Rio Lobos

Three instructor pilots who were issued reprimands, removed from flying status, and processed for discharge based on text messages inaccurately interpreted by their wing commander to be evidence of drug use will have those administrative actions reversed, this according to sources familiar with a forthcoming Air Force press release.

After an investigation and review ordered by Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, the three will have their aeronautical orders restored and be removed from administrative discharge proceedings. Reprimands referencing drug use will be removed from their personnel files after the review found that drug use allegations against the pilots were unsubstantiated. Essentially, the status quo ante will be restored as if the bogus drug charges had never been invoked. It’s a development not even those most optimistic about the review dared contemplate.

While the actions will be attributed to the commander of Air Education and Training Command, they are a direct result of Welsh’s personal involvement in the case, which earned the praise of legislators who pressed the service to look into the case after the story — originally featured here — caught their notice.

“I was very impressed by Gen. Welsh and the personal attention he gave to this issue. In my mind, he has lived up to his reputation as a man who takes care of his people,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger told me via phone earlier today. Members of Congressman Duncan Hunter’s staff spoke in similar tones, adding that the speed with which the Chief of Staff resolved the issue was extremely rare in these sorts of cases.

Welsh’s resolution of the matter is indeed commendable, and an important moment for a service wrestling with sagging morale, low manning, and a noticeable problem with toxic leadership. It’s certainly uncommon to see a review conducted on this timeline, and to have it ordered by the service’s highest ranking officer. The commitment to a just outcome is a credit to Gen. Welsh, but also a signal of the plainness and clarity of the wrongness and injustice manifested in the situation.

Of course, these actions won’t completely address the questions raised along the way. In the process of making these three airmen whole, Welsh incidentally opened a new service-wide conversation about the public consequences of private communications. His insistence that anything airmen say to one another — even in a private text message — can be used as evidence in a judicial or administrative proceeding remains deeply controversial, gnawing away at his credibility and degrading organizational climate. Welsh has thus far declined to clarify his guidance, and this is a bad decision giving undeserved life to a horribly flawed idea. 

There’s also the question of how a miscarriage of justice like this could have happened in the first place, and what is being done to prevent recurrence. Without the exceptional interventions in their cases, the three officers impacted in this case would have been discharged and practically unemployable, their personnel records burdened with charges of drug use — all without a shred of evidence they were actually culpable for anything. For this to have happened as it did, the system necessarily broke down. Commanders and legal advisors at multiple levels contributed to an unacceptable ethical and moral failure as well as a grotesque abuse of legal authority.

It’s not clear what Welsh intends to do about these larger problems, but Kinzinger told me he personally remains “committed to looking at ways to fix the UMCJ and other processes to ensure something like this can never happen again.” Joseph Kasper, Hunter’s Chief of Staff, noted that his principal intends to address the service position on seizing private communications, and is focused on preventing future recurrences of the Laughlin debacle.

An important early step in any reform effort is accountability. In this situation, the commander most directly responsible for getting things horribly wrong appears to be Col. Brian Hastings, who signed the pilots’ reprimands, grounded them, and postured them to be drummed out of the Air Force even after they passed drug tests. For his actions to be undone means Hastings was wrong, and this raises the question what, if anything, will be done to hold him to account.

While Hastings certainly inherited an unenviable task when he took command of a wing many agree was in bad shape culturally and in need of a stern cleanup effort, that doesn’t create a satisfactory excuse for the kind of overzealousness reflected in his actions. The legal authority to ruin lives must be carefully and judiciously applied, going no further than the evidence permits. Hastings apparently jumped to a series of conclusions based on impressions developed in the course of an unrelated investigation and then bent legal and administrative processes around those conclusions. This is exactly the opposite of a commander’s duty.

But then again, while Hastings is clearly responsible was clearly wrong, he didn’t do this in a vacuum. It will be interesting to see (and we will closely follow here) whether the inquiry examined any pressure or unsolicited advice exerted upon Hastings from above, whether it was improper or even unlawful, and the quality of legal advice he and other commanders received throughout the process of cleaning up the mess at Laughlin. 

But for now, the bottom line is that three officers wrongly labeled drug abusers can begin to clear their names, rebuild their lives, and refocus themselves on the mission. It won’t be easy, and there’s a lot of broken glass to deal with, but at least they can start. This is possible because their cases received extraordinary popular and media attention, catching the notice of justice-oriented military veterans in Congress and elsewhere who managed to persuade the nation’s senior airman to sort out the mess. 

It’s a positive and constructive outcome that is simultaneously distressing. Such a “glove save” should never have been necessary in the first place. This is not the design of a well-functioning process. It doesn’t vindicate the willingness of airmen to voluntarily serve the nation’s defense. But it’s ultimately a modest credit.

Let’s hope it’s part of a reawakening commitment to doing the right thing and taking care of people — even and especially when it’s not easy or consequence-free. After all, when we take care of them, they take care of the mission, and everybody wins.

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