“Investigate Away”

by Jack E. Riggs

A brigade staff officer burst into the room.

“Colonel, you won’t believe what the hospital folks have done.”

My heart sank. I had just walked my replacement, also a Navy captain, over to meet my boss, the medical brigade commander. With only three months remaining on my year-long tour as the combat hospital commanding officer, I knew this was going to be embarrassing.

“What?” the colonel replied.

“Those people have posted their daily SITREPs on the shared drive. This is a flagrant mishandling of classified material. Colonel, we must initiate an Article 32 investigation.”

The colonel looked at me in disbelief.

“Jack, what do you have to say for yourself?”

“Colonel, I don’t know what he is talking about. I will be back within the hour to explain.” 

As I left, the look in the eyes of my replacement, a regular Navy captain, said it all. Reservists do not know what the hell they are doing.

At the hospital, I gathered my administration director, my communications officer, and the officer who submitted the daily situation report (SITREP) to the brigade. Our SITREP included a compilation of patients seen, surgeries performed, and radiology/laboratory studies completed by my combat support hospital and ten troop medical clinics during the previous 24 hours, all non-classified information. What made the SITREP classified was a few pieces of information that revealed our capability and limitations to treat large numbers of serious casualties.

The only thing that I wanted to know was had we put classified information in an un-secure environment. My staff assured me that we had not. The daily SITREPs on the shared drive were merely templates upon which the clinics and hospital had entered only non-classified information.

The military takes their reports and the classification of information very seriously, so there is no faster to end your military career than to blow off required reports or mishandle classified information. The culture and expectations are non-forgiving, especially if you are a commanding officer.

Two electronic means of communication, NIPRNet (non-classified network) and SIPRNet (classified network), were used to create our SITREP. We had only one SIPRNet terminal, located at the hospital. My ten troop medical clinics would populate their non-classified data using NIPRNet onto a template posted on a shared drive. The clinics would then send their classified data using a SIPRNet terminal located at each camp’s headquarters to the hospital. The data was merged at the hospital to create the classified SITREP.

I had previously requested the brigade install SIPRNet terminals at each troop medical clinic. The brigade denied that request. I was pleased with that decision because I really did not want the responsibility of ten additional classified terminals. In the military, the best way to ensure that you do not get what you do not want is to request it with soft justification.

The junior officer who had put the “Secret” markings on the templates on the shared drive began crying. I told her to stop her crying and assured her that no one was going to be in any trouble. However, I did admonish her for putting classification markings on documents that did not contain classified information. My communications officer suggested that we put our daily SITREP templates in a password-protected folder on the shared drive so that others could not readily view them. I liked that idea and told her to do it. She also wanted to know if we should delete the “Secret” markings from the templates already on the shared drive. I instructed her not to alter anything already posted.

I raced back to the meeting between my boss and my replacement and barged into the office. By then I had worked myself up into a furious state of mind.

“This is your fault!” I screamed at my boss using colorful military-speak language, ignoring my stunned replacement. “You denied us the support needed to transmit classified information.”

“Colonel, I have ordered my staff to not submit another SITREP to the brigade,” I said. “No sailor is going to be put in legal jeopardy for doing their job without adequate support.”

My boss calmly looked at me. “Jack, I am still going to open an Article 32 investigation.”

“Investigate away, but you are not getting another fucking SITREP unless you tell me right here and right now that we can continue to collect and collate information for that report using our current process, sir.”

The scene was tense, with many observers, including my replacement and several brigade staff officers. I knew that without my SITREP, my boss could not submit his SITREP to his boss. His failure to submit a SITREP would take any “investigation” away from his control and reveal why we were using such a convoluted method to handle classified information.

At this standoff moment, he blinked.

“Alright, you can continue to produce your SITREP in the manner you were, but I am still going to investigate.”

The look in my replacement’s eyes said it all. I do not understand what the hell just happened here

I suspected that this had likely been nothing more than an orchestrated power display for the benefit (intimidation) of my replacement. Whether my replacement ever learned how to play this game, I would never know.

I walked back to the hospital, smiling all the way.