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From time to time, in life and in the Air Force, people find themselves subject to disciplinary proceedings. In the Air Force, these most often take the form of either nonjudicial punishments (Article 15 UCMJ) or administrative actions (letters of reprimand, counseling, admonishment).

In the course of these processes, accused individuals are entitled to raise a defense. In doing so, they commonly seek letters from colleagues who can attest to their character and/or to the substance and truth of the allegations against them. Such letters typically take no position on the culpability of the accused. They simply offer facts and insights a commander should consider before deciding on punishment. Good commanders read these letters closely to find clues about the best way to dispose of an allegation and rehabilitate troubled airmen. Rehabilitation, after all, is one of the primary reasons nonjudicial punishments and administrative actions exist — at least in theory.

But in practice, these measures are wielded in today’s Air Force to professionally and personally wreck those targeted by the chain of command. In an unfolding witch hunt at Laughlin Air Force Base, which we’ve been covering here recently, a number of officers found themselves facing career-ending punishments after commanders alleged they had knowledge of an unprofessional instructor-student relationship and failed to report it.

Notwithstanding that the rule requiring them to report is legally questionable, or that they weren’t aware of the rule at the time commanders allege they failed to follow it, the officers had no choice but to mount their best defenses against charges they considered spurious. Accordingly, they turned to their wingmen, and many wrote letters on their behalf.

Those wingmen, themselves accomplished instructor pilots and highly-regarded officers entitled to have their inputs fairly considered, were instead subjected to a vicious campaign of career-crushing reprisal. When all was said and done, they themselves would face professional ruin. Not because they did anything wrong, but because they told the truth as they saw it in support of their teammates.

According to documents obtained by JQP, some have complained to the Air Force’s Inspector General office, claiming their performance reports were downgraded and that they were publicly excoriated and officially scolded — all for exercising a protected right of free speech while supporting the ability of teammates to raise a defense.

One officer’s performance report had already been signed when Col. Brian Hastings, then Laughlin’s wing commander, learned he had written a letter for the defense of another officer Hastings was punishing under Art. 15. The performance appraisal was intercepted by the wing commander’s office before it could be filed and held there past the deadline when it should have been filed in the officer’s record. The officer pressed administrative personnel for an explanation. Instead, he was presented with a revised version of his report — one that removed the superior performance assessment he’d earned and which had already been certified, replacing that assessment with lukewarm words painting him as a mediocre performer.

Here are the bottom lines of the original performance report, signed by each member of the rating chain — including Hastings — and acknowledged by the ratee:

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And here are the revised bottom lines in the replacement report signed more than a month later by Hastings and the other commanders:

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Just like that, the #1 instructor in an Air Force squadron has his performance unceremoniously scrubbed from the record, like it never happened. The report is a lie, but no one reading it will ever know, because boards and reviewers will mistakenly place great trust in the signatures of officials in the chain of command. With the stroke of a pen, winners and losers are chosen without regard for merit or performance, and the King’s decree is adopted without question by his subjects, lest they themselves incur his wrath.

For the uninitiated, this is what a deliberate Air Force derailing looks like. Gone are the stratifications and strong pushes for development, replaced with tentative and blatantly milquetoast endorsements. Particularly pernicious is the spelling out of “Assistant Operations Officer” in the replacement report rather than using the acronym “ADO.” This is a way of using up space that could have been conserved and better utilized to describe performance. It’s sending a message to reviewers (and to the officer himself) that the commenter doesn’t have anything nice to say and is just trying to fill up space. Salting the wound is the fact that this report was the last the officer would receive before meeting a promotion board. A report this unfavorable at such a delicate time, if allowed to stand, seals his professional fate.

If this account is accurate, Hastings — as well as at least two other commanders — violated a slew of Air Force instructions governing the proper completion of performance appraisals. They also abused their power and engaged in unlawful reprisal. This is the sort of conduct we might expect in the North Korean or Russian air forces … or perhaps in Henry VIII’s royal court … but it has no place in an American agency where power is chained to bounded legal authority rather than being governed solely by the fiat of whoever happens to be in charge.

Sadly, this isn’t the end of the story of command vengeance in this case. After letters of support were made public in an open nonjudicial punishment proceeding, Hastings somehow obtained copies, almost certainly violating the spirit if not the letter of confidentiality and privacy guidelines governing such communications. What he allegedly did next, if it happened as relayed by several witnesses whose accounts are consistent, was both deeply wrong and positively chilling. Gathering a group of Laughlin instructors into a mass formation, Hastings publicly recited the text of support letters written by several of the pilots on behalf of their accused wingmen, revealing the identities of the authors, castigating them in the presence of teammates, and calling into question their professionalism, judgment, and loyalty.

Having embarrassed a group of airmen who dared to defy its disciplinary designs, the chain of command reportedly went a step further, issuing written Letters of Admonishment (LOAs) to several of the individuals who provided mutual support that was inconsistent with disciplinary objectives. The letters excoriated the officers for falling short of Air Force standards, construing their exercise of independent judgment as misconduct. While the LOAs were couched in the language of “upholding standards,” the officers were told in private that they were being punished for siding with perceived wrongdoers who had been targeted for discipline by the chain of command.

Public humiliation, tarnished personnel files, illegally downgraded reports … these are not the actions of a fair-minded chain of command engaged in a genuine truth-seeking process aimed at good order and discipline. These actions amount to pure, power-drunk fascism. Never mind pesky things like facts, rules, limits, fairness, or protections … these airmen were essentially regarded as traitors for following their own consciences, developing their own attitudes and opinions, and showing support for the people they’d pledged to fight alongside in the nation’s wars. It’s another in a growing list of incidents demonstrating that the Air Force’s once vibrant and honor-bound culture has devolved into a toxic climate marked by the exercise of power unmoored from reason. 

To say these reports are disturbing is both obvious and an understatement. The actions taken by the chain of command violate the confidentiality officers reasonably expected when they wrote their letters. The public violation of their dignity is inappropriate and offensive in the extreme, and the sort of conduct that creates an environment of disrespect. Most of all, this conduct sends a chilling message through the ranks … that disagreement with the judgment of the chain of command will trigger swift and severe reprisal. This makes it all but impossible for anyone accused of wrongdoing to raise an adequate defense, and it makes the idea of justice worthy of little more than a chuckle of quaint reflection.

Perhaps most distressing is that several commanders have apparently gone along with clear abuse without getting impaled on their swords, despite taking oaths to the contrary. The failure to develop moral courage in the Air Force officer corps has left it susceptible to the reckless wielding of practically unchecked power. Now that power has clearly become the coin of the realm, officers get the message that wielding it expansively rather than looking upon it jealously is the path to success. This will rapidly drain the service of those resistant to a power orientation, leaving a gaggle of rank-seekers to squabble with one another for seats at the big table.

As a footnote to this story, it’s also been reported that supervisors at multiple levels were pressured into degrading the performance ratings of officers accused of wrongdoing before anything had been proven, with professional jeopardy coercively dangled to instill obedience. With this degree of manipulation and warping in Laughlin’s evaluation system, no report signed there in the last few years should be considered valid without further investigation.

This isn’t how you build people up. It’s how you break them. The Air Force is breaking itself, and our future defense posture could pay a heavy price for failing to notice and intervene.

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