The Army repeatedly screwed this combat veteran. Now he’s being kicked out of the service — again

07:25 2/11/2020 - Πηγή: Armynow

For Staff Sgt. Ricardo Branch, everything goes back to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

When bin Laden was killed by a team of U.S. special

operators in May 2011, Branch was in Iraq. But his real trouble began in February 2014, when he was working as a public affairs specialist at the headquarters of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) and received an email from a company commander asking him to review a media article mentioning the raid.

It was relatively routine, something Branch often did in his job. He scanned the brief article for anything concerning, and landed on one detail: the reporter had included a line suggesting the 160th SOAR was involved in the bin Laden raid. So he raised the issue in an email to the commander, Maj. David Rousseau.

That one email kicked off a chain of events that Branch could have never predicted, starting with an Article 15 and later resulting in him being separated from the service — twice.

This story is based on official Army documents and records, emails, and interviews with Branch and his lawyer Jeffrey Addicott, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and judge advocate of 20 years. The Army declined to comment on Branch’s case.

“I would say that being a JAG officer for 20 years, in 95% of the cases that the Army handles in administrative processes or criminal court-martials, they get it right,” Addicott told Task & Purpose. “They cross all the Ts and dot all of the Is.

“But there’s that perfect storm that occurs with a variety of factors … He is one of those cases that is the perfect storm.”

Branch never planned to join the Army, though his father, a soldier, showed him what it meant to serve.

After graduating from high school he decided he’d take a gap year and work before he went to college. He was starting to look at enrolling in a University of Maryland satellite campus when all of his plans changed, like so many young adults, on Sept. 11, 2001.

Soon, Branch’s father was deployed to Iraq, and Branch was re-evaluating what he wanted to do with his life.

“Everybody was wanting justice, you know?” he recalled. “And so I decided to join the Army.”

So Branch started training, working on his pushups, sit-ups, and two-mile run. He eventually enlisted in April 2003 in Germany as a public affairs specialist. He had done student journalism in high school and fell in love with it, so he couldn’t imagine something more perfect than telling “the Army story.”

And he was right — from the moment he joined, Branch loved it. It was challenging, but he had great mentors, and great bosses with a “very, very strict work ethic” who helped him sharpen his skills.

“Early on, you don’t really notice the value of your work,” Branch said, explaining that as time went on he started getting positive feedback about the stories he was writing (he’s most proud of stories like this, this, this, and this) and hearing from commanders who appreciated what he was doing.

“That was rewarding to me,” he said.

So on Feb. 25, 2014, when Maj. David Rousseau emailed Branch to have him review the draft of an article for release through the Boeing press shop, Branch didn’t think anything of it. The article was about Rousseau’s soldiers visiting an AH-64 Boeing facility in Arizona.

“The story was a total of eight paragraphs long and was rather routine within the scope of his duties,” Rousseau said in a sworn statement in May 2017. “I then sent the copy of the article to the 160th SOAR(A) PAO for review as a standard operating procedure.”

Branch said in a sworn statement in August 2016 that when he received the draft from Rousseau, he noticed a line “mentioning the visiting troops helped stop a high-profile terrorist in Pakistan a few years prior.”

“I told Major Rousseau and the reporter by email the Department of Defense Policy that the details and units involved in the high-profile terrorist mission haven’t been released to the public,” Branch said in the statement. “This was to let him and the reporter know the story was not fit for release.”

“For clarity’s sake, I used the unit’s name in my email,” he added. “I neither confirmed nor denied the mission, and only stated the news story was not ready for publication because the unit was named.”

After a few weeks, Branch continued, the reporter said that they needed a response immediately or they were going to release the story the next day. Branch said his supervisor, Maj. Daniel Hill, was unavailable, which left him to act alone as he thought was best.

“I neither confirmed nor denied the event reported; only that is not clear to publish and that the reporter deleted the questionable sentence,” Branch said in the statement. The article was ultimately published without the questionable information, and the Boeing employee who wrote the article thanked Branch in a 2016 email for “having me remove the reference to the team’s activity prior to my publishing the story.”

“Once again, the system worked!” the writer said.

Nevertheless, the month after its publication, Branch was informed by his first sergeant that he was “under investigation” due to “an OPSEC leak of classified information through an unsecure [sic] network,” according to an official recounting of the incident from Branch in 2016.

“Even though the investigation had barely started, it seemed that my fate had already been decided,” Branch said in his statement. “[1st Sgt. George Park] told me, ‘If there was a time you wanted to get out of the Army, now is that time.’”

Efforts by Task & Purpose to reach Park for comment were unsuccessful.

Weeks later in April 2014, Branch was given an Article 15, a form of nonjudicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, for “wrongfully introducing” secret information “onto an unclassified information system.” Branch signed the Article 15 and acknowledged in the document that he was not going to appeal the decision. He received only a verbal reprimand — he wasn’t reduced in rank or pay, he explained in a statement in May 2015, or had any other punishment, because the command questioned “the situation surrounding this incident.”

The winding road to appeal

After receiving the Article 15, Branch put in for an immediate transfer away from Fort Campbell.

“If I did something wrong, I would be crucified,” he said. “So I wanted to leave immediately.”

But when it became apparent he was trying to leave, Branch explained, Maj. Hill — his boss at the time — submitted a relief for cause NCO evaluation report (NCOER), making the argument that Branch should be separated from the Army.

In the report, Hill said that Branch’s competence “needs improvement,” and that he “exhibited poor judgment” in having OPSEC violations. He also said he was “inefficient in his inability [sic] to perform duties as a Staff Sergeant,” despite two previous evaluations rating his competency as “excellent” and another after the 2014 incident in which a civilian public affairs employee, Nikki Maxwell — whose civilian status was equivalent to the rank of captain — rated Branch’s performance as “among the best.”

Hill’s report in May 2014 rated Branch’s overall performance as “marginal,” the lowest score, and advised against promoting him again until he “gains maturity and accepts responsibility for his actions.”

Hill did not respond to a request for comment from Task & Purpose.

In May 2015, Branch appealed Hill’s NCOER for the first time, outlining the situation that resulted in the alleged OPSEC violation, and ultimately, his negative NCOER. At that point, he was working as the NCO in charge of the public affairs office at the Army base in Yongsan, South Korea.

“I ask that you consider that in the absence of orders and guidance that my actions that day were an attempt to safeguard personnel and maintain OPSEC,” Branch wrote in a memo pleading his case.

The first appeal was denied. Branch said he was told the argument he’d made didn’t qualify for having the NCOER removed from his file. So he started gathering evidence to help his case before submitting his second appeal to Army Human Resources Command and the Enlisted Special Review Board in August 2016.

Ironically, while preparing his second appeal Branch saw that the information he’d been trying to protect back in 2014 had actually been released years earlier — in an official Army press release published in May 2011 — after then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden visited Fort Campbell.

“The leaders’ first stop after arriving was with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment compound where the commander in chief and vice president met privately with leadership and Soldiers of the 160th SOAR, also known as the ‘Night Stalkers,’” the press release says. “It was the Night Stalkers who are credited with flying the mission in Pakistan that transported the Navy’s ‘Seal Team 6’ on an operation that resulted in the capture and kill of terrorist Osama bin Laden.”

Branch told Task & Purpose that had he known that information was already public — and had been for years — he “would have never accepted an Article 15,” and would have immediately tried to appeal the NCOER.

He included the Army article in his second appeal, along with several sworn statements attesting to his character from colleagues he’d worked with in Army public affairs — all of whom gave him glowing recommendations, showing a sharp divide between what his colleagues thought of him, and the singular NCOER in 2014.

While Hill said in his report that Branch had “reached his full potential” and that he shouldn’t be sent to further professional military education “until he has demonstrated performance and potential,” other supervisors said Branch was an “outstanding patriot” who “demonstrated impeccable leadership.”

Another public affairs officer who knew Branch called him a “quiet professional” and urged the Army against letting “this highly potential leader drop from our ranks.”

“We would be doing him, his future soldiers, and the Army a great disservice,” Sgt. 1st Class Luke Graziani wrote in 2015. Graziani, now a public affairs NCO with the 10th Mountain Division, told Task & Purpose that when he heard about the trouble Branch had found himself in regarding the supposed OPSEC violation, he “could not believe that [he] was hearing reality.”

“It just seemed so absolutely far-fetched and unbelievable,” Graziani said in a phone interview. “But it was true. And he was really in hot water for performing his job to the best of his abilities.”

Two other public affairs officials who provided character statements described Branch as an “outstanding role model” and “a dependable, honest, forthright, humble soldier” whose “integrity is untouchable.”

Branch also included an email from June 2016 sent by then-Capt. Cain Claxton, Branch’s boss at Fort Bliss. Claxton pushed for Branch’s negative NCOER to be removed from his file, saying that it “indicated lack of competence for doing a job exactly the way we are supposed to do it.”


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