U.S. Army won't let decorated officer resign

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 23, 2011 - 12:04 PM

Capt. Sheree Gunderson has been trying to leave the service since August.

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Capt. Sheree Gunderson, a registered nurse at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, hopes her resignation will be approved soon.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Since turning in her resignation last August, Capt. Sheree Gunderson hasn't had much to do during weekend drills at Fort Snelling. She reads the newspaper, goes on the Internet to check her Hotmail and Facebook accounts and occasionally attends classes unrelated to her military assignment. If there's a medical drill, she'll offer to play the role of a casualty.

For showing up, the Army pays her $550 to $600 each month.

According to her supervisors, Gunderson has done everything the Army requires in order to resign. But the Army won't let her go.

For officers, the process of leaving the armed forces is supposed to take eight weeks, according to a Pentagon memo. But for Gunderson and some other officers in the Army Reserve, processing that paperwork can take a year or two because so many supervisors have full-time civilian jobs that get in the way of their administrative duties, Army officials said.

The delay has forced Gunderson, 32, to postpone her plans for getting married and enrolling in graduate school. She wants to move on with her life.

"I have always loved the military," said Gunderson, who has served 11 years in the Army and the Reserve. "It is sad I have to leave this way. I feel betrayed.

Gunderson's supervisors are also dismayed. They said her departure stalled when her resignation paperwork was accidentally left on a desk for three or four months. It wasn't located until the Star Tribune and the Army's inspector general inquired about Gunderson's status, a colonel said.

"The whole process has been frustrating for me and the staff as well," said Maj. Mark Timm, who oversees Gunderson as commander of the 444th Minimal Care Detachment. "I feel bad for her. She was a good soldier for me when she wanted to be in the military. And once she decided to get out, I supported her position."

Some officers believe the military is making it hard for good soldiers to leave.

"People who are satisfactorily performing have a harder time getting out than people who are not satisfactorily performing," said Capt. Peter Fallgren, who supervises an officer who has spent more than a year trying to get her resignation approved. "I don't know where the system is breaking down, but I know that things should happen much quicker."

Army officials said they don't know how many officers have filed complaints about delays with the Army's inspector general. The Pentagon also was unable to say how many officers are still waiting for their retirement paperwork to be approved.

'Wearing them down'

Unlike enlistees, who can leave as soon as their required time is up, officers must wait until their retirement paperwork is approved by multiple military officials.

"An officer in the Army does not have an end of enlistment term as does an enlisted soldier," said Lt. Col. Brent Campbell, an Army public affairs officer. "It is indefinite. The process goes through channels and can be approved and disapproved along the way."

Capt. Linda Wenker of Elk River, who joined the military in 2001 and now serves in the Army Reserve, submitted her resignation more than a year ago.

Though Wenker's documents were signed by two commanding officers, an Army spokesman said Wenker will not be eligible to retire until August, when she completes eight years of service as an officer. Maj. Matthew Lawrence, an Army spokesman, said Wenker and other officers can't count the years they served as enlisted soldiers toward the time they need to serve as officers.

Wenker, 39, said none of her supervisors told her about that policy. Moreover, she said her service records show she has already fulfilled her obligations.

"They don't want to let people go, especially officers who have really invested a full amount into their military career," said Bill Galvin, co-chair of the GI Rights Hotline, a national phone service that fields concerns from thousands of soldiers. "It would appear that all the red tape and entanglement is a way of delaying letting the folks go and also possibly wearing them down so they will possibly stay on."

Threatened with AWOL

Gunderson, who described her family as "very military oriented," enlisted in the Army in 2000. She trained as a military police officer and served in several foreign countries, including a two-year stint in Baghdad, where she helped supervise the training of Iraqi police.

She volunteered repeatedly at an Iraqi orphanage, where she helped disabled children, won a Bronze Star, was commended as "an angel of mercy" for her treatment of detainees and Iraqi police officers and "made a real difference in a war-torn nation," according to a document prepared by her company commander.

In 2008, she switched to the Reserve and joined the Nursing Corps as an administrative officer. Not wanting to be deployed again, she submitted her resignation papers in August 2010.

Gunderson said her supervisors told her she wouldn't have to show up for monthly drills at Fort Snelling while her paperwork was being processed. But in November, Gunderson said, an Army representative called her and told her she would be declared absent without leave if she failed to participate in a December drill. AWOL soldiers can face court-martial and imprisonment.

Gunderson, who lives in Ellsworth, Wis., and works as a registered nurse at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, hopes her resignation will be approved now that the Army has located her documents.

Lawrence agreed that Gunderson's documents should not have sat unattended for so long. But the Army spokesman said Gunderson also slowed down her departure by failing to turn in paperwork to a soldier readiness center at Fort Snelling, which he said is the standard procedure.

Gunderson said she met with someone from the readiness center who helped her prepare her documents. She said she forwarded her paperwork to the appropriate person.

Col. Chuck Ware, who helped locate Gunderson's paperwork, said he expects Gunderson's resignation to be approved in a month or two.

Staff librarian John Wareham did research for this article. Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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