Air Force commanders are taught in their formal training that the worst thing they can do in pursuing good order and discipline is fail to exercise their legal authority when the moment is ripe. This is a lesson lost on the current version of the Service, which is somewhere between clueless and compromised on accountability even as a once-in-a-lifetime Chief of Staff inhabits the big chair.
The latest evidence that commanders have no idea what they’re doing comes out of Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. Back on December 10th, one of the base’s E-9s climbed behind the wheel after a night of drinking and went for a grim joyride. By the time he was finished, a 17-year-old kid’s life was over and Hector Soler was in the dock charged with felony Death by Motor Vehicle.
What does this have to do with the chain of command, you ask?
Well here’s the thing. Soler didn’t slurp his pre-homicidal booze at the local watering hole. He drank at the homes of base authority figures. Plural. One of those authority figures — his former squadron commander — picked up the “former” prefix in the immediate aftermath of the incident, relieved by the wing commander without the rationale being made public. Not that we needed the rationale to be made public. It’s fairly transparent that he must have been on Soler’s pub crawl and failed to intervene and prevent his criminal actions.
But wait, there’s more. In a report published by a local paper, it is revealed that Soler visited not one, not two, but three homes on Seymour-Johnson before his alleged homicidal jaunt on December 10th. He went to someone’s house, then to a holiday party on base, then to someone else’s house. Late at night, after frequenting the homes of three people who had authority over him — which implies they were likely E-9s, O-6s, or squadron commanders — Soler got into his car and drove twice the speed limit at twice the legal blood alcohol limit. When he was done, someone else’s child was dead.
Here’s where the leadership opportunity was missed. At the instant it was evident Soler had visited three homes of three different authority figures on the night he drove drunk, all three stops should have been investigated. If any of them were cases of authority figures being in position to prevent him from driving drunk and failing, they should have been publicly shamed and officially punished. This is how you set a tone that turning a blind eye to DUI will not be tolerated, no matter the rank or position of those involved.
Instead, the Service did what it usually does. It found and felled a sacrifical lamb — a squadron commander, as is usually the case. Sacking someone with “commander” in his duty title demonstrates seriousness without necessarily threatening any sacred cows or reflecting poorly upon the Service’s culture.
To make matters worse, the base and its parent command behaved opaquely and tried to cover up the fact he’d been all over the base before the DUI, foolishly calculating that the fact Soler went on a multi-stop hooch binge before his death blitz would remain secret. But there are no classified courtrooms in the United States (for now), and nothing Soler did will remain in confidence. Which is why it was dumb beyond belief for Seymour-Johnson to hold anything back. Best to just tell the whole, ugly truth, even if it implicates the wing commander and/or visiting “dignitaries.”
Now the truth is seeping out. Sacrifical lambs and sacred cows aside, there are goats in this story, too. Goats who put their own self-image above the best interests of the Service, which would have been served by telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And following that truth along the path of accountability, even if it led to unfavorable consequences for the sundry morons who let a drunken E-9 bumble his way into the realm of death, pain, and a lifelong hangover.