- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2005

As we have noted time and again, the armed forces are undermanned, and face major challenges in recruitment and retention of their best fighting men in the coming years. So one would think that the last thing that would be tolerated in the Pentagon these days would be a situation in which one of America’s best soldiers — a Marine who performed heroically in combat while serving in Iraq — is effectively being drummed out of the military based on a personal vendetta, compounded by incorrect information and bureaucratic bungling. That appears to be precisely what is occuring in the case of Staff Sgt. Michael J. Lott.

According to the Navy Department, because Sgt. Lott was not selected for promotion to the rank of gunnery sergeant, he is subject to mandatory retirement under Title 10 of the U.S. Code just three months from now — when he completes his 20th year of active duty. Although we generally refrain from taking positions on individual military personel matters, we do so in this case because Sgt. Lott’s wife, Merrie, and his attorney, Warren Wolfe, have put together such a compelling and meticulously detailed record of his case suggesting that an injustice has occurred. The record, unrebutted thus far, strongly suggests that that Sgt. Lott has not been denied a promotion to gunnery sergeant based on any lack of skill. Rather, he is being passed over because of good old-fashioned bureaucratic bungling — specifically, the military’s apparent refusal to acknowledge its own decision to remove false, defamatory material from Sgt. Lott’s case file.

The facts of the case are as follows: When Sgt. Lott reported to a Marine aviation logistics squadron in Cherry Point, N.C., in May 1999, he had compiled a record of distinction during 14 years in the Marine Corps, winning accolades from colleagues and commanders alike. But at Cherry Point, he encountered a problem: Staff sergeants and gunnery sergeants at that base did not appreciate having to attend job-related classes in areas such as pyrotechnics and ensuring that ordnance is in proper condition. When Sgt. Lott was told by a commanding officer to falsify attendance records, he refused to do so. The officer in question retaliated by writing three negative fitness reports on Sgt. Lott — effectively dooming his chances for promotion to gunnery sergeant. Sgt. Lott requested that the reports be pulled on account of bias. That took place in January 2003. Since then, he has served with distinction in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom. “I witnessed first hand his dedication to the mission of the Marine Corps as SSgt. Lott performed outstanding Marine Aviation Ordnance Service during the war and then volunteered to remain in Kuwait after the rest of the squadron departed” to the United States, Lt. Col. D.J. Snyder, one of Sgt. Lott’s commanding officers, wrote in an April letter of recommendation for Sgt. Lott. “SSgt/ Lott’s Marines followed his lead in working long hours to ensure that all equipment was brought to a high state of readiness in spite of austere conditions and severe heat … SSgt. Lott enjoys my confidence. He will be an exceptional Gunnery Sergeant of Marines.”

“SSgt. Lott is among the most resourceful, talented and motivated SNCOs with whom I have served,” wrote Major M.S. Stefanou, who worked with him in Kuwait during the early months of the war. “He immediately distinguished himself in Kuwait as a dynamo who could make things happen when no one else could. I strongly recommend that SSgt. Lott be promoted to [gunnery sergeant]. I believe the Marine Corps would retain a valuable asset with his promotion.”

These are but two of numerous glowing letters of praise that Sgt. Lott has received for his work from his colleagues.

But bizarrely and indefensibly, some within the Pentagon bureaucracy who are responsible for stonewalling Michael Lott are unfamilar with basic facts of his case. In August, for example, after Sen. Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina Republican, queried the Pentagon about the case, she received a return letter from the Navy Department that discussed some of the specifics of the Lott case. It concluded by helpfully suggesting that if Sgt. Lott has had fitness reports removed from his record (because they were found to be untrue), he can request remedial consideration of his request for a promotion. The author of the letter to Mrs. Dole, J.R. Jurgensen, a major in the Marine Corps office of Legislative Affairs, was apparently unaware of the fact that the fitness reports in question had been pulled — more than a year earlier.

In less than 90 days, Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Lott, by all accounts a first-rate soldier that we should be trying to keep in the military, will be forced to leave the corps if he is not promoted to gunnery sergeant. If he is not promoted because the competition is superior, so be it. But if he is denied promotion because false information was allowed to remain in the record, that would be unconscionable. In the wake of Maj. Jurgensen’s letter, the burden is on the Marine Corps to demonstrate that Sgt. Lott’s request for promotion is getting a fair shake.

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