Udall grills Army Sec. nominee on Fort Carson killings, Piñon Canyon

Sen. Mark Udall
Sen. Mark Udall

The nominee to become secretary of the Army promised Colorado Sen. Mark Udall on Thursday he would read a two-part series published this week by the Colorado Springs Gazette examining a string of killings committed by soldiers from a Fort Carson unit. U.S. Rep. John McHugh, a New York Republican, said he had only learned about the articles yesterday, so he didn’t directly address questions raised by senators about the Gazette’s disturbing revelations during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Calling the lengthy stories by Gazette reporter Dave Philipps “sobering,” “concerning” and “horrifying,” Udall urged McHugh to read them and take them into account to determine “how do we take care of our soldiers when they return from theater.”

McHugh pointed to a handful of pilot projects under way at military bases — not including Fort Carson — where soldiers with alcohol and drug-abuse problems are encouraged to “self-identify, come in and receive assistance” without their commanders having to be notified.

A recently released Army study found substance abuse figured heavily in the “negative outcomes” among soldiers in the 4th Infantry Division, 4th Brigade Combat Team. The report (viewable here as a PDF) also fingered intense warfare, a stigma in the military against seeking help and failures in mental-health treatment for soldiers before concluding more study was necessary.

Turning his questioning to the Army’s contentious expansion plans for the Piñon Canyon training site, Udall asked McHugh whether the Army would commit to “only [proceeding] on the basis of willing sellers and not using eminent domain.”

Mentioning his own experience representing an upstate New York district surrounding Fort Drum, McHugh said he has a “healthy distrust for the process of eminent domain” and stressed the “first path” is for the Army to do an effective job engaging the community.

“The Army should want happy, good, positive neighbors,” McHugh said, “and you don’t get that by going in and condemning property.”

Udall closed his remarks with some thoughts about the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

“I believe Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a failed policy,” Udall said, noting he wasn’t asking McHugh a question but rather stating his own views. “It’s a good example of a law that Congress should repeal.”

Calling the ban on gay soldiers serving openly a “discriminatory policy that undermines the strength of our military,” Udall said he “[looks] forward to working with you and others at the Department of Defense to accomplish the full repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Responding to another senator who finally asked McHugh his views on DADT, the nominee sounded a cautious note about pursuing President Obama’s stated goal to overturn the Clinton-era law.

“I have no doubt the president is going to press forward with his intent to change that policy,” McHugh said, “I think he’d like a full reversal,” he added, to remove any ambiguity about what that “change” might entail.

Acknowledging it would be his job to gather input from the Army before the administration finalized its proposal, McHugh reminded the senators it would be the responsibility of any Army secretary to appear before congressional committees “to best describe the reasons, rationale and justiication for any policy.”

“At the end of the day,” McHugh said, in customary deference to his fellow lawmakers, “this is a policy embedded in law, and there will be no overturning of it without the agreement of this Congress.”

The committee plans to convene and vote on forwarding McHugh’s nomination to the full Senate before the August recess.

Got a tip? Freelance story pitch? Send us an e-mail. Follow The Colorado Independent on Twitter. And we’re hiring.