Donald Trump’s Tuesday night speech in Greensboro, North Carolina, took a controversial detour when the Republican presidential candidate commented on corruption in the military on a day that was also marked the 241st anniversary of the founding of the US Army and at a time when the country remained gripped by fear and patriotism following this weekend’s Orlando terror attack.
"Iraq, crooked as hell. How about bring baskets of money – millions and millions of dollars – and handing it out?" Trump said at the evening rally. "I want to know who were the soldiers that had that job because I think they’re living very well right now, whoever they may be."
The line of discussion that the Republican leader apparently hoped to explore was the bureaucratic ineptitude of the Bush and Obama administrations, dovetailing toward the worn-out line that "America needs to be run like a business," and that "our leaders are failing us, they are incompetent."
Instead, the leading narrative resulting from the off-the-cuff remark was more along the lines of how could a candidate who repeatedly dodged his military draft and who is disliked by 70% of the population attack a trusted and venerable American institution while recent public opinion polls show that 74% of the country thinks the armed forces are doing a good job.
The politically-costly comment opened up a secondary debate, supported by a great deal of analysis, showing that US troops repeatedly stole cash intended to be used for post-war rebuilding in Iraq and Afghanistan, while other military service people were arrested for accepting bribes from corrupt local contractors during the reconstruction period.
The nonprofit Center for Public Integrity found that 115 US soldiers were convicted of committing theft or bribery in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2005-2015. Government reports indicate that large amounts of cash, intended for Afghanistan reconstruction were reported as lost by US soldiers, leading to increased scrutiny by the US Congress.
Retired military officials also claim that graft is pervasive throughout the US Army, especially among contracting officers and those tasked with managing funds.
It isn’t the first time that candidate Trump waded into this controversy, having remarked in September 2015, "Remember when they were handing $50 million in cash when they were going through Afghanistan? I want to know who were the soldiers who were carrying cash. 50 million dollars cash! Cash! How stupid are we? I wouldn’t be surprised with those soldiers if the cash didn’t get there."
"The problem was very severe at the height of the US invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, officers up to the rank of full colonel were caught with their hand in the till," said McDonald. "For example, a West Point graduate, Army Captain Michael Ngyuen, returned to the United States and immediately bought a $70,000 BMW before he was caught with $300,000 in cash in the attic of his home in Oregon."
"He had been shipping home the money that he had made in bribes as a crooked contractor, he was shipping it home in the mail and he hadn’t touched his Army pay which went straight into the bank and this was just a low-level captain," noted McDonald. "There had been colonels and I wouldn’t be surprised if it went higher than that, but no general in the US military is going to be punished for most anything, because it is like a get-out-of-jail-free card once you are a flag officer."
"It was so easy to steal and so easy to get away with that, a lot of people tried to do it," said the correspondent, echoing Trump’s sentiments. "Some of those people got caught and others got away with it."
"There was a US Army major in Iraq who killed herself after she was caught accepting $225,000 in kickbacks, there is the case of Captain Dan Gilliam who was nailed on charges of stashing over $400,000 in his luggage when he came back from his assignment as a US Army dispersing officer in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and there were so many more," said McDonald, detailing only a few cases.
Where did soldiers find the money they steal and how do they get away with it?
"Well, a contracting officer in the US military is assigned to deal with the locals and there were crooked contractors in these countries who would approach US military personnel and say that if you give me this contract we’ll flip you so much money," explained the retired US Army major. "That was an endemic, widespread practice."
"There were also plenty of greenbacks floating around Iraq and it was no problem at all getting bricks of hundred dollar bills and shipping them home in your luggage," said McDonald. "I also want to say that Donald Trump is absolutely correct when he cites corruption during the war in Iraq and I want to go on the record and say that, while I am a retired field-grade officer in the US Army and a combat veteran, we never should have gone to the war in Iraq in the first place, it was just a complete disaster."