Sergeant Major David Stewart: Using this incident to make a positive change
In Iraq one of my friends screwed up at the beginning of a mission. After his humvee left the gate, he tried to load his Mark 19 grenade launcher. When he absentmindedly let the bolt slam forward the second time, the weapon fired; stunned, my friend realized he had just had a negligent discharge.
He ducked into the humvee and frantically shouted, “I accidentally fired two rounds!”
His vehicle commander asked, “Where’d they land?”
“I don’t know!” my friend yelled. “They haven’t landed yet!”
A few seconds later the rounds impacted. Fortunately they hit open desert, far from any people or homes. My friend was relieved, but knew he was about to get slammed badly for screwing up.
Instead, the vehicle commander calmly radioed, “This is 3, test fire complete.” And nobody said a word to my friend about his mistake.
When we soldiers step on our collective cranks, we have two ways of handling it. The normal method is to hide our mistakes, to pretend they never happened and hope nobody notices. In most cases, even our more egregious errors don’t leave visible scars; as with my friend above, if nobody gets hurt we can sweep our flaws under the figurative rug. But our other option is to publicly address our mistakes, to acknowledge our flaws before the people we’ve pledged our lives to defend. When our mistakes cost lives, the only honorable thing to do is own them, take the heat, and make changes that prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Option 1 is easy, option 2 is hard. Sergeant Major David Stewart has chosen option 2. And he’s using the Yusufiyah murders as the centerpiece of his efforts to publicly acknowledge the Army’s mistakes, to improve the Army from the top down.
SGM Stewart heard about the Yusufiyah murders just before he started the Sergeant Major’s Academy. Like many other career military men, he was shocked that American soldiers committed such a crime. But the effect on him was worse, because the 1st of the 502nd Infantry was his home. “I started my career in that battalion. I served in it in Desert Storm and know a lot of the battalion’s senior leaders. I proudly wear a 101st combat patch.” For him, the story of the Yusufiyah murders was like a knife in the gut.
Not surprisingly, SGM Stewart takes his responsibility as a leader seriously. In one of our conversations, he quoted what seems to be his guiding principle: “The breadth of responsibility is a function of rank.” In other words, promotions don’t just equal better pay and benefits. If you’re going to accept higher rank, you must be ready for more responsibility. And one of our most important responsibilities as leaders is to ensure we and our soldiers follow moral standards. Even when we’re at war. Even when people are trying to kill us. Even when it’s hard and we don’t want to do it.
After he graduated the SGM Academy he deployed to Afghanistan for fifteen months, then returned to the Academy as an instructor. While assigned there he kept studying the Yusufiyah murders, and attended the Master Army Professional Ethics Trainer course. He incorporated more ethics training into the Academy curriculum, and co-authored a paper on loyalty.
Not long before he became Sergeant Major of the Army, SGM Raymond Chandler read Stewart’s paper. He was impressed. After he became SMA, he invited Stewart to join the Center for the Army Profession and Ethics (CAPE), a small organization focused on promoting ethical leadership at the institutional level. SGM Stewart became the organization’s senior enlisted advisor. Once settled in, he searched for ways to turn the Yusufiyah incident into a means to improve the Army.
After Bravo Company returned from Iraq, several soldiers in the company were asked to give videotaped interviews about the deployment and war crime. Watt, Diem and Lauzier had all agreed. SGM Stewart saw the videos, and decided to reach out to Watt and Diem to ask if they would help CAPE with its mission. Once he had their support, he set out to make the best possible use of their experience.
For the last two years, Watt and Diem have been appearing at CAPE events before specially-selected audiences. They’ve addressed cadets at West Point, the Association of the United States Army, and NCOs hand-picked by the Sergeant Major of the Army.
At many events Watt and Diem sit anonymously in the audience waiting their turn to speak. The audience usually doesn’t know who they are. Watt and Diem hear comments which are sometimes positive, sometimes not. At one event with a group of senior NCOS selected by the Sergeant Major of the Army, Watt heard a female Sergeant First Class comment that she’d never turn her soldiers in no matter what they did, because “snitches get stitches” (“I’ve never heard of a female rape apologist before,” Watt laughed).
During an event at West Point, Watt and Diem presented cadets with a hypothetical situation: what would they do if their battalion commander offered personal rewards for every confirmed kill a soldier made? They explained to the cadets that soldiers would be more likely to shoot when they didn’t need to, if they thought they’d get a pass or medal for it. The cadets agreed. Watt and Diem explained that such a policy would dramatically escalate the possibility of civilians being needlessly killed. The cadets agreed. So Watt and Diem asked, “How many of you would tell your battalion commander that offering a reward for a confirmed kill is a bad idea?”
Not a single cadet raised their hand.
But in addition to the occasional frustrating experience, CAPE has had spectacular successes. At one event, a senior NCO from the 10th Mountain Division was in the audience. His battalion had replaced the 1st of the 502nd after their terrible 2005-2006 deployment. Many people wrongly believe the attack on the Alamo that killed Babineau, Menchaca and Tucker was retaliation for the Yusufiyah murders, but when the enemy attacked the Alamo they didn’t know Americans had committed the crime. However, 10th Mountain soldiers were in fact targeted, abducted and killed because of the murders. In one of the most horrific events of the Iraq War, four 10th Mountain soldiers were killed and three abducted in an attack. The three abducted soldiers were tortured, in one case for months, before being murdered. The insurgents who carried out the attack emphatically stated they did it retaliation for the Yusufiyah murders.
After Watt and Diem’s presentation, the 10th Mountain NCO approached SGM Stewart and made a profound statement.
“Before this, I hated Justin Watt. I blamed him for what happened to our soldiers in Iraq. I thought if he had just kept his mouth shut those guys would still be alive. But now that I’ve heard his story, I understand. I know he did the right thing.”
SGM Stewart hopes this story gets through to all soldiers, the same way it got through, years late, to the 10th Mountain NCO. Although this program currently only involves senior NCOs and future officers, SGM Stewart plans on dramatically expanding it in the future. I asked, “Are you going to incorporate it into the curriculum as far down as the Warrior Leaders Course?”, which is the first school in the Army’s NCO educational System.
“No,” he answered. “We want to add it to all phases of training, from basic training onward.”
He wants ethics stressed all the way to the lowest level, because, as he says in his stern Sergeant Major way, “Both the commander and soldier are responsible for a mission, the welfare of their units, and the manner in which they fulfill their responsibilities.” Yes it’s up to leaders to provide effective, ethical leadership, but it’s up to soldiers to do the right thing even if their leaders fail. The training SGM Stewart hopes to implement Army wide will stress how important ethics in combat are for all of us, from boot privates to 4-star generals.
And SGM Stewart is trying to implement that training the right way. He knows most soldiers detest check-the-block PowerPoint “training”. Nobody wants to sit through a boring slideshow about sexual harassment or equal opportunity. Soldiers ignore most of what’s presented, the instructors are often bored victims who got “hey you’d” into being a presenter or, even worse, they’re passionate zealots who don’t understand why their audience is mostly asleep, and in the end very few people understand or care about the material presented. SGM Stewart is a twenty-plus year infantryman, and he knows he’ll lose audiences if he turns the Yusufiyah incident into typical mandatory training. He’s doing all he can to ensure this training stays interesting, and relevant.
That’s why he makes such a concerted effort to bring Watt and Diem to the presentations, because he knows they’ll bring the incident to life for the audience. Instead of being spoon-fed boring slides, soldiers hear firsthand the real, and really painful, experiences of two soldiers who lived through the unthinkable. Their stories always stimulate interest, and soldiers always leave with a new perspective. Watt and Diem have made more than twenty appearances so far. SGM Stewart is considering inviting other members of first platoon to join the events, to give their personal perspectives about the crime and what they think led up to it.
As a leader of soldiers, I understand just how important this kind of training can be. As I stated earlier, studying ethics in wartime doesn’t detract from combat training; it IS combat training. And if this training had been available to the men of first platoon before their deployment, maybe the Yusufiyah murders, and all their horrible consequences, would never have happened.
Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris (seen here on patrol in Afghanistan) may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LIGHT writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of nearly two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley and Proof of Our Resolve. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog, Iron Mike Magazine, Kit Up! and Under the Radar. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.