Last week, Army Staff Sergeant Ricardo Branch received notice that a decision had been made in his third and final appeal. Aware that he could not access the documents without a Common Access Card reader, he had two options: go to his unit, where he reluctantly admitted to me that he wouldn’t be comfortable, or go to the base library. Branch chose to go to the library.
After logging in to one of the available computers, he downloaded the lengthy document and prepared to begin sifting through it for the important news – but he didn’t have to. Right there on the first page, in black and white, he read the words, “we regret to inform you,” and he already knew the rest. His two-year fight to stay in the Army, and indeed his entire thirteen year career as a soldier, were over just like that. No ceremony, no medal pinned on his chest, not even a pleasant luncheon.
This is where it really sucks,” Branch told me over the phone, “where it really hits me in the heart. I wanted to scream, unfortunately that wasn’t an option. I was in a library, surrounding by soldiers in uniform, carrying on with their day… it was like getting punched in the face, and not being able to make a sound.”
Three months ago, SOFREP brought you the story of Staff Sergeant Ricardo Branch, a public affairs soldier previously assigned the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). In February of 2014, Branch was tasked with reviewing an article by his superior officer that was set for publication in Boeing’s internal news service. That story included a single sentence that suggested the 160th were involved in the historic raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.
“I was doing everything in my power, that I knew of, to safeguard that information.” Branch explained to me.
Unbeknownst to Branch at the time, SOAR’s involvement in the raid was already nearing common knowledge. In fact, only days after the raid occurred on May 2nd, 2011, President Barrack Obama gave a public address in which he congratulated the 160th on their participation in bringing down the most wanted terrorist on the planet. All Branch knew, was that as far as he was aware, SOAR’s involvement in the operation remained classified, so he sent an email from his DoD account to that of the major who had sent the story along to him, citing his concerns about the article’s possible violation of OPSEC, or operational security. Branch even quoted DoD policy directly in the email.
Days later, Branch would find himself under investigation for violating his unit’s operational security. Apparently, the intelligence division of his command (commonly referred to as the S2) had flagged Branch’s email to the major, citing the sentence he copied and pasted from the Boeing article as the violation. That’s right, despite the major emailing the article to Branch over the same mode of communication, only the Staff Sergeant was under investigation for allowing content from the third-party article to transmit from one DoD e-mail address to another.
In the months that followed, Branch would be subject to an Article 15, or nonjudicial punishment, for the e-mail he sent, then soon thereafter, he was notified that the violation would see him separated from the Army before his enlistment was up, as a part of the Obama administration’s Quantitative Management Program (QMP). Branch, a career soldier whose father and brother both also served (or continue to serve) in the U.S. Army, was being sent out to pasture over an email in which he tried to protect OPSEC. At the very least, his violation matched that of the major, who was never subject to any sort of investigation.
Branch, intent on staying in the Army he loved, filed an appeal, only to have it rejected. Unwilling to give up his time in boots so easily, he filed one more, this time assembling a more formidable argument in his favor – only to have it rejected again. Aware that he had only one shot left, Branch set out to investigate the circumstances surrounding his dismissal, and find anything that could serve as evidence in his favor. He reached out to prominent legal minds like former Army judge advocate, Jeffery Addicott, and eventually put together what seemed like an air tight case in his favor.
Over the course of his investigation, Branch would come to find that not only had the information he attempted to protect already been released to the public via multiple official channels, it may have even been deemed unclassified through President Obama’s own actions. Worse still, the Army itself had released the 160th’s involvement in the raid though its own Army News service, in an article posted on May 9th, 2011 that can still be accessed today.
For those keeping count, that story went up nearly three years before Branch’s e-mail was sent, and that wasn’t the last bit of evidence he’d find to support his cause. In fact, here’s a brief rundown of just some of the evidence Branch gathered to support his case:
- A story written by Elizabeth Collins for Soldier Magazine nearly a full month prior to Branch sending his email not only included the content Branch sought to protect, but was approved by Branch’s supervisor for distribution.
- The story written by Boeing reporter Malley T. Hislop that prompted Branch to send the email was actually sourced from public knowledge. Bishop told Branch that he had been told of the 160th’s involvement by his supervisor because it was, “common knowledge,” though he did remove it, per Branch’s guidance.
- Admiral William H. McRaven, former SOCOM commander, disclosed the involvement of the 160th in an appearance on CNN on May 3rd, 2016, more than a year before Branch’s appeal would be denied for the third time.
- The 160th’s involvement was cited in two articles written by Sean Naylor, and printed in both the Army Times and Military Times, the first only days after the initial raid, then again 22 months later.
“I would have accepted this decision whole heartily if the case was actually given a fair shake in the redress system,” Branch explained, but unfortunately for him, the Army’s appeal system seems to have failed him. While the appeal did indeed reach all the way to the desk of Robert M. Speer, Acting Secretary of the Army, Branch was horrified to find that they had not included any of the new evidence he had gathered in the package that was actually presented to the man.
“All he was shown was a regurgitation of the documents in the second appeal, with none of the new evidence, smoking guns included.” He told me.
In my year-long correspondence with the Army Review Board Agency, I even expressed the interest to appeal in person because I know sitting across from someone and looking them in the eye would be the ultimate test of someone’s moral character. I wanted to do this because if you know me, you know I’m no dummy and that this decision is 110% wrong.”
Staff Sergeant Ricardo Branch sent an email to his supervisor in an effort to protect information that had already become “public knowledge,” and after eighteen months of bad news and appeals, he is now officially unemployed.
“Ever since this all started, every time my wife and I try to make a plan for the future, we always say, ‘if the army works out.’” Branch said. “If the Army works out, we’ll buy our son a bigger bed… if the Army works out, you can go back to school…”
I asked Branch if they’ve had some talks about what might happen if the Army didn’t work out.
We’ve had some tough conversations, and there have been times when my wife’s gone to bed crying,” Branch told me. “I just kept telling her to have faith that they would make the right decision. Do I feel like I got a fair shake? No. This has been the reality of our marriage every day, since the very beginning.”
Armed with the knowledge that his appeal didn’t reach Army leadership with all of the evidence he presented to clear his name, Branch knows there may be a chance to fight for another look, but after three appeals and having his name dragged through the mud through three duty assignments, Branch is beginning to feel less certain that he wants to keep fighting to stay in an Army that doesn’t seem to care enough about him to give his case a fair shake – which is saying something, coming from a career soldier with a family tradition of service.
Branch is now in the process of moving his family across the country, where he’s hoping he can find work to support them, and they can start to put this ordeal behind them, but despite the hardship, Branch still seems to possess a respect for the Army. His anger and frustration is primarily focused on the Redress or appeals system in place, not on the Army as a whole.
When Branch and I last spoke in April, we discussed the importance of service to his family as one of the reasons he was willing to fight through the layers of bureaucracy to try to stay in service. His father had a long and honorable career in the Army, his brother is on active duty and was recently promoted, and Branch wanted to maintain the family tradition, and the family honor, by finishing out his career and retiring. Now, I asked Branch what he would say if his own son grew up and expressed a desire to serve in the same branch as his father, grandfather and uncle.
I listened to the silence in Branch’s thoughtful pause, and could almost feel his mind racing.
“I’d…” He paused again, “I’d tell my son to think long and hard about serving in the Army. It can provide you with a good life, but sometimes… Sometimes common sense and policy just don’t agree.”