How to Separate, Discharge or Get Rid of Bad Army Soldiers

In the Army, there are a few bad apples.  You probably know who I am talking about.  Visit any company sized element and you will probably find 3-7 Soldiers that cause 90% of the problems.  These “problem Soldiers” are a significant problem for the chain of command.  Not only do they cause the problems, but they also take up a lot of their leader’s time!

In this chapter, I want to share some tips on how to get rid of your bad Soldiers.  Before we get too deep into the topic, I want you to understand a few things.  Here are some key points for you to consider:

– All Soldiers have some good points and bad points about them

– A good Soldier can turn into a bad Soldier

– A bad Soldier can turn into a good Soldier

– Most bad Soldiers can be rehabilitated with some mentorship and guidance

– Not everyone in the military should BE IN the military

– Your job as a leader is to mentor everyone and give everyone a chance to prove themselves

– Ultimately, you should strive to retain the quality Soldiers and weed out the bad apples

Before you decide to get rid of your bad Soldiers here are a few tips for success:

Tip # 1: Set Clear Expectations

First and foremost, you need to set clear expectations with ALL of your Soldiers.   You should do this from day one.  You need to outline your personal and professional expectations for each Soldier.  They deserve to know what you expect of them and what will happen if they exceed the standards and what will happen if they fail to meet the standards.  This needs to be done formally, via written counseling.  If a Soldier has a question about what is expected of them, make sure you explain it to them so they understand.

Depending upon your rank, you might want to consider an SOP or Written Policy Letter too.  This something you can post on the Unit Bulletin Board.  You can also give every Soldier under your authority a copy to read.

If your Soldiers do not know what is expected of them, you really have no right to punish them.  In fact, if they don’t know what is expected of them, you have FAILED at your job as a leader.

Tip # 2: Enforce the Standards

There is only one standard in the Army, and that standard is the Army Standard.  As a leader, your job is to enforce the Army Standards equally to everyone you supervise.  That means when you see something wrong, you should address it immediately.  For instance, if one of your Soldiers walks by an Officer and doesn’t salute, you should pull the Soldier aside immediately to address the problem.

I’ve met lots of NCOs (and officers) who were scared to confront Soldiers.  Some of these NCOs and Officers were natural introverts who disliked confrontation.  Even if you are introverted and dislike confrontation, you have a job to do.  That’s part of being a leader.  You have to be able to look someone in the eye when they do something wrong and address the problem.  If you are to scared or aren’t willing to do that, you should probably get out of the Army.

In addition, don’t play favorites.  Hold everyone under your authority to the same standard.  Don’t let a “higher ranking” subordinate get away with something that you wouldn’t tolerate from another subordinate.

Tip # 3: Put Everything in Writing

I call it the “Power of the Pen.”  There are few things more effective than the Power of the Pen.  When you put things in writing, people take you seriously. They realize there is written evidence about what is going on and this normally forces them into reality rather quickly.

Most importantly, this creates a paper trail.  If the poor behavior continues, and you want to recommend a serious punishment to the chain of command, you now have a paper trail to support your claims.  Most novice leaders don’t do this.  So when a problem gets serious, or when an evaluation report is due, they don’t have anything in writing to justify their claims.  As a result, the offender slips through the cracks and advances their career.  This is one of the biggest issues in the Army today.

There are so many ineffective leaders in the Army because, at one time or another, someone couldn’t look someone that person in the eye and hold them accountable for their actions.  In other words, their leader failed them.  We all know that problem children normally turn into problem adults.  The same holds true in the Army.  If you don’t teach Soldiers what the standard is from day one of their career, you are doing them a huge injustice.

Always put everything in writing to include the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Use the Magic Bullet Statement.  Educate yourself, collect the facts, and put it in writing!  This might just be the most important thing you can do to get rid of the bad Soldiers.  Without a paper trail, don’t expect your chain of command to support your recommendations.

Tip # 4: Educate Yourself about the Rules and Regulations

As a leader, you need to educate yourself.  You need to read the rules and regulations to find out the proper procedures for dealing with certain issues.  You should read regulations, unit policy letters and get guidance from your superior, JAG and the S1 Office.  The last thing you want to do is make uninformed decisions.

When you are presented with a Soldier issue, spend an hour or two to find out the proper way to deal with it (if you don’t already know the answer).  This makes you look like a professional and it keeps you out of hot water!  So many leaders never do this and they end up getting themselves in trouble, or the Soldier gets away with the bad behavior without being punished because the NCO did something wrong with the paperwork.  Don’t let that happen to you!
Take the time to find out what right looks like.  Always educate yourself before you put something in writing that could come back to haunt you.

Tip # 5: Talk with Chain of Command to Get On The Same Sheet of Paper

One of the best things you can do is to get on the same sheet of paper with your chain of command.  Find out what their viewpoint is concerning certain issues.  Find out what punishments they will enforce/give when Soldiers do certain things.  Find out what issues they want you to bring to their attention and what issues they expect you to deal with at your level. Every chain of command is different.  If you don’t ask, you will never know.  At a minimum, sit down with your first line commander and First Sergeant/CSM and get their input.  Hopefully, this will be part of your initial counseling with them.  If it isn’t, make sure that you ask them to clarify their leadership style and viewpoint on these issues.

Every chain of command is different.  If you don’t ask, you will never know.  At a minimum, sit down with your first line commander and First Sergeant/CSM and get their input.  Hopefully, this will be part of your initial counseling with them.  If it isn’t, make sure that you ask them to clarify their leadership style and viewpoint on these issues.

The last thing you want to do is spend endless hours of your time counseling a Soldier and making a recommendation for punishment, only to find out that your chain of command WILL NOT support you on the issue.  That’s why I recommend you handle as much as you can at your level and talk with your chain of command.

Tip # 6 Follow Through with What You Start

If you want to get rid of a bad Soldier, you have to follow through with what you start.  Sometimes the separation process or disciplinary process will be a long, drawn-out process that requires a lot of your time and energy.  If you aren’t willing to stick with your initial decision, and follow through with what you started, you shouldn’t recommend a Soldier for punishment to begin with.

I’ve seen some Soldier issues take up to 12 months to get resolved.  That’s definitely not the norm, but you need to understand that it might take a few months to initiate and finish the punishment that you recommend, such as an Article 15, Court Martial, Administrative Reduction or something else.  Have a backbone, a little bit of patience and follow through.

Tip # 7: Give Your Soldiers a Fair Chance to Rehabilitate Themselves First

Everyone deserves a chance.  Sometimes two people will simply have a personality conflict that they cannot overcome.  When that happens, the Soldier should be transferred to someone else’s authority and given a second chance.  I’m by no means for passing around problem Soldiers from one section to another because the leader doesn’t want to address an issue.  But I do believe everyone deserves a chance to prove themselves.  And sometimes this isn’t possible when a Soldier is working for a boss they can’t get along with.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t counsel the Soldier and recommend punishment when they mess up.  You should do that if their attitude and behavior are unacceptable.  I’m just saying that before you separate a Soldier from the military, you should consider transferring them to a different unit first, to give them a last chance.

Tip # 8: Are You the Problem?

Are you the problem?  If you have 10 Soldiers under your control and all 10 are giving you problems, you might be the problem!  I hate to make you angry or upset you, but it might be true.  A bad leader can turn good Soldiers into problem Soldiers.  If everyone is misbehaving and doing things badly, you might need to adjust your leadership style.

Few leaders will ever admit they are ineffective (I’ve never met one).  But the truth of the matter is one bad leader can ruin an entire unit or section.  I’ve seen one bad NCO ruin 5-10 good Soldiers.  I’ve also seen one stellar NCO transform 5-10 bad Soldiers into good Soldiers.

If you have repeated Soldier issues in your section, maybe you should take some time to look yourself in the mirror and determine if you are the real issue.  Ask yourself some questions such as:

  • Am I treating everyone with respect?
  • Am I setting a good example?
  • Am I playing favorites?
  • Am I holding everyone accountable to the same standards?
  • Would I want someone just like me working for me?
  • Am I providing clear guidance, instructions and feedback?

You might even want to consider doing an “anonymous” climate survey.  You could have your Soldiers fill out a questionnaire about your effectiveness as a leader.  I’ve done this and learned a lot in the process.

At the end of the day, we all have areas that we can improve to become better leaders.  Whenever you face a problem, the first thing you should always do is look yourself in the mirror to see if YOU are the real issue.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, all Army leaders have the responsibility to get rid of bad Soldiers.  If you have Soldiers working for you who do nothing but cause problems, you need to make sure that you counsel them and tell them what you expect of them.  If these Soldiers cannot shape up and meet the Army standards, you have the responsibility to separate them from the military.  This process isn’t fun or easy, but it is an important part of your job.

Do you have anything you can add to this? Do you have any questions? Please post them below. Thank you

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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13 thoughts on “How to Separate, Discharge or Get Rid of Bad Army Soldiers”

  1. A good Leader, learns from his men too. You don’t walk into a job and know it all. To many young Lieutenant’s and Captains, have no idea how to lead, but will not listen and learn. Most of your NCO’s will take the right road, which is to support the Unit with what it needs to the best of their ability. Then you have the ones that feel threatened, you’ll find them sticking out of your rear end kissing up all the time. They will tell you the other Sergeants are doing this or that, and where you want to look is, who is saying it. If someone is not up to snuff, it will show. Staff meeting’s, a good leader will say he has something done or not, a bad one will blame it on his subordinate, it won’t be the Sergeant’s fault. Keep your eyes open, you’ll see it. Motor dept, are they supplying the unit with transportation? Does it look good? Run good? Clean? Finance, is there a line to their desks? Somebody not getting paid right? Wills made out? etc. Supply, anybody missing things off their uniform? Do they have issuing problems? Kitchen? Meals good? Plates and Stoves clean? Then look at the men, are they happy? Are they Disgruntled all the time? Do they dress well…. you can figure it out, but if you don’t, ASK… A Sergeant has probably been doing his job for a couple of years….. he will tell you.

  2. I agree: asking yourself if you are the problem is sometimes the perfect question. There are many subordinates who just have issues that have nothing to do with you, but as their leader, you are the easiest focal point for their frustrations. However, if many subordinates have issues with you, and don’t appear to have them with anyone else, perhaps you need to take a step back and ask yourself if you are the common denominator in all of these problems. Open up the lines of communication and try to resolve these issues. You can bet that your superiors are watching.

  3. You asked the tough question that people often have a hard time asking themselves, that of “Are you the problem?” As a leader, it must be done, however, if you want your soldiers to be successful. Chuck, you listed seven really great points for leadership to consider when working with their soldiers, when planning training and other professional development, counseling, and problem-solving. However, I would also like to point out that, while a leader is responsible for what he brings to the table, his soldiers are ultimately responsible for their choices as well. If, as a leader, you have laid out the best possible road map for your soldiers’ success, and you have scrutinized yourself for possibly making it difficult for someone functioning effectively in his role, but the soldier is still unsuccessful, then either the soldier has made choices that are problematic, or he simply isn’t a good fit. Everybody is better off parting ways. Doing it right saves everybody headaches down the road.

  4. When I first took command of my platoon in the CA National Guard, the first thing I received from my platoon sergeant was a soldier got his TA-50 stolen recently. Not only that, he has been known for being AWOL, have a mindset of being better than everyone in the unit, and has no military discipline when addressing NCOs or officers. The unit has attempted to discharge him many times but the new regulation was the barrier. It is my understanding that a soldier has to have more than 9 AWOL MUTA to be considered but that particular soldier came in every other month or two so he won’t get dishonorable discharge. Not sure what happened but the soldier has finally get his stuff together and did pretty well now.

    1. Sounds like some similar situations I have been through. Sometimes you can turn around a bad Soldier and sometimes you can’t. Lots of the “problem soldiers” know the regulations and they constantly test you. Sometimes you have to beat them at their own game to deal with things. And other times you have to find other creative ways to solve the problem.

  5. If it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen. And that is truly how people will look at it if it ever reaches a point of debate. When you pull out the counseling statement, your Soldiers tend to take you more seriously. Trust me, Soldier know what they can and can’t get away with and will push that boundary.

    1. So true, Justin. I call it the “Power of the Pen.” It works every time, when you take the time to document things in writing. Verbal warnings are practically useless nowadays.

  6. All valid points that could apply to the non-military world as well. Having spent 12+ years in HR, I saw a lot of bad “soldiers”.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Rachel. The corporate world is just as bad as the military, when it comes to bad Soldiers. Unfortunately, many civilian leaders are not trained or prepared to counsel, develop and mentor their subordinates. They don’t know how to address problems as they arise, put things in writing, or create a paper trail. I know it can be very frustrating.

  7. Chuck,

    Nice article. I will agree, every unit has plenty of “turds” or problem Soldiers. I find the worse thing for a unit is a TOXIC LEADER. This is an Officer or NCO who are simply filling a Paragraph and Line # and do nothing. I think an important thing to remember with all these tips is to GET IT IN WRITING! Counsel these Soldiers. Go over their duty description and responsibilities and your EXPECTATIONS. Then, follow up each month or quarter and review what they have or have not done. Then, when it comes time to refer to their COC (Remember, 2 Levels UP!) then you have all the support you need in writing. It will also support that you were doing YOUR job as a leader as well.

    Just my thoughts…

    1. I definitely agree with you Justin. One bad leader can ruin an entire unit. From my experience, I believe in the 1/3, 2/3, 3/3 rule. In every command team there is a Commander, Senior NCO and XO. If one of those three folks is exceptional, the unit will be a good unit. If two of those three leaders are exceptional, the unit will be a great unit. And if all three of the leadership team is exceptional, the unit will be a superstar unit. Everything starts and ends with LEADERSHIP! Just my thoughts.

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