Lieutenant Colonel Craig Perry was relieved of command of his squadron at Lackland Air Force Base on March 27th. The publicly reported circumstances of his firing seemed insufficient, triggering many to wonder whether his removal was justified. After analyzing the reporting available at the time, supported by private statements from those close to the events, JQP published an article raising questions about whether Perry’s relief could be seen as a symptom of toxic leadership rather than a result of his performance. Since that piece was published, more information has become available, raising new and more startling questions about Perry’s chain of command and the overall climate at Lackland. What follows is a case study in the use and abuse of power, with important implications for the future of the U.S. Air Force.
A Troubling Investigation
In an email statement, Air Education and Training Command (AETC) spokesman Sean McKenna remarked that Perry was relieved because
“a commander directed investigation substantiated serious accusations…[u]ltimately, his superior commander … lost faith in his ability to command the squadron.”
This sounds like egregious misconduct easily justifying disciplinary action. But the report of Commander Directed Investigation (CDI) cited by McKenna – obtained and analyzed by JQP – does not support this assertion. There are grave problems with the report’s substance and methodology, and it quite simply doesn’t say what AETC claims. It does, however, say some very important things worth registering.
The CDI substantiated three allegations against Perry. The first of these was that Perry made remarks undermining the authority of his immediate superior, Colonel Deborah Liddick. To reach this conclusion, the investigating officer (IO) interviewed witnesses, some claiming to have overheard Perry making statements questioning Liddick’s role in squadron business. The IO stipulates that none of these statements rose to the level of insubordination, but that taken together, their aggregate impact could have been an undermining of Liddick’s authority.
There’s only one problem: Perry denies ever making these statements, and there’s no independently verified proof he ever did so. The only evidence is from individual witness statements. The report does not contain a single corroboration of a statement by two or more witnesses, which means that in the case of each allegation, it’s the word of Perry – an experienced, accomplished, and selectively hired officer with an impeccable service record – against the mere word of someone else. Disturbingly, the witnesses relied upon in the CDI to condemn Perry are the very people whose complaints to Liddick helped trigger the CDI in the first place. In other words, they’re not so much witnesses as complainants, and their statements are presumably biased. For the IO to allow the uncorroborated statements of biased complainants to be included in the report is questionable. For these statements to be given such a central role in substantiating a claim is distressing.
Moreover, because the report relies on the aggregation of these statements in order to conclude Perry engaged in misconduct, the impeachment of even one of these witness statements would upend the overall finding. By this standard, the investigation actually exonerates Perry. Not just one but several witnesses swore that they never heard Perry make statements undermining Liddick, and these latter witnesses were in most cases present at the same times and in the same places the complainants allege having heard the statements at issue. In other words, there are direct and unresolved contradictions in the key facts used to substantiate this allegation. Perhaps most troubling is that Perry is alleged to have made one of the more prejudicial statements at a Christmas party, where dozens of potential witnesses would have been available to corroborate the complainants’ accounts. The fact that the investigator neglected to interview any of these witnesses is an amateurish oversight that should arguably invalidate his credentials and trigger a new investigation.
The second allegation substantiated in the CDI was that Perry engaged in unprofessional relationships with three of his subordinates. To substantiate this allegation, the investigator relied not so much on accounts of Perry’s actions, but on accounts of how those actions were perceived by a small number of his subordinates — principally the same complainants who asserted Perry undermined his group commander. That this complaint was almost exclusively about the hurt feelings of a small number of people rather than anything Perry did to cause those hurt feelings should have been a red flag for any investigator. But rather than looking skeptically upon these claims, the IO gave them exceptional weight, resolving inferences exclusively in favor of the complainants rather than Perry. The result is a substantiated claim of misconduct based on shockingly ordinary behavior.
For example, Perry is accused of showing favoritism by sitting with certain subordinates at a Christmas party. But Perry points out that the party had no seating chart and he was quite simply joined by those who sat down at his table. Perry is also alleged to have shown favoritism by hosting a party at his residence to which only certain members of the squadron were invited. Perry explains that he and his wife were trying to rebuild family focus and cohesion in the squadron, and were in the process hosting a series of events, each attended by a subgroup of the squadron. In one instance, Perry threw a surprise party at his home for a Chief Master Sergeant and his family before the Chief departed on a remote tour. In each case, conflicting evidence created an ambiguity, which the IO then resolved against Perry.
It’s worth noting that these instances occurred well before the CDI was initiated and had already been addressed in a meeting between Liddick and Perry, where she severely constrained his latitude in socializing with his people. Notwithstanding the questionable legality of that order, Perry followed it to the letter. Yet, the investigator chose – while acknowledging Perry followed Liddick’s order – to investigate these issues that had already been resolved and make them central in the report. For those familiar with how such investigations work, this eyebrow-raising tactic seems designed to establish a basis for official sanctions rather than to chart a path to meaningful truths.
But the most alarming element of the second substantiated allegation against Perry is the focus on his relationship with his senior enlisted advisor. The report makes much of the fact that Perry and his superintendent spent a great deal of time together and that Perry relied on her advice before making big decisions concerning the enlisted membership of his squadron. The IO treats these behaviors as liabilities for which Perry should be called to account. This is a particularly stupefying notion for anyone familiar with how an Air Force squadron is supposed to work. It’s not only acceptable for a commander to rely on and form a close relationship with a senior enlisted advisor, it’s essential to the effective leadership of a unit. There are certainly lines that can be crossed, but for the report to conclude Perry had crossed them, it had to marginalize and under-develop several key facts.
Perry’s superintendent was also the senior-most Military Training Instructor (MTI) in a squadron with a core duty of training MTIs. She was hand-picked – not by Perry but by generals far senior to him – to return to Lackland and help rebuild Basic Military Training (BMT) in the wake of scandals that had nearly consumed it a few years earlier, and was chosen based on having one of the most impressive records of performance of any senior NCO in the entire Air Force. Perry would have been a fool to not rely on her professional advice, and would have been an even bigger fool to marginalize her role in squadron affairs for fear of hurting the feelings of more junior members who might disagree with her recommendations or his decisions. Perry and his former superintendent both insist they were not “friends” and did not associate on terms of military equality. Perry goes so far as to insist he never called her by her first name, a claim the IO didn’t bother to test against complaining witnesses. The IO’s failure to explore the meaning of these facts suggests he’d already formed a conclusory opinion before hearing all of the evidence. Here again, the claims and counterclaims created ambiguity, and the IO resolved everything in favor of the complainants, in this instance positioning himself counter to longstanding traditions of Air Force squadrons.
It’s safe to say General Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, spends inordinate amounts of time with Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Cody, and that they and their families socialize from time to time. The same is true for all commanders and senior enlisted advisors – at least for all good ones. This is important to the functioning of a team of key leaders, and it seems axiomatic that if there were to arise complaints accusing Welsh of showing favoritism toward Cody, they would likely be dismissed out-of-hand as absurd. Yet, this is precisely the nature of the complaint that has destroyed Perry’s career and hurt his former squadron. This is a clear double standard for which several explanations exist but for which one seems most fitting.
It’s fair to wonder whether the double standard visited upon Perry is best understood as a form of gender discrimination exercised by Liddick and endorsed by Colonel Mark Camerer, Perry’s former wing commander and the officer who fired him. The entirety of the negative perceptions adopted in this case would be invalid had Perry’s superintendent been male rather than female, and Liddick unwittingly stipulated to discriminatory motives when she referred to their relationship as “cozy,” an adjective that wouldn’t make much sense applied outside the context of a male-female relationship. Liddick’s use of that term is a commentary of her own with its own connotations, and should have been investigated for its role in this case. Strikingly, Liddick uttered the term when deciding to move Perry’s superintendent to another squadron, an action that culminated a full month before Perry was initially removed and three months before he was officially relieved. In other words, this is yet another allegation used to justify Perry’s firing that was already “closed business” before the decision was made. It’s almost as though Perry’s compliance with Liddick’s demands only intensified her desire to push him out of command.
Making any social contact between a commander and a subordinate into misconduct — which is the standard established by this investigation — is an serious threat to the Air Force mission. It flies in the face of the object and purpose of the governing instructions, which are designed to guide the conduct of relationships rather than prohibiting them, and to help commanders preserve their authority rather than serving as a vehicle to strip it away. Such an interpretation might be more justifiable had any of the subordinates alleged to have been shown favoritism actually received any preferential treatment, but that didn’t happen. The investigation makes clear that no relative advantage was enjoyed by anyone, and that in fact Perry declined to promote one of the alleged “favorites” because he hadn’t met Perry’s standards for an early advancement.
What’s not clear from the report is whether and to what extent the investigator considered how any negative perceptions alleged may have been formed, shaped, or exacerbated by the fact the complainants disagreed with policies and initiatives Perry was implementing. When wrestling to find the truth underlying a set of allegations such as these, the IO’s first duty is to separate legitimate complaints from “sour grapes” complaints being made to try and stain or destroy an authority figure. In this case, the report makes no mention of such an analysis, and overlooks a huge red flag: the absence of any actual impact on the mission or an individual.
By the standard established in this investigation, any disaffected individual or subgroup in a squadron can successfully bring down a commander by making a complaint of unprofessionalism based on perception alone. The practical effect is that any commander enjoying a close working relationship – including a normal, healthy social component – with a senior enlisted advisor is subject to removal for cause. This includes Camerer, who is known to spend considerable time with his senior enlisted advisor – even more than he spends with his Vice Commander – and to socialize with him often. Should Camerer himself be investigated for effectuating a double standard as to what is considered a professional relationship? This is an open question for the Secretary of the Air Force to consider, but it certainly begs a closer look.
Making commanders responsible for the perceptions formed by others is a fine notion in principle, but taken to an extreme in application, it excuses those forming perceptions from their own responsibility to remain objective and sensible in the formation of views. The risk created by this IO’s decision to credit perception over reality is that individuals can form immoderate views that are not supported by the actions of others and still have those views held legitimate. This could easily create a wedge between officer and enlisted airmen, with communication and teamwork severely degraded.
But almost as if starving for comic relief, the CDI enumerated a third substantiated allegation laughably unsupported by the evidence. Perry was alleged to have wrongly removed a Letter of Reprimand (LOR) from the Personnel Information File (PIF) of his squadron superintendent. Perry stipulates to removing the LOR. But he claims it was not wrong to do so, and in this assertion, he is very well supported. While AETC and 2nd Air Force (2AF) policy letters on this subject did prohibit removal in the manner undertaken by Perry, those letters were expired and therefore carried no regulatory force, a fact acknowledged by the investigator even as he defies it in order to find Perry culpable.
Moreover, Liddick reportedly instructed her squadron commanders that they were permitted to remove such information as long as certain conditions were met, and Perry’s removal of the LOR was done after satisfaction of these requisites. Liddick later attempted to disown her verbal policy, but at least two other squadron commanders heard her say it acted upon it. Furthermore, Liddick knew Perry was one of three commanders to have removed unfavorable information from a subordinate’s PIF, and yet only Perry faced an investigation for having done so. This suggests that perhaps Liddick herself was “playing favorites” by singling out one commander to pay for the perceived sins of many. What’s clear is that the CDI should not have substantiated this allegation, Liddick should not have endorsed the CDI with such a grave error, and Camerer should not have relied upon it in making his decision to relieve Perry. Then again, it’s possible Perry wasn’t actually relieved on the basis of the CDI at all.
A Dishonest Firing
In explaining to Lackland’s commanders his decision to relieve Perry, Camerer gestured toward the CDI findings, remarking of Perry that
“during his tenure here in his command, certain things happened that came to my attention, and I looked at those and decided there was enough credence to them, and they were serious enough that continuing in command was not warranted.”
But there is reason – beyond Camerer’s use of vagaries in lieu of specific rationale in addressing his most trusted audience – to believe this isn’t an entirely honest statement. There is reason to believe Perry was fired simply because Liddick wanted rid of him, and that Camerer went along with her either because of concern about external optics or as a function of being too aloof to the situation to see its troubling contradictions.
The evidence pointing toward this theory comes in the form of an unwitting admission Liddick made during the course of the CDI she ordered on Perry. In discussing the relationship between Perry and his superintendent, Liddick stated she did not trust Perry or his senior enlisted advisor. This statement was made before the investigation was complete, and therefore before Liddick had seen a single shred of evidence or a single allegation had been substantiated. It’s staggering to wrestle with the perverse circularity of this statement, made by Liddick in an investigation Liddick ordered, and which would later be used to substantiate an allegation Liddick would then use to fire a commander. Re-stating for clarity: Liddick ordered an investigation, supplied testimony to it which was then used to substantiate allegations she made, and then used the resulting report to fire someone. The mind boggles to understand how this would not be a case of the fox guarding the hen house.
This circularity created a closed loop that gave Perry no meaningful way to refute a conclusion (“I don’t trust him”) offered as fact and later fed back to its originator as proof of the original conclusion. This compromise of proper safeguards and appropriate objectivity means the CDI itself was corrupt, and arguably should not be the basis for any official action. But it was also clearly perfunctory. Liddick had already decided, before seeing any evidence, that she didn’t trust Perry. In military terms, that meant he could not and would not continue as a commander if she had anything to do with it. This in turn meant that Liddick needed a way to justify firing him, lest she be accused of a capricious relief, and so it seems she used the CDI process to fulfill a pre-determined result on the basis of a pre-judged perception of guilt. And her boss, commander of the wing that produces airmen for the American Air Force, went along with her for the ride. If accurate, this is the sort of assessment one might imagine applying in the Russian or Chinese Air Force, but is wildly out of step with the acceptable exercise of authority in a publicly accountable institution operating in a representative democracy.
This appears to be an unacceptable and dangerously corrupt chain of events. It’s one thing for a commander to reasonably lose trust in a subordinate and act upon it, but it’s another altogether for that loss of trust to be arbitrary or otherwise unreasonable and yet result in a lost position and destroyed career with no accountability. There is no allegation Perry ever lied, cheated, stole, or tolerated such behavior. Even Camerer has been quick to point out that Perry broke no rule and committed no crime. There’s no clear or credible evidence Perry ever undermined his boss or behaved unprofessionally. Instead, what the analysis reveals is the use of ideas and perceptions to manufacture facts, rather than the use of facts to formulate ideas. The no-mistake firing of a highly regarded commander is a fallacy so departed from logic that it is only explainable by the abuse of power.
Camerer should probably have rejected the CDI and ordered a new investigation, one that would encompass the conduct of Liddick as well as Perry. But in accepting the CDI’s conclusions and professionally destroying Perry on its basis, Camerer made an important comment on his own leadership. Indeed, to the extent the CDI supplies actionable findings, they’ve got much more to do with the overall environment at Lackland than with Perry or his former squadron.
A Troubled Command Climate
The foregoing analysis makes clear the CDI report is riddled with problems. It doesn’t appear to have been a genuine attempt to find the truth. But with the report having been adopted by Camerer and AETC, it’s fair to wonder what he, they, and indeed the Air Force will do to address the many disturbing revelations it contains. It’s also fair to ask whether a new investigation should be launched to evaluate whether Camerer has fostered the right kind of environment at Lackland. The CDI is unkind to his performance in this regard.
The report found a broken and hostile relationship between Liddick and Perry. She didn’t trust him and repeatedly questioned his decisions. The report also found countless instances of Liddick micromanaging Perry on everything from who should hold jobs within his squadron to where various squadron members’ offices should be located. Liddick assumed control of entire issues within Perry’s span of control, and coerced him into “playing nice” with one of his own subordinates who happened to be a favorite of Liddick’s — someone she assessed had future leadership potential.
There is a painful irony here that slipped right past (or was actively ignored by) the investigator: Liddick herself was showing favoritism toward some of Perry’s subordinates while accusing him of the same behavior. This dysfunction went beyond mere irony and into the realm of destructiveness when Liddick entertained a “sour grapes” complaint from her most favored senior NCO instead of sending him back to Perry. This complaint ended up forming the official basis for the CDI used to fire Perry, essentially allowing a subordinate to bring down his own commander by co-opting that commander’s boss. Liddick’s attachment to this particular person ran so deep that she threatened to remove the entire MTI School from Perry’s control unless he would get along with this person, who Liddick previously appointed to be its commandant. Such a threat not only reveals deep organizational dysfunction, but reflects a commander with exaggerated notions about her own power and authority.
Liddick’s reassignment of Perry’s superintendent is also problematic. The investigation report contains a statement by Liddick that she didn’t trust the superintendent, yet Liddick reassigned her to the same position in another squadron. This is illogical. If Liddick didn’t trust this individual, why would she put her in charge of the lives and careers of an entire squadron’s enlisted force? Doing so indicates that either Liddick was inept or dishonest. Either way, the clear indication is unfavorable, and supported by still other facts and allegations. Craig Perry’s wife, Mrs. Caroline Perry, has filed civil suit against Liddick for failing to return borrowed property to the family. Apparently, Liddick was intent on keeping items that the Perrys never intended for her to keep, and allegedly avoided service of the civil suit by employing an Air Force security detail to run interference — which, if accurate, would constitute a significant abuse of resources and might implicate several laws. These are serious allegations that are unproven but fit within the emerging rubric of a toxic leader running amok. Liddick has since returned the property in question to Mrs. Perry — essentially an admission of wrongdoing — but the lawsuit remains unresolved.
All of this – broken relationships, unclean investigations, favoritism, rampant micromanagement – happened directly under the nose of Colonel Camerer, and sometimes with his direct participation. Even when furnished a report that painted a clear picture of toxicity, he failed to act decisively to either push back against flawed recommendations or take a closer look himself.
One can only speculate about why Camerer chose as he did, but many insiders have suggested that with his own promotion to Brigadier General close at hand, Camerer didn’t want to jeopardize his own advancement or his legacy at Lackland by inviting portrayal of a climate of conflict, ineptitude, or misconduct cultivated by his group commander. This would explain why Camerer allowed the amateurish report to stand. It would also explain why he ignored the report’s startling revelation about Liddick not trusting Perry – something that would have jumped off the page when viewed by any military commander. This is a critically important fact, because if Liddick had predetermined to fire Perry and the CDI was nothing more than a pretense, this means every public statement made about the firing has been fundamentally dishonest. Perry wasn’t fired because of the CDI. He was going to be fired anyway, and the CDI was a way to make it legal and avoid inconvenient questions about the actual rationale. This is also a way to dodge accountability for that rationale, something AETC officials are thus far allowing Camerer to do.
A Troubling Command Response
AETC’s official statement about the Perry firing is contradictory. It spends an entire paragraph extolling the virtues of the Perry family and explaining their devotion to airmen and families. It then offers the findings of the CDI as justification for his relief. This means that even at major command headquarters, a report that appears compromised and inept has been accepted as an official account. This is distressing.
Also distressing is the command’s refusal to give Perry a meaningful appeal. Perry submitted a list of counter-claims to AETC headquarters in the wake of his firing. AETC declined to investigate those claims, instead sending them back down the chain of command one level, where they were handled by the 2AF Staff Judge Advocate. In a response letter viewed by JQP, Maj. Gen. Len Patrick summarily dismissed all but one of Perry’s claims – that Liddick publicly encouraged and condoned her subordinates’ wear of starched uniforms in violation of Air Force instructions. The process used to investigate Perry’s claims was minimal, performed by a 2AF officer who conducted telephone interviews over the course of a couple of days.
One of the allegations Perry made against Liddick was that she failed to investigate a complaint of sexual harassment made against the MTI School commandant (previously highlighted as her most favored subordinate). An anonymous complainant made a “hotline call” reporting inappropriate and sexually harassing behavior by the commandant, and Liddick failed to respond. If accurate, this is a huge and potentially explosive fact. Lackland’s previous struggles with issues of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and the proper calibration of power in the work environment are painfully well-documented. For the commandant of the school that produces instructors to engage in the kind of behavior alleged would say something important about the relative progress of Camerer’s initiatives during his time in command, as well as the overall health of the Lackland environment. Not pursuing such an allegation says something damning and damnable. It should have been aggressively pursued on its merits, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that such complaints are taken seriously and documented carefully. The alleged victim was reportedly not contacted by 2AF’s investigator, indicating that even the fact-finding process above Camerer’s level chose to sidestep rather than confront this issue. It’s not difficult to imagine that legislators and the general public might become gravely concerned to find that many years after the Lackland scandal badly corroded public confidence, sexual harassment complaints can be so easily ignored at such a high level of authority.
Against this backdrop, Perry has been told by AETC leaders that his case is being worked at various levels. But no one seems to be taking any observable action. Liddick has retired, her career sealed with the approval of a prestigious medal. Camerer remains on track to be promoted and moved to another command. It would appear all involved are determined to ride out any negative press coverage, continue to stonewall, and move on with their careers, knowing that each medal, promotion, and reassignment will legitimize that they must have been right and Lt. Col. Perry – as well as his family and the troops in his squadron negatively impacted – must have been wrong. In historical parlance, this is what would be called “victor’s justice.” But history is unkind to organizations that fail to heed the warning signs of corrupt behavior. This scenario casts a long shadow over what it will mean to be a commander in the future.
A Troubled Future
An organization with a combat mission will rise and fall on the performance of fighting units, who will in turn rise and fall on the quality of the leaders who lead them. If this case stands without a second look, the Air Force will take a giant leap toward institutional failure.
This case appears to feature one commander believing herself to be all-powerful and another allowing her to prevail in order to safeguard his own interests. What gets lost in all of this is the welfare of Lackland’s airmen and the health of their work climate. Perry was part of a team of commanders hand-picked and brought into Lackland to help remedy a toxic climate. The expectation was that he and his colleagues would likely shake things up, disturb pre-existing power structures, and apply their full ingenuity to restoring Lackland’s credibility. Yet, when the going got tough, Camerer sided with Liddick, who had not been part of that hand-picked cohort and was placed into her position in extremis when her predecessor was unexpectedly relieved. Moreover, Camerer doesn’t seem to be carrying on with the recommended practice of hiring the best caliber commanders from across functional areas, as recommended in Maj. Gen. Maggie Woodward’s report on the Lackland scandal. Recent hires were not hand-picked, but delivered to Lackland via the standard commander hiring process, which relies on reputation and word-of-mouth as much as it relies on record of performance. It remains to be seen whether this is the right process upon which to found Lackland’s future. But this chain of events is also dangerous to Air Force writ large, in a few key ways.
First, it seriously tampers with the incentive to strive for command. Perry put in nearly two decades of superb performance to earn his shot at leading airmen only to have his command revoked and his career blasted to ruins as an apparent matter of fiat. This makes command too unstable a platform to attract the best, and will lead to a continuation of the ongoing trend toward mediocrity in Air Force key leadership roles.
Second, this situation could seriously degrade the performance of those brave enough to accept command. This case creates a world in which a commander can be fired on the basis of uncorroborated allegations. A few sour grapes can end everything. This could lead commanders to walk on eggshells and try to keep everyone happy, lest they risk an investigation. This is a recipe for total failure. Commanders must be given authority and permitted to exercise that authority within the ambit of their organization without fearing their own subordinates. In this case, the key allegations were raised by someone who simply wasn’t getting his way and happened to have a close relationship with Perry’s boss. The world after this case is one in which commanders have to figure out who is favored by the chain of command above their level, so they can engage in targeted appeasement. This will lead to myriad organizational pathologies severe enough to cripple any mission we can imagine.
Third, and most critically, this case will create paranoid leaders. Craig Perry was fired without having made any sort of meaningful mistake. Despite Camerer’s insistence to the contrary, the CDI demonstrates a firing without sufficient cause. If a commander can lose his job without even making a mistake, paranoia will run rampant. Imagine a dog that expects it will be beaten by its owner, but doesn’t know when that beating will come. Such a dog is skittish, jumpy, and tentative. Such a dog is constantly looking over its shoulder. This is the kind of commander that will prevail and become common in an Air Force adopting this Lackland standard: circumspect, guarded, defensive, and constantly looking backward. That means s/he won’t be looking forward, anticipating and aggressively tackling the challenges necessary to take care of airmen so they can fulfill the mission.
This debacle also puts at grave risk not only the Key Spouse program – something championed by Ms. Perry but frowned upon by Liddick – but the general notion of commanders taking care of families. There is a perception – not unwarranted given the facts of this case – that Perry was fired in-part because his wife’s enthusiastic embrace of caring for airmen and families was out of step with Liddick’s notions of how a commander and spouse should operate. The absence of a coherent explanation for Perry’s firing has left many advocates of the Key Spouse program quite concerned. If a perception arises that a Key Spouse being judged “too kind” or “too familiar” with enlisted families can get a commander fired, the program will die an instant death. Commanders will simply not take the risk of having a program, and this will chew away at the fabric of family cohesion, deleting the gains of the Key Spouse program over the last five years. For a service that has fallen behind in its programs to care for families, this is a stark prospect.
These are probably some of the reasons that have been borne in mind by generations of responsible senior leaders as they’ve constructed a system that authorizes the sacking of a commander, but doesn’t allow it without careful deliberation and a clear cause. Processes exist to safeguard the will of the system that puts commanders in-place, resting on the presumption that years of demonstrated potential were probably more accurate than the anecdotal intuitions of one supervisor in a limited space of time. In this case, those safeguards may have been hijacked and twisted to fulfill hidden agendas. Given that the real reason for Craig Perry’s firing has still not been shared, whether corruption was at work is a reasonable question, and one that must be answered for the service to move forward confidently into its future.
One thing that is not in question is that Air Force commanders, particularly those in or approaching command at squadron level, are watching events at Lackland very closely. The chilling effect is noticeable and could fundamentally and rapidly alter the calculus of command. Assumptions about the relative competence, confidence, and aggressiveness of commanders could be invalidated if this outcome stands with no further action. But most concerning is the potential for a fundamental breakdown in communication between enlisted airmen and officers as a result of Camerer’s decision. This is a steep – some would say unacceptable – price to pay for the sake of not rocking the boat.
Commanders are sometimes fired. This is a necessary and healthy thing. Organizations sometimes break down. This is inevitable. Bad leaders sometimes slip through the system and make it into powerful leadership roles. This, too, is inevitable from time to time. Mistakes are also going to happen, even and perhaps especially at the level where dynamic leadership is exercised. It’s not possible to avoid mistakes, either as a system or as individuals. But it is always possible, and indeed all-important, that we react appropriately when confronted with these malfunctions. The very foundation of trust depends upon a system free from corruption and abuse, and nothing less than combat success and national defense rest on that foundation of trust.
It will be interesting to note, in the weeks ahead, whether senior leaders of the Air Force or legislators overseeing it recognize the extent to which institutional trust is at stake in the current affairs of Lackland. A very basic principle is being tested. If a commander is going to be fired, there should be either a clear reason given for it, or credible documentation supporting it. In this case, there is neither. It’s a situation longing to be reconciled.