Fort Cheat

By David Hackworth

The bedrock of the U.S. Army is honor.

From the day they raise their right hands, Army officer cadets from every commissioning source – West Point, ROTC, Officer Candidate School, etc. – have drilled into their little green heads: “I won’t lie, cheat, steal or tolerate others who do.”

This code remains sacred as long as those who’ve taken it wear a soldier suit.

The reason is simple: When a lieutenant says he’s cleared an enemy position, or a colonel signs his name to a readiness report, or a general says “mission accomplished,” lives depend upon that testimony being dead accurate.

If you had violated any of the above in the old Army, it was “Strike One, you’re out!”

But this isn’t true anymore. At least not at the U.S. Army’s Artillery School at Fort Sill, Okla. – where cheaters and liars are allowed to graduate and join active-duty units either on their way to some distant killing field or already in combat.

Even though students are required to sign an honor sheet prior to starting the course, at least 11 fledgling lieutenants have been caught cheating or plagiarizing on exams during the past year alone. In nearly every instance, these miscreants have been permitted to graduate with little more then a slap on the wrist.

The honor sheet is the contract between the school and the student regarding academic honesty and defines cheating as “any attempt to receive or give unauthorized assistance from written or printed aids, from any person, or from another student’s graded paper, and no student who has completed an examination will give information to anyone who has yet to take the same or different version of the examination”

An artillery lieutenant is the guy who directs cannon fire that thumps down in front of infantry soldiers. He’s the guy in the battery who ensures that the guns are laid properly and that the ugly hot metal gets on the right target. If he doesn’t know his trade cold, grunts die.

But while cheating at Fort Sill allows the unqualified to pass through one of the toughest, most exacting and important basic officer courses in the U.S. Army, cheating is only the tip of the iceberg. During the past year, more than 20 percent of the basic officer students have flunked the course only to be recycled until they pass. There’s plenty of evidence suggesting that some slackers might have failed the course on purpose to avoid duty in Iraq. And student officers with reading and math skills below seventh-grade level have been allowed to recycle multiple times before being force-fed to their units – even though an artillery officer who can’t do math is like a fireman who’s allergic to smoke.

Back when I went through the battery officer’s artillery course, you passed every subject with flying colors or you were soon selling encyclopedias. But it isn’t that way anymore.

Only a few of Fort Sill’s cheaters and dummies have been released from active duty, and then only after committing serious criminal offenses – AWOL, adultery, theft, drugs, packing unauthorized heat, lying to superior officers and attacking superior officers. And most of these bums actually received an honorable discharge!

A sergeant friend who’s been at Sill almost since its Indian fighting days says: “The vast majority of the young men I see who come through the course are fine and will perform their duty damn well, but a bunch are getting through who have no business being fire-direction officers, fire-support officers or platoon leaders. I wouldn’t want to be the parent of anyone who’s either under the leadership of these individuals or supported by their artillery units.”

The questions that need answering are: Why have the once-high standards of Fort Sill’s Artillery School been dragged in the mud? And who’s responsible?

The old sarge says: “The local Army chain of command from the colonel to the general have had nearly two years of reports from us instructors regarding this mess, and they’ve done nothing but duck their responsibility. The only thing that’ll make the brass either officially accept the fact that they graduate cheats, thugs and dolts – or take corrective action – is reading about themselves in your column.”

My pleasure, Sarge.

Eilhys England contributed to this column.