lewis

Sometimes, things are simple. When they are, you thank your personal higher power it’s the case and you move decisively to act on that simplicity. To overcomplicate self-evident judgments is to raise questions about why. When those questions point out irresolute principles in your moral makeup, you lose hard-earned respect and suffer reputational damage.

Take the case of Juan Lewis, a retired E-9 who goes by the name of “Fired Up Chief.” Now there’s a handle no one would self-apply where I come from. But then again, there’s a lot about this fella, and what he did recently, that doesn’t make much sense.

Lewis chatters incessantly as a “public figure” on his Facebook page, where he tries to stoke discussion about Air Force enlisted life. His chosen shtick is to litter his inputs with ridiculously upbeat platitudes.

“Don’t ever get discouraged,…always give your best!”

“It’s all about giving back and inspiring others to achieve higher goals.”

“It’s not how you start, but how you finish!”

This is pure garbage but all well and good. After all, social media is an a la carte experience, and users are free to ignore Lewis’s banality. Even his over-generosity with the exclamation point is his prerogative!

But to the extent he holds himself out as a thought leader, he is subject to critique on how he goes about that task. Recently, his penchant for unfounded optimism took a wrong turn into the misguided and bizarre. Lewis publicly took a position exposing his lack of moral fibre, and in doing so surrendered much of his ability to influence others.

His misadventure started with a tragic event. On the night of December 10, according to published reports that have not been refuted, Chief Master Sergeant Hector Soler got behind the wheel of a car with a blood alcohol level of .16 — double the legal limit in North Carolina. We don’t know where he left from or where he was going, but his squadron commander has since been relieved, leading to speculation Soler was attending a unit-sponsored function.

Soler later sped through a 35-mph zone at 70 mph, slamming into the back of a parked Jeep and launching it 159 feet into a utility pole. Two people were inside that Jeep. One of them, 17-year-old Johny Watson of Goldsboro, died five days later as a result of the injuries he sustained in the crash.

Soler has since been charged with Death by Motor Vehicle. This is a Class D felony on par with Armed Robbery or Arson. If convicted, he faces a structured sentence of between 3 and 14 years in prison. One potential mitigating factor in sentencing is whether a defendant takes responsibility his actions. Soler may have already talked himself out of that by initially claiming to police that Watson’s Jeep was parked in the middle of the road. [Pro tip: consult with an attorney before you make statements to the police. The difference could be measured in years of prison time].

In other words, what happened wasn’t Soler’s fault. How could he, the motorist driving at double the speed limit and twice the impairment limit, have anticipated the presence of another vehicle … on a road?

This sort of victim-blaming compounds the senseless loss of a young man taken from this world before his time. But then, against all odds, someone with a supposedly sound moral compass took a public position that made it much worse.

Here’s what The Fired Up Chief stuck on his Facebook feed two days after Johny Watson died.

juan-lewis-post

I don’t care what novel definition you’ve assigned to the word “hero” … it is not appropriate to use it here. It is offensive. It also waters down the true meaning of the word.

When this is “all over,” this guy may have opportunities to tell other people to not repeat his mistake. Then again, he may not. He may be too old and too marginalized by the time he gets out of jail for anyone to care what he has to say. Either way, he didn’t need to kill another human being to develop these “opportunities.” As a senior enlisted leader, he knew the seriousness of drunk driving and had undoubtedly confronted the issue countless times previously. He probably had a hand in punishing others for the same thing.

But more importantly, not so fast. This is not yet “all over.” Multiple families (including Soler’s) still need to grieve. A traumatized community needs to cope and heal. The justice process needs to operate and conclusively account for the wrongs done. The dignity of the victim needs to be affirmed. Society must judge whether and for how long Soler should be incapacitated and punished. The Air Force must ask itself how it continues to create leaders too often incapable of the moral conduct they expect from their people. It is unfathomably premature and irresponsible for Lewis to fast-forward through all of this and begin making appeals for Soler’s redemption. The attempt to do so reflects misapprehension about the distinction between mistakes and crimes. If Soler did what is charged, he is culpable for a serious felony. Forgiveness comes a little tougher for this than for a “mistake.” The whole debacle is maddening. Two E-9s from the same generation … the one that ran the enlisted corps into the ground … one E-9 a reckless homicidal drunk and the other an unbridled sympathizer. Little wonder the Air Force is a mess.

But where Lewis really goes off the rails is in his manipulative invocation of the dumbass airman’s creed to portray his E-9 buddy as a creature of sympathy. He’s appealing to the team loyalty of his audience members, attempting to misappropriate it. That goes beyond simple cheerleading and into malpractice. Hector Soler stands in judgment of his fellow airmen, as he should. He’s not entitled to their loyalty anymore, if ever he was. He surrendered that when he made a decision to commit a reckless act that ultimately claimed another human life.

Lewis unintentionally crystallizes the difference between leading and cheerleading. As I said to him myself, there is such a thing as being inappropriately positive. There is a time to be pissed off. There is a time to refuse explanations or rationalizing. There’s a fine line between being upbeat and treating solemn moments as speedbumps on the road to unjustified and ignorant bliss.

Whatever his intentions, Lewis has undone himself with this misstep, at least for the time being. People are rightly interpreting his post as a baseless defense of an E-9 crony and nothing more. Someone who holds himself out as a leader must be willing to demonstrate toughness and resolve when people get things wrong. Surf over to his page and you’ll see him behaving like a cornered animal … withering under the moral indignation of people who came to his page in good faith and have had their senses insulted. They are throwing him over his own wall and taking control of his narrative until he admits he got it wrong. And they should be.