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Over the past several days, we’ve receive several complaints from officers stationed at Columbus Air Force Base. They all relate a common claim: that commanders at the base are requiring some members to return early from leave to attend a commander’s call on January 3, 2017.

Specifically, some officers are saying that a particular commander wants them in attendance for a “safety briefing” on January 3 unless they can prove they’ve purchased plane tickets. This will result, it is said, in some officers driving to Mississippi from their leave location to attend the safety brief before going back on leave and driving back to their leave location. If true, this would mean that some individuals would be needlessly exposed to the dangers of long-distance driving, all in the name of safety.

It wouldn’t be the first time a commander conducted a back-door recall to limit partying by conducting a mandatory formation close on the heels of the New Year holiday.

But in this case, the truth may be a bit more complicated.

Here’s the response received by JQP after an inquiry was sent to the Columbus Public Affairs team:

Columbus AFB, Mississippi  is standing down it’s [sic] student flying training mission at the end of the duty day, Dec 23 and will resume on Tuesday, January 3. One of our squadrons (not Wing) is having a Commander’s Call on Jan 3, 2017 and has directed all of its members to attend, which was communicated to the unit via an e-mail on November 1.

When reviewing the unit’s leave request log this week, it was noted that 12 of the 618  members would be on leave and not be attending the Commander’s Call. The squadron commander honored [leave for] those 12 members whose leave was either pending or approved.

Each of those 12 members were verbally contacted to inquire if they were going to be back for the Jan 3 formation.  Nine of the 12 remain with approved leave as planned, three volunteered to come back early.

These 12 members were asked, not directed, if they could return for the January 3rd formation without financial hardship.  No one was told to return Jan 3 and then drive back to continue leave.

A few observations.

First, it says something that Columbus expects to be congratulated for not breaking the law by coercing members to return from leave early. What the email response lacks is a sense of outrage that anyone would suggest such a thing. It also lacks a statement from the wing commander that leave abuse of this species will not be tolerated. In this sense, Columbus missed a tone-setting opportunity here.

More disturbing is that the squadron in question seemingly did coerce members to return from leave for the safety brief, even if the techniques of soft coercion were used. To say that members were “asked, not directed” ignores that even asking the question shifts onto the member a sense of obligation to return. This is a moral violation even if it’s not a legal one. This is pressuring people to give up their leave, and this should never happen.

But from the sounds of things, Columbus doesn’t care much about leave. By the unit’s own admission, only 1.9% of one of its squadrons will be on leave on January 3. Unless 8.2% of a given organization is on leave on a given day, that organization’s membership is not using leave at a rate that will grant the full entitlement of 30 days per year. This is a common failure among Air Force commanders. Unless you’re making sure each airman is given the opportunity to use every day of legally entitled leave in a year’s time, you’re not taking care of people well enough. But today’s Air Force doesn’t strike any sort of mission/people balance. It simply pushes each individual to give more and more unless and until someone breaks.

Here you have a wing commander totally missing a signal that one of his squadron commanders is allocating leave at less than one quarter of the book requirement — a paltry number even for a pilot training base. The appropriate response would have been to mentor that commander. This mentorship should have started with an insistence that the 12 people on leave January 3 be left the hell alone.

But this isn’t the kind of climate Columbus has at the moment. The very fact that this issue is showing up in the media (which reportedly triggered a negative and threatening response from the wing commander) speaks volumes about the freedom of individuals to speak up and identify issues to their leaders. This one should have been solved at the flight commander level. But officers are apparently reluctant to be contrary, and the wing commander’s failure to respond appropriately in this case may be a clue as to why that’s the case.

People need to take breaks. Airmen are entitled by law to do that. When they do, leave them alone. Don’t pressure them to come back early. Don’t discourage them from being gone for a while. Don’t fuel soft coercion by strategically scheduling unit formations. If you truly care about taking care of people, encourage them to use their leave, to take extended holidays, and to focus on their families and relationships while on leave rather than think about your safety briefs.

The task of pilot retention is only going to get more difficult if we breed cynicism in our younger officers with decisions and policies like those on display at Columbus.