BELTON — The U.S. Army was finished with Spc. Ryan M. Cover before he pleaded guilty.
Cover had signed on for three years in the service to help pay for college. He did a tour in Iraq in 2011 and was slated for an honorable discharge at the end of April.
That plan evaporated Dec. 2 when police arrested Cover for driving drunk, a crime he admitted in court when he pleaded guilty March 8.
But two days before his plea, the Army already kicked Cover out, issuing him a general discharge. The decision by Cover’s chain of command to release him from service before the crime had been officially proved in court may mark a change in Army policy stemming from an ongoing drawdown in forces, according to several defense attorneys.
“You kick people out because you don’t need them anymore,” said Belton attorney John Galligan, Cover’s lawyer. “It’s pathetic.”
Trimming the fat
The Army is working to shrink its active-duty force to 490,000 soldiers. As of mid-January, troop levels hovered around 540,000, said Department of the Army spokesman George Wright.
The official response from Fort Hood and the Pentagon is that the Army is not seeking to remove from the ranks soldiers who have been charged with crimes in a more expeditious manner because of the force reduction.
“If we look at this in the framework of how we manage the discipline and all that, I would not be quick to affirm the notion that we are cracking down on people to get to where we need to go,” Wright said.
Army officials are reducing troops largely through attrition and less recruitment.
“They can’t get there with voluntary attrition, so it’s involuntary,” said Temple attorney Michael White. “They can still use that as not allowing them to re-enlist.”
Needs of war
White said he has seen things change greatly in the past three years. At the height of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers accused — and even convicted — of misdemeanor crimes were allowed to stay in the service.
Officials gave them the ability to re-enlist by seeking morality waivers. Those most often occurred in misdemeanor cases but even happened in a few rare felony cases, usually involving statutory rape, White said.
Galligan said the Army would not act quickly either. If a soldier had an impending deployment, the post would be willing to look the other way, for years, if necessary.
“The chain of command was very supportive of these guys because they were all going to Afghanistan,” Belton attorney Kurt Glass said.
Other attorneys also have seen what appears to be a zero-tolerance policy in the past several months in regard to cases involving drugs, alcohol and domestic violence.
The decision to take administrative action against a soldier is largely up to his chain of command, according to a statement from Fort Hood.
Options available to a commander include taking action prior to any conviction or adjudication of a charge.
“Commanders in this position initiate the process based on the misconduct, not on whether the soldier is convicted,” according to the statement.
Commanders can base those decisions on whether the allegations of misconduct make a soldier suitable for continued service or affect the morale of other soldiers.
For Cover, the decision to take administrative action against him eliminated his ability to have the government assist in paying for a college education.
An arrest affidavit stated Cover had been out driving on Fort Hood Street about 3:30 a.m. Dec. 2 when his car was involved in a collision. Police found his car parked in a lot in the 3200 block of South Fort Hood Street with body damage and a flat tire.
An officer believed Cover was intoxicated and arrested him. A breath test later showed his blood alcohol content was 0.146, well above the legal limit, the affidavit stated.
Cover said it was an isolated incident, and that he had never been in any legal trouble prior to this incident.
The Army placed him in drug and alcohol counseling. As he neared completion, the Army abruptly pulled him out, he said, which allowed his commanding officers to mark in his paperwork that he had not sought treatment, because he never completed the course.
His attorney learned the Army decided to take administrative action against Cover about a month after the incident, before he had any pre-trial hearings.
Galligan sent a letter to Cover’s unit, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, but never received a response, he said.
In his letter, Galligan told Cover’s command they acted prematurely. He argued that under military regulations, Cover should have been given an opportunity to prove himself.
Instead, the Army pulled him from his substance abuse course March 5. On March 6, it discharged him. He pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated March 8 and received a $100 fine.
Cover is now in Lubbock, staying with his girlfriend. He said he is not sure what he will do now.
Because of the nature of his discharge, the past three years and his tour in Iraq will not likely be something he can use to pursue a job. And without the G.I. Bill, his opportunities to further his education are limited.
“It’s like I didn’t even do anything these past three years,” Cover said.
The entirety of the situation has made Cover contemptuous. He said in the end, post officials treated him as though he had “committed murder.”
“I tell any private you’d have a better life going to school,” he said.