LOE

Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser took command of the 30th Airlift Squadron on June 1st, 2013.  Eight months later, his boss fired him without warning and without a clear cause. His story casts a dark shadow over the ethical state of the Air Force, and raises important questions.

Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser (pictured at far right) took command of the 30th Airlift Squadron on June 1st, 2013. Eight months later, his wing commander fired him without warning and without clear cause. His story casts a dark shadow over the ethical state of the Air Force.

I wrote briefly in a recent piece about the unseemly firing of Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser, a highly accomplished and well-regarded officer who deployed just weeks after taking the controls of a Wyoming-based C-130 squadron, dominated a critical command role in Afghanistan, and returned home to a surprise pink slip. Without a sensible explanation, he was relegated to the career scrap heap, an investigation initiated after-the-fact by a chain of command that turned against him without warning. Demonstrating some of the leadership and toughness that convinced the Air Force to make him a commander, Kaiser worked for months “within the system” to seek redress for what he saw as a shockingly unjust action. He met with a bureaucratic brick wall and refusal to reconsider, even when multiple investigations cleared him of any wrongdoing. Kaiser found himself in the distressing position of being held responsible for problems in his squadron that manifested while he was deployed and unable to address them.

After receiving no remedy through a range of official processes, Kaiser took his grievance to Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) and asked Pryor’s office to conduct an inquiry. Pryor’s home state hosts Little Rock Air Force Base’s 19th Airlift Wing (19 AW), the unit to which Kaiser reported while in command and whose commander, Colonel Patrick Rhatigan, gave the order terminating Kaiser from command. Sen. Pryor saw enough in Kaiser’s complaint to submit a formal inquiry to the Air Force, and the service recently responded in a letter obtained by JQP. Unfortunately for all involved, the one-page response furnished by the Air Force reflects a lack of genuine diligence, looking less like an inquiry anew and more like a rote staffing exercise designed to recapitulate the same nebulous rationale previously supplied to Kaiser himself. The response is sufficiently sparing and unserious as to raise the question whether Senator Pryor’s inquiry was given the effort to which it was entitled. But while it provided nothing new substantively, the response did highlight issues of procedure, fairness, and conflict of interest that raise larger questions, both with respect to Kaiser and the systemic ethical context within which his firing occurred. A careful reading of the Air Force’s response letter, taken together with other pertinent facts, creates the inference that his termination was predetermined, and that he was simply the last to know.

Indeed, Kaiser’s situation is circumstantially parallel to that encountered by Lt. Col. Craig Perry, himself fired from command earlier this year on the basis of paper-thin allegations detailed in a shoddy investigation. The sidelining of these officers without clear cause, and the inability of either to obtain a remedy, is throwing water on General Mark Welsh’s recent claim that he is “happy” with the state of the service’s ethical fabric. It is also cooling the ambitions of scores of rising officers who worry that exposing themselves and their families to the sacrifice necessary to attain a command role might not be a good bargain anymore if lives and careers can be too easily crushed.

A Response Beneath the Stature of America’s Air Force

Colonel Kaiser has maintained since his relief from command that it was done without proper cause, and the Air Force’s response, perhaps unintentionally, confirms his claim. In relevant part, the letter states:

“[O]n February 10, 2014, Colonel Patrick Rhatigan, 19th Airlift Wing Commander (19 AW/CC), initiated a Commander Directed Investigation [CDI] into matters raised in an Inspector General (IG) complaint by a member of the 30[th Airlift Squadron (30 AS)].

The mention of an IG complaint in conjunction with a CDI is an alarming feature of this excerpt (more on that later), but the most important aspect of this quote is the date. The investigation being cited by the Air Force to help explain the firing of a squadron commander was not commenced until five days after that commander was fired. This creates the perception that the investigation was simply designed to find rationale supporting a decision already made, which would constitute a clear ethical violation. Indeed, why would an investigation be necessary at all if there was independent rationale for his firing? But even if the smoke evinced by this circumstance does not point to the fire of corruption, the CDI cited by the Air Force still cannot possibly have any bearing on the supportability of the decision to remove Kaiser, and therefore should not be cited in a response letter to a Senator inquiring about that decision. Even more alarming is what the Senator Pryor response goes on to say later:

“Although the CDI did not uncover specific instances of misconduct by Lieutenant Colonel Kaiser, the decision to remove him from command was not changed.”

No, your eyes are not fooling you, and this sentence is an actual excerpt from an official response letter sent by the Air Force Legislative Liaison to The Honorable Mark Pryor on July 22nd. This letter makes it clear that the after-the-fact investigation ostensibly designed to cement Kaiser’s firing failed to do so, but that the Air Force has chosen to discard this inconvenient fact and move forward with his professional humiliation and the destruction of his career. This would be appalling conduct in any organization, but especially in one that claims the mantle of integrity, which sometimes means swallowing hard and doing the right thing. Note also here the weasel-worthy linguistic choices, which are beneath the stature of America’s Air Force. The report uses the phrase “did not uncover specific instances” to sugar-coat the bare fact that an investigation initiated to develop charges against him actually exonerated Kaiser. The use of the word “specific” seems designed to create an effect opposite the word’s meaning, by creating a vague sense that Kaiser must have done something wrong but it just couldn’t be proved. To step out of character for a moment, last I checked this was still America, and we enjoy the presumption of innocence in our society. We don’t surrender that presumption when we join the military. The fact that airmen have fought and died to protect this principle makes its violation especially grotesque. Upon the completion of the CDI on April 1st, Kaiser should have been immediately reinstated when no allegations against him were substantiated. That he was not appears to be a clear ethical breach itself begging for investigation.

So Why Was This Guy Fired?

While Kaiser has never had the rationale for his removal explained to him (perhaps because there was no explanation capable of supporting the decision), a number of speculative theories have emerged as the story has gained public traction. Some believe he was pushed out of the way to make room for a preferred candidate who had the personal approval of a highly-placed general. Others have speculated that Kaiser’s participative leadership style and gregarious nature placed him at odds stylistically with his chain of command. Yet another notion that has surfaced is that he somehow hadn’t managed to make the right kind of impression on senior leaders in the short time between his assumption of command and his deployment. This, as the theory goes, left a vacuum of perception to be later filled with the negativity of an Inspector General (IG) investigation into unit climate issues. While Kaiser was not a subject of the IG inquiry, it’s possible he was a casualty of a confluence of misperceptions, and that commanders further up the chain, concerned about problems in the 30 AS, wanted someone with whom they felt more “comfortable” running the squadron. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. The Air Force has a stubborn tradition of judging leaders based on shallow impressions. Superior leaders can easily find themselves on the ropes as a result of innuendo, reputation, and negative feedback via the “bro network.” This is an inescapable feature of human activity, but to the extent it leads to official sanctions, it is an indefensible ethics violation.

While any or a combination of all of these theories might contain a kernel of truth, none provides the justification to remove a commander without evidence. This didn’t prevent Rhatigan and his immediate deputy, Colonel Johnnie Martinez, from cloaking their actions in the notion of a “loss of confidence.” This familiar trope has become the reddest of red flags denoting the likelihood of a questionable decision, and its overuse threatens to blunt the valid idea it once represented. It’s not irrational to think that senior officers should be able to exercise some latitude in deciding that someone who holds a special position just isn’t up to the job. But it’s also not acceptable for senior officers to come to such conclusions capriciously, arbitrarily, or otherwise unreasonably. Failing to put subordinates on notice and not giving them a chance to correct is a signal that a performance correction wasn’t really the objective. In such a case, the objective was to let a subordinate fail in order to get them off the roster, to be replaced by a favored candidate. This is classic abuse. Without a robust check on senior officer authority, the “loss of confidence” rationale is one of many wide open doors to such abuse. One way authority is checked is through the proper use of investigative processes to find facts and help commanders make objective determinations. The Kaiser debacle provides fresh evidence that Air Force commanders might be misusing these processes.

A Sham Investigation

JQP has not seen the report of the CDI Rhatigan directed on Kaiser – the Air Force rarely releases such reports, preferring to hold facts close to the vest to maintain information superiority with respect to those who might challenge findings. But from the facts disclosed, it can be judged obviously bogus from start to finish, and should never have been ordered, conducted, approved, or seen the light of day. The fact it was even mentioned in a formal response to a U.S. Senator is an embarrassment. The fact the Air Force seems to be relying on it to sustain a dubious firing is another telltale sign that all is not well in the state of Air Force ethics. Even if the CDI report in this case were to declare Blair Kaiser to be Satan incarnate (and ironically, it doesn’t – in fact it clears him of any misconduct), it wouldn’t matter because the findings are fruit of a poison tree. As previously mentioned, the investigation was ordered after Kaiser had already been cashiered. It’s reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the CDI wasn’t a fact-finding process but a path to ex post justification. If it was designed purely to provide foundation for something already done, it wasn’t a valid process at all, meaning that none of it should be eligible for inclusion in official decision-making.

The CDI investigator was Rhatigan’s own staff judge advocate, and she had previously advised Rhatigan on the matter of whether he should fire Kaiser. These realities – having already provided advice on the officer being investigated and being tasked to report to the commander to whom she reports — made her inescapably biased, and made her appointment a clear conflict of interest. Kaiser objected to this structural flaw out of concern for fairness, but the Air Force refused to transfer the investigation to a dispassionate party. There could be no expectation of Kaiser being investigated impartially under these circumstances, and this fatally undermines the credibility of the CDI. Rhatigan’s approval of an investigation he knew wasn’t conducted by a disinterested investigator compounded his previous mistakes by giving false official legitimacy to an illegitimate process. He then fed this process to the Air Force, which fed it to Senator Pryor, implicating the service and one of its wing commanders in the misleading of an oversight official at the highest level of government.

Also deeply concerning is the official explanation offered as the trigger for the CDI. As if to pretend that Senator Pryor and his staff are fresh off the back of the turnip truck, the Air Force suggests in its response that the CDI was initiated not to vindicate Rhatigan’s firing decision, but as a result of “matters raised in an [IG] complaint by a member of the 30 AS.” This is quite concerning. It creates a perception of Rhatigan casting about for a way to justify his actions and chartering an investigation that could only spring to life after he peered behind the veil of an ongoing IG complaint and into the protected communications that gave rise to that complaint. There he found allegations – not against Kaiser, but involving the 30 AS – and used these tenuous vagaries as the foundation for what would later be disingenuously portrayed as an independent process. The CDI was a circular absurdity – an investigation based on another investigation on the same subject, subsuming protected communications and potentially chilling the willingness of airmen to raise IG complaints in the process.

The CDI Rhatigan ordered was also the wrong tool for the job. The Air Force’s own guide for the conduct of CDIs admonishes that gender bias complaints – such as those claimed in the IG report Rhatigan referenced – should first be routed to Equal Opportunity (EO) professionals, whose expertise in investigating such claims gives them the right of first refusal.

But even if Rhatigan was convinced that Kaiser somehow engaged in conduct too severe for an EO complaint, he still chose the wrong process. CDIs are administrative, and should not be used to pursue matters that might lead to judicial or non-judicial proceedings under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The selection of this administrative “middle road” can be understood as a way to find justification for Kaiser’s firing without risking the loss of credibility attendant to officially accusing someone of misconduct without proper evidence. But it’s arguable, and indeed compelling, that a commander carefully selected should not be so callously removed, and therefore that if he can’t be shown at odds with the UCMJ in some way, he should not be subject to removal.

Kaiser attends midnight shift change with his deployed maintainers.  While he was leading airmen in combat, his chain of command was not only aloof to his performance, but turning against him in ways that would doom him later.  Shouldn't leadership be the #1 metric for a commander rather than impression or the approval of senior generals?

Kaiser attends midnight shift change with his deployed maintainers. While he was leading airmen in combat, his chain of command was not only aloof to his performance, but turning against him in ways that would doom him later. Shouldn’t leadership be the #1 metric for a commander rather than impression or the approval of senior generals?

The unhesitant hijacking of an ongoing IG investigation by the Rhatigan CDI is alarming. It shows a willingness to treat due process as an instrumentality to fulfill command objectives, and this raises the specter of systemic corruption on the scale alleged to have occurred recently within the Veterans Affairs Administration (VA) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Whether the Air Force becomes the next federal agency figuratively perp-walked through a series of ethics hearings on Capitol Hill will likely be a function of the service’s willingness to reign in its senior officers, insist on the vindication of those wrongly beleaguered, and meaningfully re-educate commanders at all levels on the proper and improper use of investigative authority. 

Narrative First, Integrity a Distant Second

The Air Force’s response to the Pryor inquiry closes on the following troublesome note:

Specifically, Colonel Martinez relieved him of command for the following reasons: issues regarding overall climate within the 30 AS and concerns about officer and enlisted fraternization, [and] alleged alcohol consumption within 12 hours prior to flight duties.”

Issues, concerns, and allegations. But no facts, no evidence, and nothing proven. When the Orwellian doublespeak is stripped from this passage, it’s clear the Air Force has issued a virtually fact-free document to a U.S. Senator. This offends the integrity of all involved.

Dishonestly, this jumble pretends that Martinez fired Kaiser. This just isn’t true. In an email response to Kaiser’s legal team, Rhatigan’s legal advisor refers to “Col Rhatigan’s specific reasons for removing Lt. Col. Kaiser,” making clear Rhatigan did the firing. The dumbest thing about this failed rhetorical sleight is that it’s well known within the Air Force that wing commanders hire and fire squadron commanders. Group leaders have largely been relegated to henchmen who deliver the news, with few exceptions.

This misrepresentation attempts to distance Rhatigan from a decision he owns. Was this just sloppy staffing, or was there an important motivation for distancing Rhatigan from his decision? One explanation for this attempt to portray the Kaiser firing as a relatively minor issue carried out by a group commander is that if Rhatigan made the decision and is publicly accountable for it, his decision process becomes subject to scrutiny the Air Force would prefer be focused at a lower level. Since wing commanders are the face of the Air Force in their local communities, are almost always fast-track officers on the path to generalship, and given that they regularly interface with legislators who influence funding decisions impacting the service, it’s understandable that the Air Force works hard to keep the image of its wing leaders as untarnished as possible. But if this impulse leads to misrepresentation, it becomes unethical and cannot be defended.

In all likelihood, Rhatigan consulted with general officers further up the chain of command before making his decision. This is common practice. What it means is that those officers supported his decision, and would now also lose face if it is exposed as a bad call. This is, once again, an understandable impulse, but the Air Force cannot expect to succeed in defending the country if the concentration of authority among senior officers leads it to refuse reconsideration of bad decisions. The “issues regarding the overall climate within the 30 AS and concerns about officer and enlisted fraternization” mentioned here were the subjects investigated in the IG complaint Rhatigan parlayed into a CDI. Neither that IG investigation nor the CDI found Kaiser to have contributed to negative climate issues in the 30 AS. In fact, a Unit Climate Assessment (UCA) ordered by Kaiser during his 12-week command stint returned very positive results, and commented favorably on his leadership. The IG investigation never considered Kaiser to have been a subject, and the CDI interviewed more than 40 witnesses from a cross-section of ranks in concluding Kaiser was above reproach.

To the extent Rhatigan might claim Kaiser set the wrong tone, he would have a hard time convincing even the most skeptical observer that Kaiser had a fair shot in the 12 weeks he held his position before enduring a 20-week deployment. Such an assertion would also be disputed by the UCA results, although there’s no evidence that either Rhatigan or Martinez digested those results. It’s fair to conclude that this is a baseless vagary attempting to make Kaiser own problems he didn’t create and didn’t have the chance to fix. This seems manifestly unjust. 

Finally, the unfortunate mention of “alleged alcohol consumption within 12 hours prior to flight duties” is arguably unconscionable. Not only is it a bald admission that Kaiser was fired based on allegations, but it takes great pains to obscure the fact that those allegations were affirmatively disproven through several sworn statements. Evidence was gathered and it demonstrated clearly that Kaiser had not committed this act, something to which Martinez actually admitted even as he delivered the bad news that he was being removed from command. The notion of Kaiser drinking before flying is incredibly inflammatory. Such a stain on the reputation of a pilot – especially one commanding a flying squadron – can be impossible to remove once it attaches. This is why damaging rumors should never be treated as serious or presumed factual by senior leaders in positions of responsibility.

This particular rumor got started when Lt. Col. Tyson Willis, the officer standing in for Kaiser in his absence, misunderstood a simple flight log documentation error pertaining to a flight Kaiser had taken on the way home from his deployment. A five-minute discussion with Kaiser or any of the others involved in the flight would have revealed that he neither breached the 12-hour alcohol restriction prior to flight nor even operated as an aircrew member on the flight in question. It was a documentation error with no sinister explanation behind it. But Willis didn’t give Kaiser the presumption of honor or appropriateness, which is odd considering the two should have had a good working relationship. Instead, Willis fed the specious accusation directly to the 19 AW chain of command, leaving Kaiser to try and un-ring the bell of negative perception. For reasons to be discussed a little later, Rhatigan and Martinez acted on this rumor rather than presuming a reasonable explanation, which should have been the operating logic given that a Lieutenant Colonel squadron commander was the subject.

What’s most distressing is the inflammatory inclusion of the alcohol rumor in the official response to Senator Pryor. This is designed to leave Pryor with the impression Kaiser must have been up to no good, when in fact the Air Force is well aware that these allegations are without foundation. In portraying them as proven facts or logical inferences, the Air Force attempts a shortcut through the realm of fact, hoping Pryor will accept its assertions on faith and extend to it the same benefit of the doubt it denied Blair Kaiser. 

Deafening Silence

For all of the problems with what the Air Force response says, the most damning thing is what it doesn’t say. The response does not address the mind-boggling timing of Kaiser’s relief. He took command, commanded for just under three months, and was then dispatched to Afghanistan to command a deployed C-130 squadron. He dominated in that role, earning a glowing report from his deployed commander. He then returned home and was summarily fired before having had a meaningful chance to command the 30 AS. The failure of the response to address this central issue feels like a dodge, and it tries to obscure important systemic questions.

How did the Air Force change its mind so quickly about one of its best officers? When did that happen? This is a peculiarly important question, because any answer makes the Air Force in some way culpable, either for ineptitude or ethical violations. Either it sent a commander about whom it had doubts to an incredibly demanding and strategically critical forward command job, or it left him in that job for some period of time after determining he was no longer fit. Something doesn’t add up. Either way, the Little Rock leadership team has some explaining to do, or at least it would in a systemically ethical Air Force.

“Raging White”

In the Combat Air Forces, and particularly among fighter crews, there is an odd phenomenon known as “raging white.” In an air combat scenario, fighters assume roles as friendly (blue) forces and aggressor (red) forces. Symbols representing each aircraft are portrayed on a large screen representing simulated battlespace. Debrief is a chance to visually appreciate and extract lessons from the actions and maneuvers undertaken by red and blue forces. When a player in a combat simulation is “killed,” he is no longer part of the scenario. Killed players are informed via radio transmission that they’ve been removed from the action. In debrief, removed players’ symbols are turned white at the instant they are eliminated. Occasionally, and with great comedic effect, a player is killed but misses the radio call telling him he’s been removed. He’s oblivious to his fate. Believing himself to still be actively in the fight, this unwitting protagonist continues to “rage” throughout the battlespace, making mayhem and getting in the way of the simulation. Only in debrief does this hapless ingénue realize he was “raging white” the whole time, his fate sealed long before it was revealed to him. 

At some point in time, Blair Kaiser went from “in the fight” to “raging white,” a transition that is only evident now that debrief has arrived. The most staining allegation against Kaiser was the notion he drank alcohol within 12 hours of flying. It turned out to be untrue, but when the aspersion was cast, it found a welcome audience predisposed to lend it undue weight because of other atmospherics. It turns out that while Kaiser was deployed, getting the stuff to the fight in Afghanistan, Rhatigan was talking to Willis – a known favorite of General Darren McDew, Rhatigan’s boss at the time – about Willis’ aspirations and preferences for squadron command. This is no small fact. Wing Commanders generally don’t provide career counseling to operations officers (Willis’ formal title although he was acting as commander of the 30 AS in Kaiser’s absence), and they typically keep a healthy distance from “acting” commanders in order to keep them on their toes. It seems Willis was different, perhaps because of his known affiliation with McDew. Moreover, after Kaiser was relieved, it was noted immediately that Willis was under consideration for permanent command of the 30 AS.

Blair Kaiser poses with his troops during his Afghanistan command tour.  Little did he know that back home, his chain of command was losing confidence in him based on matters beyond his control.

Blair Kaiser poses with his troops during his Afghanistan command tour. Little did he know that back home, his chain of command was losing confidence in him based on matters beyond his control.

This wasn’t the limit of senior command manifestation in the circumstances surrounding the Kaiser firing. The morning after Kaiser returned from Afghanistan, he was advised by Colonel Mike Taheri, a member of the Wyoming Air National Guard leadership, that in his absence the 30 AS had been getting “3-star visibility” (a reference to McDew) and that Kaiser needed to “watch [his] every personal move closely.” It seems McDew had let it be known he was concerned about the climate of the 30 AS, no doubt because of the ongoing IG investigation into climate issues. For Kaiser, this translated into having been put on notice that he had zero room for error, notwithstanding that he’d only just returned from a successful deployed command, his squadron having been tended by McDew’s protégé in his absence. The conditions were such that any mistake by Kaiser could be the predicate for his professional ruin.

That “mistake” came when Willis registered a concern about Kaiser allegedly drinking the night before flying on his way back from deployment. By itself, such an allegation would have been a gnat to an elephant. But Kaiser’s goose had already been cooked. His chain of command had turned against him. Pressure was building behind the idea of moving him aside and giving the unit a fresh start in the hands of a new leader with the personal trust and attention of the big boss. Kaiser had been raging white for some period of time, and the unproven alcohol slur was merely the trigger for a formal kill/remove. The fact Kaiser was allowed to continue giving his all while laboring under the mistaken belief he was still “in the fight” when in fact his chain of command had turned against him is a gross injury to his dignity. It diminishes everyone involved.

Scenarios like this illustrate just how fragile the bonds of mutual respect can be, and how easily they can be melted by the acid of make believe. The factual evidence of Blair Kaiser’s performance at the helm of the 30th weighs universally in his favor. But senior leaders weren’t looking at evidence. They were dealing in impression, perception, and comfort level. They lost respect for someone who had done nothing to precipitate it. Surely this is not an acceptable management philosophy in the Air Force the country deserves.

An Institution Ethically “Raging White?”

General Welsh insists the Air Force does not have an ethics problem. There’s reason to look skeptically upon that declaration. A pair of legislators immediately challenged Welsh’s recent assertion, pointing to the service’s struggle to balance the legal authority of commanders with the urgency of combating sexual assault. Lt. General Craig Franklin’s 2013 decision to overturn the sexual assault conviction of a subordinate invited ethics criticisms that continue to loom large. But the handling of sexual assault cases, something the service is working hard to improve, isn’t the only reason for concern. Over the last few years, ethical failures have been a persistent narrative in the Air Force story. Earlier this year, scandal enveloped the nuclear missile community, implicating scores of officers in a process of normalized cheating that appeared systemically ingrained. This happened despite the internal protests of officers who insisted a year before that the community was rotting from the inside. The Air Force Academy has also been wracked by a series of problems with ethical implications, from accreditation and academic issues to the use of confidential informants to new revelations involving pervasive misconduct within the athletic program. Basic Military Training (BMT) lost public credibility just a couple of years ago with the disclosure of widespread criminality among instructors, much of it involving sexual assault or harassment. In the wake of that scandal, the service conducted an independent investigation designed to fix the issues at Lackland Air Force Base without overcorrecting in ways that could jeopardize the BMT mission. Many believe that effort has failed, giving way to a toxic command climate characterized by demands from senior officers for intellectual compliance, decisions rooted in political appearances rather than the welfare of airmen, and the witch-hunting of anyone who dare disagree with the autocratic colonels running the show. Craig Perry’s firing supports this view.

Lt. Col. Kaiser poses in front of an A-10 during his stint as Commander of the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron.  The Air Force has come to regard squadron commanders as "lesser included" members of the leadership club.  Authority is being stripped away, along with resources and now, even the presumption of honorability to which commanders have always been especially entitled.  When did squadron commanders lose the special trust and confidence of the Air Force?

Lt. Col. Kaiser poses in front of an A-10 during his stint as Commander of the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron. The Air Force has come to regard squadron commanders as “lesser included” members of the leadership club. Authority is being stripped away, along with resources and now, even the presumption of honorability to which commanders have always been especially entitled. When did squadron commanders lose the special trust and confidence of the Air Force?

All of these scandals, and many more not listed here, involve the exercise of power. Many of them involve power relationships operating at the fundamental level of the Air Force – at the gates being manned by those upon whom the service depends to ensure it fields a morally upright fighting force. The weight of evidence publicly available (to say nothing of what has occurred but not been disclosed) is not only hefty enough to call into doubt Welsh’s award of “top marks” for ethics, but to wonder if his denial of a problem is further emboldening unethical actors. It might be that the Air Force is “raging white” in the ethics department, oblivious to having departed from a healthy institutional climate.

Blair Kaiser is not the only officer cast out by the 19 AW leadership in recent months. Indeed, four field grade officers, three of them squadron commanders, have been fired by Rhatigan in a span of ten months. Each of these enjoyed a superb career right up until they found themselves working under his supervision. While this doesn’t mean Rhatigan was wrong in any of the individual actions he took, it does raise troubling questions. It’s a stretch to believe that the Air Force allowed this many “bad” O-5s to slip through its screening process, or that so many would be concentrated at one base at one time. At least one other relieved commander has filed an IG complaint alleging Rhatigan was abusive. Whether the service put too many bad apples in one bunch or handed a basket of good apples to a toxic leader is an open question. Either way, ethical questions are unavoidably on the table.

When wing commanders feel free to hire their own legal advisors to conduct post-hoc investigations perceived to cover their decisions, the question of corruption is raised and must be answered. When those investigators bootstrap information from other investigations to shape and supplement their own reports, it’s logical to question whether the investigation was an objective fact-finding process or an instrumentality to fulfill a pre-ordained objective. This must be explained. And when an investigation is approved by a commander whose sole source of legal advice as to procedural correctness of an investigation is the same officer who conducted it, due process is vitiated. This situation reeks of ethical compromise, and fits into a pattern across the larger force. The unwillingness to earnestly answer a legislator’s questions also fits into that pattern – one of a service off the ethical rails but convinced it’s doing just fine.

Conclusion: Aiming High Enough?

The Air Force’s response to a Congressional inquiry in the Kaiser case is distressing, and not just because it seems to shrug off casually a genuine attempt at oversight by a U.S. Senator on behalf of a constituent. It dismisses the life and career of an honorably serving commissioned officer with the wave of an arrogant hand, admitting there is no evidence to justify his ruin but insisting on his ruin nonetheless. Instead of a genuine response based on a genuine inquiry, the Air Force boldly re-states flawed reasoning, sanguinely shrugging its shoulders and signaling that it doesn’t feel compelled to explain itself. It then goes the next step, declaring that it grabbed innuendo from wherever it felt the need, without respect for due process or objectivity. This is the response of an ethically unmoored institution.

Remember, Blair Kaiser has at this point been cleared of any personal wrongdoing and has not been administratively or judicially disciplined. He’s been sent on an assignment the Air Force claims is not punitive, yet he’s also been issued a career-ending unfavorable performance appraisal on the basis of 12 weeks of command. This brief stint at the controls left his superiors convinced he was ready for the most important C-130 command tour in the Air Force, and he proved them right in Afghanistan. His last performance report (before the one used to legitimize his firing) reflects not just excellent performance, but superior leadership in the crucible of combat. And to explain these obvious inconsistencies, the Air Force has offered a single page of unprofessional gibberish.

Lt. Col. Kaiser finished his deployed command tour with this brilliant appraisal.  Less than a month later, he was jettisoned from command and professionally humiliated.  How did the Air Force change its mind about him so quickly?

Lt. Col. Kaiser finished his deployed command tour with this brilliant appraisal. Less than a month later, he was jettisoned from command and professionally humiliated. How did the Air Force change its mind about him so quickly?

Leaving an airman and his family to rot in isolation while the gears of bureaucratic process grind to an unjust halt is indecent. But it’s also concerning for what it says about the service’s commitment to ethical conduct as well as the bedrock values that underlay its entire professional system. When airmen can lose their positions and have their careers and reputations made rubble on the basis of allegation, supposition, or senior officer fiat without access to a fair and objective process, the Air Force is not only host to gross ethical compromise, but arguably inconsistent with the very rule of law it is duty-bound to safeguard. This indictment may sound harsh, but any pain felt by the institution as a result of these barbs pales in comparison to the anguish felt by dedicated servants who are arbitrarily expelled from positions of trust, separated from their teammates, and jettisoned into career oblivion without warrant.

The Air Force's current command climate drives it to forsake and treat with scorn airmen and families who dedicated their lives to serving.  Without a course correction, the service will not retain good people and is bound to fail.

Blair Kaiser and his family prior to his relief. The Air Force’s current command climate drives it to forsake and treat with scorn airmen and families who dedicated their lives to serving. Without a course correction, the service will not retain good people and is bound to fail.

Blair Kaiser is stuck trying to explain to his family and his wife’s family how it’s possible that he could lose his job without having broken any rules. He lives daily with the stain of somehow having let his country down, unable to reconcile this feeling with any culpable action. This is the fate of those condemned by a dishonest system. It’s undeserved by anyone, much less an officer of stature, honor, and achievement who held command at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Blair Kaiser is undoubtedly imperfect and has undoubtedly made mistakes – perhaps even while commanding. But if we want these positions, ranks, oaths and commitments to mean anything at all, we must affirm them with just and transparent processes that attempt no unethical shortcuts.

As important as individual justice is the cases of Blair Kaiser, Craig Perry, and others, of paramount importance is the processes used to determine their fates. When our processes begin to resemble too closely those employed by our enemies, we have reason to worry.

Yes, this is happening not in the North Korean Air Force, but in the American Air Force . . . and yes, General Mark Welsh and Secretary Deborah Lee James should do something immediately to fix it. They might start by re-accomplishing the response to Senator Pryor’s inquiry, and having it done with earnestness and fulsomeness this time around. If it leads to new investigations into the ethics of those who have exercised authority in this case, that’s probably good too.