sad-airman

Members of the Air Force, regardless of rank, performance record, or degree of official approval, are entitled to 30 days of paid leave each year of service. Entitled. Not privileged.

This entitlement is provisioned in public law. It is the will of the American people, ratified into the US Code by an act of Congress and signed into legal force by the President of the United States. It is part of the Federal budget. Americans are taxed to pay for it.

This means that to ignore this requirement is to ignore the law of the land. It’s a violation of the oath of service, which requires obedience to the law. It’s punishable under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It’s also a failure of the most basic duty of leadership: safeguarding the morale and well-being of those entrusted to a leader’s charge.

And yet, in today’s Air Force, it is rampant. Here’s a recent example, which first appeared on Steven Mayne’s “amn/nco/snco” Facebook page.

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There are a few things that make this particular example extreme in its stupidity and repugnance.

First, it’s not even a squadron-level checklist. It would be bad enough if a misguided commander had come up with such an undignified “note from mommy” system to infantilize airmen by making them jump through hoops to claim something that is already theirs. But this isn’t even a flight-level checklist. This is for a section. This is authored by some power-tripping NCO who mistakenly believes being a flight chief imbues one with the power to shrug off Federal law.

And yet, it exists. That it would feel comfortable springing up says something negative about the climate of the unit involved, and that it persists, complemented by similar lists at every level, says something even worse.

But even more, take a look at the particulars.

“Reason for Leave.”

“Are you currently in FIP?”

“Due you have any training due?”

How about “none of your business, irrelevant, and your problem not mine.” It’s not so much that the subject matter of these questions is inappropriate, which it is. It’s asking the questions in the first place that is most wrong, since doing so places conditions on the granting of leave. When something is an entitlement, there are no conditions on it. Believing otherwise is like placing a lien on someone’s bank account, and no NCO or officer has the legal power to do such a thing to a subordinate.

This is a classic cart/horse situation. There’s only one valid reason to deny leave, and that’s if too many people are already scheduled to be out of the unit at a given time, such that allowing one more would unduly risk the mission. In such a case, it’s the job of the unit to deny the leave in writing, with a clear explanation, and to work with the impacted airman to accommodate an alternative plan. In all other cases, the right way to proceed is to first grant leave and second entertain concerns about impact and how the unit will mitigate.

We’ve written about this before. Those previous writings got a lot of attention from airmen, and should have instigated a force-wide look at leave policy. It would be one thing for the Air Force to be unaware of these unlawful policies. It’s another altogether for the service to be aware of the problem and to refuse to act upon it. That makes the service complicit in breaking the law and neglecting its people.

I fought this issue on active duty, along with some of my fellow commanders (counterweighted too often by others who were gutless or made light of a serious issue). My view then, which remains now, was that it’s not within the gift of a commander to break a promise made by the American people. A commander has no power to breach an employment contract. Moreover, commanders have an affirmative duty to make good on such contracts … to fulfill for airmen and families the promises made by the service. Not just because it’s a legal duty, but because of the moral duty underlying it.

Think about it this way. If every airman is entitled to be on leave 8.3% of the year, then 8.3% of the unit must be on leave at any given time to make good on that entitlement. When leave embargo periods — like deployments, upgrade training, and HQ exercises — are taken into account, the number of airmen who must be on leave to sustain the entitlement is much higher.

This is an inconvenient bit of logic mostly ignored by unit commanders because to keep with it would make it even more difficult to withstand the horrific pressures put on them to continually cough up manpower and absorb requirements for which they are not resourced. But the pressures being as they are doesn’t make the conduct any less unethical.  Moreover, providing more manpower than mathematically feasible by stealing it from individual leave accounts only serves to mask the severity of the Air Force’s acute manpower crisis.

Leaders who genuinely care about airmen ask different questions than the ones on this pitiable checklist. They ask how many people are on leave and whether the unit is on-track to grant everyone what they are entitled. They ask about the average leave balance across the unit. They take an active interest in making sure airmen have vibrant and interesting lives outside of work.

And in this case, doing the right thing also keeps them square with the law. Funny how that works.

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