desert was tough in his condition. “I was on Percocet. I couldn’t even concentrate. I hopped on a plane and hobbled around NTC on crutches,” he said. He added, “I saw people who were worse off than I am. I saw people with hurt backs and so on. I started to think, ‘Hey, I’m not so bad.'”
Master Sgt. Ronald Jenkins was one of those soldiers at NTC with a hurt back, even though late last year, doctors recommended he be considered for medical retirement. Jenkins, 42, has a degenerative spine problem and a long scar down the back of his neck where doctors fused three of his vertebrae during surgery. He takes morphine for the pain in his neck and back.
“I slept on a damn metal cot for 26 days with serious back problems,” Jenkins told Salon. “It was an unpleasant experience,” he said, adding that his condition worsened while he was there. Hernandez, the communications specialist, said he reinjured his ankle at Fort Irwin, leaving him hobbling around in the sand and gravel for a month. When he returned to Fort Benning, Hernandez had to be put into another cast. (He is still in that cast now and hopes to start physical therapy when it comes off on March 26.)
“We could not train,” Jenkins said. “Why were we even there?”
As you have undoubtedly guess, the answer is that the Army was gaming the stats:
Military experts say they suspect that the deployment to Fort Irwin of injured soldiers was an effort to pump up manpower statistics used to show the readiness of Army units. With the military increasingly strained after four years of war, Army readiness has become a critical part of the debate over Iraq. Some congressional Democrats have considered plans to limit the White House’s ability to deploy more troops unless the Pentagon can certify that units headed into the fray are fully equipped and fully manned.
Military experts point to the brigade’s readiness statistics, including “unit status reports” that carefully track personnel numbers and are sent up through the Army’s chain of command. “There are a number of factors used to establish whether a unit is mission-capable,” explained John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent organization that studies military and security issues. “One of them is the extent to which it is fully manned,” he said. Pike says he suspects the injured soldiers were camped out at Fort Irwin so that on paper, at least, “the unit would have a sufficient head count to be mission-capable.”
There are excellent reasons to require that most or all of the soldiers in a unit be trained before the unit deploys, and not to deploy units that are undermanned. The latest Iraq supplemental funding bill requires that units not be deployed unless they are certified as mission-capable, and that’s a good thing, assuming that the information used to judge a unit ready for combat is accurate. When people wearing casts or who are supposed to be in physical therapy are being used to fill out the stats, the system is failing.
The problem is that there’s basically no defense against and executive who simply intends to game the system in this way. There are only so many hearings Congress can hold, and so much dishonesty that the press can focus on. The real solution won’t arrive until 2008.