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In recent months, we’ve posted on a couple of occasions about the military’s struggle with Coe C personnel. Code C is a classification used for individuals with medical problems that prevent them from deploying to places like Afghanistan or Iraq–usually because “sufficient” medical facilities aren’t available. As a result, someone else has to go when it’s time for a Code C soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine to go down range.

The rationale behind the Code C program is simple and understandable. Sometimes, healthy, fully-qualified military personel develop medical conditions that prevent them from going to locations where the right medical care isn’t readily available. Personnel classified as Code C are monitored and treated while on profile, then returned to “worldwide” deployment status once the problem is corrected. For personnel with more serious, long-term or permanently debilitating conditions, a review board is eventually convened, and they are often medically retired, with a partial pension and medical benefits–if the condition can be linked to military service.

It’s a fair and equitable system–or, at least it used to be. Unfortunately, Code C has also become a hiding place for malingerers and deadbeats who don’t want to deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan, or other “garden spots.” Predictably, these goldbricks often know the profile regulations as well (or better) than their doctors and commanders, allowing them to manipulate the system to their advantage. And sadly, the chain of command is often unwilling to press the test. So, Capt Deadwood or Sgt Deadbeat remains on active duty, but can’t deploy to any locale that isn’t within driving range of the “right ” doctor or hosptial.

How serious is this problem? A retired Chief Master Sergeant, with decades of experience in personnel issue, estimates that about half of the Air Force’s Code C personnel fall into the malingerer category, using the system (to some degree) to dodge unwanted deployments or remote assignments. A few of these slackers are open about their little “con,” almost daring the service to call their bluff.

Here’s a classic case in point, relayed by a young Captain who began her career at a base in southern Europe during the late 1990s. She had a Master Sergeant (E-7) in her section who was classified as Code C for mysterious back and knee ailments. As it turned out, the base had one of the few Air Force orthpedic doctors in the region, and the surgeon believed that the problem could be cured with minor surgery. Not surprisingly, Sergeant Deadbeat cancelled the operations before he could go under the knife. His condition did improve when it was time to re-enlist–you can’t sign up for another hitch if you’re on Code C–but once he had re-upped, the knee and back problems returned, and Deadbeat was back on profile, just in time to dodge a remote assignment. Never mind that Sgt Deadbeat was observed (by co-workers) whizzing down the slopes at a military ski area on at least two occasions; when it came time to deploy, he retreated behind his Code C profile and stayed home.

Deadbeat made no bones about his scheme; he even openly bragged about his plan to ride out his career on Code C status, and get the necessary surgery just before he retired. The young Captain (then a Lieutenant) pressed her supervisors to get rid of the goldbrick; the chain of command seemed willing until they learned that the involuntary separation package required the signature of the Secretary of Defense. At that point, she began hearing comments about “what a good guy” Deadbeat was, and his “many years of service to the Air Force.” Translated: we’re not willing to press the test because it might make us look bad as supervisors and commanders. As Chief Buddy would say, a classic case of chickenship versus leadership.

If you listen closely, you can probably hear the faint laughter from a retired Air Force Master Sergeant who “gamed” the system all the way to retirement. The fact that this character is getting a retirement pension is bad enough; more disturbing is the reality that other NCOs had to spend time away from home and family to cover deployments and remotes that rightfully belonged to Sgt. Deadbeat.

As for the cure, I hear that senior AF leadership is proposing new rules that would give commanders more authority in deciding who can go, and who will remain home on Code C status. That’s a step in the right direction (IMO); currently, the docs have most of the say, and many are too willing to give their patients the benefit of the doubt. Commanders tend to be more dispassionate about such matters, and with a mission to meet, they should be able to get some of the goldbricks back in the game–or, out the gate for good.

There’s a hard reality driving this policy change. By one estimate, only about half of the AF’s personnel have deployed since 2001–a figure that’s roughly comparable to the other services. Unfortunately, many of the personnel in that 50% category have deployed multiple times, while others have managed to stay home, including some of the Code C con men (and women).

Adding another thousand or so airmen to the deployment rotation may not sound like much, but if you’re an airman, NCO or officer facing your third or fourth long deployment in the past five years, a little relief is certainly welcome news. More importantly, the new rules will, hopefully, send a clear signal to the malingerers and slackers who hide behind vague illnesses and afflictions. The game is finally up, and not a moment too soon. Get yourself cured and get downrange, or meet a medical retirement board, and have a happy civilian life.

ADDENDUM: This is not an indictment of all personnel on Code C status. As we’ve noted before, the majority are on profile for legitimate medical reasons, and many return to “worldwide” status after prescribed treatment. Medical profiles must remain an option for those personnel. But we’ve got to close the loopholes that allow deadbeats to manipulate the system for their own benefit–and at the expense of someone else who inevitably replaces them in the deployment line. The fact that Master Sergeant Deadbeat was allowed to remain on active duty speaks volumes about his chain of command at that European base back in the late 90s. If they had managed to acquire a set, they might have done the right thing, and set an example for anyone else planning to follow Deadbeat’s lead.

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