Sailors must be ad­e­quately trained to ful­fill their mis­sions

The Progress-Index - - OPINION -

The mil­i­tary is one of the few in­sti­tu­tions that Amer­i­cans still hold in high es­teem, but that should never be taken for granted. Two events late last week sug­gest that even the mil­i­tary’s cul­ture of high per­for­mance can be eroded with­out con­stant at­ten­tion.

The first was a mil­i­tary judge’s de­ci­sion to let off U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl with a slap on the wrist for de­ser­tion in Afghanistan in 2009. Af­ter a court mar­tial, Army Colonel Jef­fery Nance rec­om­mended that Bergdahl be dis­hon­or­ably dis­charged, de­moted to pri­vate and for­feit $10,000 in pay. Pros­e­cu­tors had sought 14 years in prison.

Bergdahl was cap­tured by the Tal­iban and held pris­oner for nearly five years, a ter­ri­ble or­deal to be sure. But those most out­raged by the wrist slap are other mem­bers of the armed ser­vices who fear the dam­age to mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline. Bergdahl de­serted on the bat­tle­field in a for­ward post — the worst be­trayal you can make against your fel­low sol­diers save for frag­ging them with friendly fire.

Mem­bers of Bergdahl’s unit were killed or maimed when they were sent to search for him, not know­ing that he had been pre­par­ing to walk away for weeks and had even dis­patched per­sonal ef­fects to the U.S. be­fore he walked off the for­ward base. The court-mar­tial sen­tence must be de­mor­al­iz­ing to those who do their duty and risk their lives with­out fan­fare.

Even more dis­tress­ing is the Navy’s re­port on its investigation into the col­li­sions with civil­ian ves­sels this year in the Pa­cific theater by the USS Fitzger­ald and USS John S. McCain. The col­li­sions — off the coast of Ja­pan, and in the Sin­ga­pore Strait, re­spec­tively — re­sulted in the deaths of 17 sailors.

The 71-page re­port, which says both col­li­sions were “avoid­able,” is damn­ing about the Navy’s train­ing prac­tices and makes for dispir­it­ing read­ing if you are a civil­ian who thinks the U.S. Navy is the best in the world. The re­port says watch team mem­bers on the Fitzger­ald “were not fa­mil­iar with ba­sic radar fun­da­men­tals.” And it cites a fail­ure to plan for safety, ad­here to sound nav­i­ga­tion prac­tices, prop­erly use avail­able nav­i­ga­tion tools, and re­spond ef­fec­tively in a cri­sis.

As for the McCain, the Navy cited a loss of sit­u­a­tional aware­ness in re­sponse to mis­takes in op­er­at­ing the ship’s steer­ing and propul­sion sys­tem. It also cited the fail­ure to fol­low the In­ter­na­tional Nau­ti­cal Rules of the Road that gov­ern ma­neu­ver­ing ves­sels amid high­den­sity mar­itime traf­fic. Th­ese are mis­takes of ba­sic sea­man­ship that sug­gest in­ad­e­quate train­ing, or shifts that are too long and cause a loss of con­cen­tra­tion and crew co­he­sion.

The Navy had al­ready re­lieved the ship cap­tains and even the com­man­der of the Pa­cific Fleet. This ac­count­abil­ity is a credit to the Navy and will be a les­son to other com­man­ders. But it should also be a warn­ing that Congress needs to al­lo­cate enough money to ad­e­quately train sailors so they can ful­fill their mis­sions. Col­li­sions with civil­ian ships in peace­time are aw­ful, but sea­man­ship fail­ures dur­ing wartime would be dis­as­trous.

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