Felony Waivers for a Criminal War–God Bless America.

Seven years after Iraq invasion, an Army transformed

Nasser Hempel: He spent 11 years in Texas prisons for his role in a 1991 robbery.

By Sig Christenson
San Antonio Express-News

When Nasser Hempel walked into an Army recruiting office in October 2006, he wasn’t the typical applicant – a kid out of high school looking to serve his country and earn some college money.

At 33, he was four years removed from having spent 11 years in Texas maximum-security prisons for a 1991 robbery. In his first month in a prison dubbed “Little Vietnam,” he said he was involved in two riots and 12 fistfights.

He was an inmate when he heard about the 9-11 attacks.

“I remember how helpless I felt being stuck behind millions of dollars of concrete and steel while America was under attack,” said Hempel, a San Antonio native who grew up in a trailer park in Houston.

“For a guy who built his reputation on fear and violence in prison, that feeling I had that day was something I’ve never experienced,” he said. “That’s the day I realized the world was bigger than me.”

Now an Army Reserve corporal serving in Baghdad under the service’s moral conduct waiver program, Hempel, 36, lives a life transformed. But the Army, too, has undergone a radical makeover since the Iraq invasion seven years ago.

It’s been forced to turn to the once-seldom-used National Guard and Reserve to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Saturday, the seventh anniversary of the war, more than three dozen reservists with the 328th Human Resources Company and 363rd Quartermaster Battalion Detachments 3 & 4 were welcomed home in San Antonio after a year in Iraq.

An additional 500 troops with the Army Reserve’s 17th Psychological Operations Battalion, with companies in Austin, Dallas, Baton Rouge, La., and San Antonio, are preparing this spring for a yearlong deployment in Baghdad.

Turning to part-time troops was one way the Army has coped with wars it never anticipated. Bringing more troops in through a variety of waivers, among them “character” or moral conduct issues that included felony crimes, were other measures – yet only part of a much larger Army story.

Waivers are granted for everything from medical woes and low scores on the Pentagon’s aptitude test to recruits failing drug and alcohol tests. They’re also given for people with misdemeanor and felony records.

University of Maryland military sociologist David Segal said waivers are nothing new, but have been used with greater frequency by an Army strained by the Iraq war.

“They’ve been doing it forever, but the numbers were small,” he said. “It’s only with the current conflict in the past couple of years that the numbers have gotten so large.”

The Army stopped issuing felony waivers after the start of the fiscal year in October 2008 and severely curtailed conduct waivers of other kinds as the recession made it easier to recruit troops.

The Army Recruiting Command’s Douglas Smith said he expects waivers in both numbers and as a percentage of all enlistments to remain down throughout the year.

“That being said, I would like to re-emphasize that we are confident in the soldiers we recruited over the past few years who received waivers. It would be doing them a disservice by implying that they somehow should not have been allowed to become soldiers,” he said.

A different recruit
Still, the Army that camped in Kuwait’s vast desert just south of the Iraqi border in the weeks before the March 20, 2003, invasion was far different. More recruits entering boot camp then held high school diplomas and posted better scores on the Pentagon’s aptitude test. The oldest GI just out of boot camp was 35 or 36.

No one imagined a flabby 42-year-old recruit in basic training until Russell Dilling of San Antonio showed up at Fort Jackson, S.C., in summer 2006, after the age limit was extended twice that year. He’s 45 and out of the Army studying on the GI Bill, but still sports his combat helmet in a photo on his Facebook postings.

The Army began taking in more dropouts as the lightning invasion morphed into occupation. It increased the number of recruits scoring poorly on the aptitude test and dangled ever larger cash bonuses before recruits and veteran GIs.

The Army spent nearly $1 billion to sign up 64,526 active-duty and Reserve soldiers from 2006 to 2009. While that is a fraction of the Iraq war’s cost – $748.2 billion so far – it remains a significant investment and illustrates how the Army scrambled to find recruits.

Active-duty Army recruits in 2006 got an average bonus of $12,000. Two years later, it was $18,300. Army Reserve recruits saw their bonuses more than double over the same period, to $19,500.

Waivers have been seen by the various services as an indispensable tool in recruiting from a population in which only three in 10 applicants are qualified to serve. In 2008, the latest year available, Defense Department figures show that one in every four people joining the armed services did so under a waiver of some kind.

Not everyone qualifies for one. Those convicted of sexually violent offenses and drug dealing aren’t allowed into the Army. Federal gun control law forbids people convicted of domestic violence crimes from serving, and those involved in school violence were barred after the Columbine shootings. Anyone on parole or facing felony charges is excluded as well.

Becoming a soldier was Hempel’s dream. Like others wanting a felony waiver, he had to wait until completing his parole in October 2006 before entering the Army Reserve. He became one of 1,002 new soldiers with felony records that year.

New stripes
Hempel talks about going from “prison stripes to sergeant stripes.” He’s been promoted to sergeant but hasn’t formally received his chevrons.

“There has not been anybody in the history of the United States military that has served more time than me and voluntarily joined the Army,” he said.

The Recruiting Command’s Smith noted the Army was founded in 1775 and that it probably was impossible to confirm Hempel’s claim. Smith noted that while Hempel joined under a waiver, the Army couldn’t provide details about it or why commanders decided to approve him for service.

Records show Hempel went to prison for a robbery outside a Houston nightclub. The victim told police a man demanded his billfold, money and watch before jumping into an SUV driven by Hempel. The victim chased after them, and the passenger in the SUV fired at him.

The victim was hit but later identified Hempel, then 18, and the second man in a photo lineup. Hempel said he’d lost his job and was desperate for cash. He got 15 years after pleading guilty to robbery, while an aggravated assault charge was dropped.

At 5 feet, 9 inches and 155 pounds, he began working out two hours a day after surviving riots and fighting in the Beto 1 unit in East Texas. A prison system spokeswoman couldn’t discuss his disciplinary record, but said he spent time in a number of maximum-security units.

“Prison life is crazy,” said Hempel, who called his first six months as a prisoner the longest of his life. “You see some strange stuff and meet even stranger people.”

Hempel was released in December 2002. A few years later, he ran an obstacle course at Padre Island set by Army recruiters and learned about the waiver program. Later, he was interviewed by a top Recruiting Command officer and cleared for service.

Today, the reservist is preparing to return home to his wife and three children after a year of war but would prefer to deploy to Afghanistan. Going back to war is easier than coming home, where he worries about having trouble finding a job and a place to live because he’s a felon.

“I try to be considerate to society’s feelings about me,” said Hempel, a heavy equipment operator and carpenter with the 808th Engineering Company. “That’s why I take rejection like a big boy, but sooner or later society has to realize that rejection doesn’t pay the bills.”

In a camouflage uniform, Hempel is redeemed. He rooms with a police officer. Another buddy is a cop, as is his first sergeant. His fresh start in an Army badly in need of boots and the success that he has enjoyed might strike some skeptics as counterintuitive, but isn’t uncommon.

A study found that soldiers entering the Army on moral waivers were less likely to be booted from basic training compared with others. They had fewer personality disorder cases than nonwaiver GIs, re-enlisted at a higher rate, were more likely to be high school graduates, earn awards for valor and rise faster to sergeant.

Still, there are downsides. Waiver soldiers in the study period from 2003-06 were more likely to become deserters, fail alcohol rehabilitation courses and get bad conduct or dishonorable discharges. As different as the Army is as the United States enters its eighth year of war in Iraq, Hempel will argue that it’s good – and has an idea for making it even better.

His suggestion comes right out of Hollywood.

“People have always wondered why we don’t send prisoners to go fight in the war instead of just sitting behind bars. I’m here to tell you that being on both sides of the spectrum, I feel prisoners would make great soldiers – not necessarily better soldiers but great soldiers.”