A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron sits on the flightline after flying a mission over the Arabian Sea at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Jan. 27, 2016. Coalition forces fly daily missions in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. OIR is the coalition intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook/Released)

A week ago, I put a story out concerning some childish backbiting on a deployed whiteboard in response to a deployed crew calling safety after being handed a mission that exceeded their risk tolerance. I wasn’t totally convinced at that point that the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron had a problem, so I used the article to present some facts and to pose the notion as a question.

In the week since, it’s become obvious that the squadron is, to apply pilot parlance, in deep shit. Several data points to consider.

First, two additional members of the squadron have reached out to corroborate and comment on the incident chronicled in the previous article. According to these sources, the crew in question made a reasonable and well-supported decision to refuse a mission. Because this decision inconvenienced other members of the squadron, umbrage was taken and sophomoric comments were scrawled on a whiteboard attacking the original crew.

According to members of the squadron I talked to, the leadership did nothing to curb the whiteboard commentary or even meaningfully address it. This recommends to suspicion that the safety culture of the squadron needs attention. Safety feeds on command sponsorship and starves without it, and when threats to safety present themselves in a healthy organization, they are stomped into dust by the first leader to encounter them.

We also heard from members of the squadron’s Kandahar detachment, who relayed that they’ve had a recent visit from their deployed group commander in which he castigated them for having too much fun and forced them to paint over a mural depicting their deployed mascot. Formerly known as “Badger Ops” … they now inhabit a building with a massive red dot on the wall. Cue the green dot jokes and the accompanying misery.

Det 1 crewmembers tell me they are constantly threatening limits for hours in 30 and 90 days, and are perennially burned out, just like their Al Udeid counterparts. At least some of them don’t believe their unit leadership is seeing the lurking risks clearly.

Another report alleges that a 340th KC-135 clipped a building at Al Udeid with its wingtip back in late November — another case involving a tired crew being pushed too hard and logging enough 30-day time to make them more numb than a “gaggle of frostbitten cocaine addicts” … a nervous punch-phrase shared by a boom operator who recently finished a deployment with the unit.

Perhaps the most vivid and convincing piece of evidence that the 340th is in trouble was provided by commenters who weighed in on the original story, claiming to have themselves been involved in the original whiteboard drama.

One guy proudly crowed he was the originator of the whole saga, having left the comment that got this shitball rolling. He added “[t]his has everything to do with crew dogs attempting to adjust the viewpoint of a relatively new guy who doesn’t seem to understand mission focus and not hosing your buddies.”

This is an unwitting admission of toxicity and bullying that run contrary to not only safe mission execution, but any semblance of professional teamwork. “[T]his AC is out of the norm with his perception of ORM and needed to have his chain yanked a bit,” he later added.

Not OK. In any flying squadron, safety starts with an absolute prohibition on criticizing anyone who refuses to execute for safety reasons.

It’s not that one side or the other will make a better argument on the merits, whether on a whiteboard or in open debate at the scheduler’s desk. It’s that there cannot be the argument in the first place, because to reach the argument means someone is having to defend a safety decision. If someone is doing that, they may choose to execute next time to avoid the argument, and so might their buddies.

This is how we get people killed … by pretending we understand their limitations better than they do, which is also a way of distrusting them. People need to feel totally free to refuse missions for safety reasons unless and until we find ourselves in a total war for total stakes. Only then will the necessity compete with the need to control risk. Gassing up bomb droppers so they can continue the political show of force that is the current counter-terrorist flavor of the week in the Middle East doesn’t count … even if we are allowing it to strategically exhaust us.

When a surgeon is disinclined to operate on you, it’s a bad idea to cajole him into it and risk becoming a human potato. When a pilot refuses to fly, the same principle applies. Pushing them into it is a bad idea, and everyone worth a damn knows this.

Which is why there’s good reason to be concerned about the safety culture of the 340th EARS. Not only is high school backbiting permitted, it’s carried out boldly and with gusto. This makes a leadership issue by default, and perhaps a reflection that it’s been an ignored issue too often in the past.

I hope the squadron pulls its act together before someone gets hurt. If we’re pushing people too hard, let’s maybe not.

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