THE GENERAL'S LAST CAMPAIGN

DESERT STORM WAS ONE THING. BUT BATTLING THE SOLDIERS OF THE ARIZONA NATIONAL GUARD WAS THE WAR OF GENERAL OWENS' CAREER.

Rigoberto Flores is also here, a slender man with a muted, almost fawnlike presence. He trembles when he tells his story, his English lightly accented. Flores has two problems. The first concerns a back injury he says he suffered while performing "extra duty"--outside his normal Guard commitment--in August 1989. He had trouble obtaining medical benefits, and claims he was run around by bureaucrats. Though he says he is in constant pain, he knows his story is typical.

But Flores has a second problem. Unlike other soldiers with similar service records, he has not been promoted. He says no enlisted Hispanic in his company has ever been promoted past the rank of staff sergeant to sergeant first class. Mier, who for a time was Flores' captain, says while less-qualified Anglo troops were "boarded" (considered) for promotion, somehow Flores' paperwork was never submitted.

"I complied with everything possible to be promoted and on two separate occasions I was turned down," says Flores, who has been a Guard member since 1971. "They came up with excuses of lost paperwork; just to me it wasn't good enough of a reason. I had all my qualifications. I was doing the job, but I didn't have the stripe."
Richard Erdmann arrives late to the meeting, in uniform. He is a counselor in the Guard's Equal Employment Office and he also contends he is at some risk of reprisal. There are some cases he cannot discuss, either because of privacy-act concerns or pending litigation, but he says the Guard routinely subverts its own regulations--that, in fact, the system makes it easy to discriminate against an individual or a class of persons.

Flores' story doesn't sound far-fetched to him: Erdmann says promotions in the Guard are only sometimes based on merit, and that there are ways to circumvent the federal guidelines. Erdmann also contends Owens and other top brass at the Guard know this is happening, and that any soldier who complains runs the risk of being branded a troublemaker.

"When they do things that are screwed up, no corrective action is taken that will force that individual not to do that same stunt again next time," Erdmann says. That way, he says, the chain of command can control promotions, especially since the slighted soldier has no mechanism for redress. The process is complicated, and although an individual soldier is unlikely to know the criteria for promotion, it is the soldier's responsibility to make sure the packet submitted to the promotion board is in order.

Other Guardsmen also describe a promotion review procedure ripe for abuse and manipulation--and innocent mistakes. John Butler says that often the first level of screening candidates for promotion is conducted by people of marginal competence.

"The orders will come down that there's going to be a board," Butler says. "And the [platoon] sergeant will need to pick two men to serve on it. He's not going to lose somebody who's vital. Instead, he's going to pick what they call 'nonessential personnel' to serve on the promotion board."
Butler says this sometimes results in "functionally illiterate people" checking soldiers' records against lists of criteria.

"The poor slob--maybe he's a guy who does nothing but change oil in the motor pool all day--now they've got him researching criteria," Butler says. "For him that's extra duty he doesn't get paid for, and he's got maybe four hours to get through 50 records. It's no wonder they don't do thorough jobs, and mistakes get made both ways--unqualified people get boarded and qualified people get shafted. And the next board is six months or a year down the line--there's no redress."
But, Erdmann says, it also cuts the other way. Sometimes marginally qualified soldiers are promoted because someone in the chain of command likes them.

"The environment is such that if you're one of their fair-haired boys, they take those extra steps to make sure that you're ready, you've got all your stuff together," he says.

If not, then they might lose your paperwork.
Flores connects Owens' "lack of leadership" with the problems in the Guard. "Personally, I feel there is a good-old-boy syndrome that still exists in higher company and battalion levels," he wrote in a letter to Senator John McCain's office. "This to me means that no matter how proficient or successful a soldier is, he/she will not make it to the upper ranks. I know this for a fact because in the last 20 years, I have never seen a minority exceed the rank of Staff Sgt. in this company. This signals a severe discrimination problem, which needs to be very much addressed for the better of the Arizona National Guard."

@rule:
@body:Richard Lagesse makes his living as a consultant, instructing federal employees throughout the country on the vagaries of the equal employment system, labor relations and management issues. He has heard the stories of many unhappy Guard members, and for more than nine years was an EEO officer in the Arizona National Guard. During that time, he says he had direct and frequent contact with General Owens.

He doesn't think the general is a racist. Or a sexist. Or an evil man. But he says it is impossible that the general doesn't know about the problems in the Guard.

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