Fort Drum Shooting Raises Questions About Army Recruitment Process
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
New questions are emerging about the Army's recruitment practices after an active duty soldier at Fort Drum, N.Y., allegedly shot and killed two people on Sunday - his wife and a state trooper. Before he enlisted, Sergeant Justin Walters' criminal record included a conspiracy to commit mass murder at his middle school. Lauren Rosenthal with North Country Public Radio reports.
LAUREN ROSENTHAL, BYLINE: It was 1999, just a few months after the Columbine High School shooting when police in Holland, Mich., received an anonymous tip that a ninth grader named Justin Walters and one other student were planning to bring a gun to their school. WOODTV in Holland picked up the story.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nobody was hurt. The plan was never carried out, and the students never got the weapon.
ROSENTHAL: Matt Militello was the school principal at the time.
MATT MILITELLO: This was very real. It couldn't get any more real than being within hours of something tragic happening in the school.
ROSENTHAL: Militello says investigators found two lists - a hit list of people Justin Walters wanted to shoot and a safe list naming people Walters didn't intend to harm. Michael Beyrle's younger brother was the co-conspirator in the shooting plot. Both boys pleaded guilty and spent time in juvenile detention. Beyrle's family tried to forget the incident until this week when they heard that Walters was accused of killing two people in upstate New York.
MICHAEL BEYRLE: I was not surprised, and people that I know that went to school with him were not surprised.
ROSENTHAL: Now Beyrle and others in Michigan are wondering something - how someone with Walters' criminal background winds up a soldier.
BEYRLE: The No. 1 thing is the Army. Like, he was allowed into the Army and trained, given a weapon - somebody who's mentally unstable.
ROSENTHAL: The Army wouldn't answer any questions about Walters. Brian Sutton is a public affairs officer for the Army's recruiting command in Fort Knox, Ky. He says short of a murder conviction, recruiters will consider people who have criminal records.
BRIAN SUTTON: When we look at that whole person, is the offense indicative of a success or failure for the future in the Army in that soldier? So everyone has to use good, solid judgment.
ROSENTHAL: At times the Army has relaxed its standards for what kinds of convicted criminals are eligible for service. Walters enlisted in 2007, back when the number of soldiers granted so-called moral waivers had been steadily increasing. Army Major John Spencer is with the Modern War Institute at West Point. He's written several op-eds about recruitment, including how often the Army used waivers.
JOHN SPENCER: That number was off the charts - the amount of people that needed a waiver in order just to meet the demand. Everybody should have been saying, hey, what's going on here? Why is - you know, are we accepting too much risk?
ROSENTHAL: Available Army records show that over time, Justin Walters rose to become sergeant. He served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and earned nearly a dozen commendations. Friends and co-workers say Walters' frontline combat experience left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. They remember Walters as a devoted father and husband. Walters is currently being held without bail at a county jail near Fort Drum. He faces first- and second-degree murder charges for the deaths of his wife, Nichole Walters and State Trooper Joel Davis. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Rosenthal in Canton, N.Y.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, it's said that short of a murder conviction, recruiters will consider people who have criminal records. It's more accurate to say that at this time, recruiters are rarely considering people with felony arrests or convictions on their records.]
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Clarification July 14, 2017
In this report, it's said that short of a murder conviction, recruiters will consider people who have criminal records. It's more accurate to say that at this time, recruiters are rarely considering people with felony arrests or convictions on their records.