WASHINGTON - The number of U.S. soldiers forced out of the Army because of crimes or misconduct has soared in the past several years as the military emerges from a decade of war that put a greater focus on battle competence than on character.
Data obtained by The Associated Press shows that the number of officers who left the Army due to misconduct more than tripled in the past three years. The number of enlisted soldiers forced out for drugs, alcohol, crimes and other misconduct shot up from about 5,600 in 2007, as the Iraq war peaked, to more than 11,000 last year.
The data reveals stark differences between the military services and underscores the strains that long, repeated deployments to the front lines have had on the Army's soldiers and their leaders.
It also reflects the Army's rapid growth in the middle part of the decade, and the decisions to relax standards a bit to bring in and retain tens of thousands of soldiers to fill the ranks as the Pentagon added troops in Iraq and continued the fight in Afghanistan.
The Army grew to a peak of about 570,000 soldiers during the height of the wars, and soldiers represented the bulk of the troops on the battlefields compared with the other services.
"I wouldn't say lack of character was tolerated in (war) theater, but the fact of the last 10 or 12 years of repeated deployments, of the high op-tempo - we might have lost focus on this issue," Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's top officer, told the AP last week.
His comments mirror concerns aired by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, several times in recent months. The ethical lapses, Dempsey said, can be attributed in some ways to 10 years at war when the military failed to properly balance character and competence.
"It is not the war that has caused this," Dempsey said. "It is the pace, and our failure to understand that at that pace, we were neglecting the tools that manage us as a profession over time."
Over the past year, a series of high profile scandals - from sexual assault and damaging leadership to mistreatment of the enemy and unauthorized spending - has dogged the military, leading to broad ethics reviews and new personnel policies.
Those scandals included the demotion of Army Gen. William "Kip" Ward for lavish, unauthorized spending; sexual misconduct charges against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair; and episodes of gambling and drinking by other general officers.
More recently, there have been cheating allegations against Air Force nuclear missile launch officers and a massive bribery case in California that has implicated six Navy officers. Examples of troop misconduct include Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters and soldiers posing with body parts of Afghan militants.
As a result, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other leaders say ethics is a priority about which they now routinely lecture troops and officers. They also have undertaken initiatives aimed at identifying and dealing with problem service members.
"We're paying a lot more attention to it now. We are not tolerant at all of those showing a lack of character," Odierno said. "We have to refocus ourselves so we get to where we think is the right place."
In 2010, 119 Army officers were forced to leave the service because of misconduct; that number was fairly consistent with the annual totals since 2000. Last year the number was 387.
For enlisted soldiers, the numbers have seesawed over the past 13 years, hovering near 9,000 at the start of the decade and falling to 5,706 in 2007. Since then, the number has climbed again.