On December 30, Colonel Owen Ray, a Special Forces officer, allegedly held his family at gunpoint inside his home. Following a two-hour standoff with the police, he was arrested. He is to reappear to court tomorrow to face charges.
The story of Colonel Owen Ray is avoidable. It is perhaps the worst form of malfeasance by the generals. They knew and did nothing to help him. Now, it is even worse for him, his family, and the Special Operations Community.
Many of you do not know that on active duty as a general officer (GO), I led the fight to improve the care we gave to servicemembers and their families, specifically those servicemembers with mental injuries due to Post-traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). As the commander of Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAFRICA), a division-level command, I used my treatment for PTS, TBI, pain management, and sleep disorder as a template to help our servicemembers and their families.
I knew we had a problem in SOF and it was not being addressed effectively by the leadership or my peers. I asked why do we have so many disciplinary issues in SOF and why do we have issues on six-month deployments with alcohol and drugs?
The answer was simple: We are not effectively treating mental and physical injuries and spiritual health.
This triad is hugely important in a military organization in order to ensure resiliency, readiness, and care of our bottom line which is people, family, mission. Having programs and leadership paying lip service to get treatment will not work. The leadership must lead by example and put together an approach that guarantees our servicemembers and their families will not be stigmatized and have their careers hurt.
So, in SOCAFRICA we put together a program that assessed, diagnosed, and provided treatment. This program was successful because Sarah McNary, I, and my senior enlisted advisor Navy Seal Master Chief Rich Pulglisi underwrote it and guaranteed to our servicemembers that nothing negative would happen to them if they got treatment. Our servicemembers came forward in significant numbers. The program also included families. The result was a more resilient and combat-ready organization.
Attributable to this 26-month program was a significant decrease in alcohol and drug incidents, a decrease in inappropriate behavior, no suicidal ideation, an increase in work environment productivity, and a number of saved marriages. This is captured in a command climate assessment and personal testimony from servicemembers and their families.
It was not long after the program was initiated and highlighted in a NY Times article that I was told that if I continued with this program and kept talking about it publicly it would not bode well for my career. I answered that, “I am not doing this for my career, I am doing it for the health and welfare of our servicemembers and their families. We cannot continue to avoid effectively dealing with mental injuries and the devastating consequences they have on our people and their families.”
Well, I was not promoted and I was asked to retire. This was not performance-related: it was related to not fitting into the GO club and following their rules even when this was detrimental to our people, family, and mission. This resonated throughout the force. The commander that followed me discontinued the program. The problem continues to grow in our military. It is the fault of the senior generals and admirals.
I relinquished command of SOCAFRICA on June 29, 2017, and retired from the Army on October 2, 2017. I spent more than 33 years on active duty and 24 years in Special Operations Forces. I got zero acknowledgment from the commander of the Special Forces Regiment or the United States Army Special Operation’s commander. I got a black polyester, China-made baseball cap from the Special Operations Command commander for my years of honorable service. I did get my retirement award, but that was submitted by my subordinates. I was made to feel that I was being fired not retired. If they treat their senior leadership this way it is no surprise that they do not take care of their subordinates.
The catch is that senior leaders are not immune to PTS and TBI.
The truth is you that can get promoted, serve at the highest levels, and still be very highly functional with PTS and TBI, but you need to get treatment. We must move forward and change the climate. We cannot continue to deploy our SOF servicemembers to combat environments and think this will not negatively affect their behavior.
Colonel Ray’s case underscores this in a big way. Here is how his case is bound to unspool:
Right now every senior leader and sycophant around them is looking out the window to find someone to blame. They are shaping their statements. They will ultimately say they never saw this coming and that they cannot comment on an ongoing investigation. They also have to do this to protect the GOs that came before them who also did nothing. This is likewise part of the GO club rules.
The Inspector-General complaint’s conclusions on Colonel Ray’s behavior told them the problem and they chose to ignore it. Now, Colonel Owen and his family need legal help. He also needs treatment. He will need to be held accountable for his actions, but so must the general officers that did nothing.
1. Colonel Ray has most likely been suffering from one of the three or a combination of PTS, TBI, and pain management issues. He has been self-medicating with alcohol and this has negatively affected his personal and professional life. He probably has sleep issues that have not been diagnosed.
2. Colonel Ray believed that asking for help is a weakness. He exists in a leadership environment that frowns on getting help and therefore he sees it as detrimental to his career. Little does he know, or is the leadership willing to recognize, that his current actions are worse for his career, family, the Regiment, and the Army. Sadly, it was all avoidable.
3. The GO leadership and Army GO leadership are asleep at the wheel. Their actions are detrimental to resiliency and readiness. They are ignoring their issues and not addressing those of our servicemembers and their families. They are not leading from the front on this.
4. I know many general officers who suffer from PTS. I also know that many of them have not received treatment. I got zero encouragement from my superiors and no support from my peers. Some of these peers I regarded as friends. Our program in SOCAFRICA supported a number of those serving under them who had requested treatment. We kept their treatment confidential for fear of retaliation.
5. If a general officer cannot take care of themselves they have no business being responsible for others. SOF and the Army have huge issues regarding mental injury, physical injury, and spiritual readiness. They have the studies, behavior, and incidents to prove it.
Avoiding the realities of the health and welfare of our servicemembers and their families is perhaps the most significant senior leadership failure. It not only negatively affects good order, discipline, and morale in the military, but leads to huge problems when our men and women become veterans.
I submit this with humility, respect, and sadness. I recognize my mistakes, shortcomings, and regrets as I was an imperfect leader. I wish I could have been more effective. Colonel Ray’s case reminds us that no one is immune to the scars of war.
This article was originally published on January 10, 2021.