Fat Follies: Air Force Sacks Superb Commander Over Arbitrary Waist Measurement


The Air Force recently fired a senior officer with an elite, 25-year performance record, cashiering him from command of a key Air Force wing several months short of a full tour.  His firing is not insignificant.  The 319th Air Base Wing is the parent organization for more than 1,100 combat-ready airmen in dozens of disciplines belonging to nine squadrons and nine geographically separated units.  These airmen and squadrons were given an interim commander and will now adapt in extremis to a new boss yet to be named, enduring significant organizational turbulence in the process, all while weathering the twin pressures of sequestration and an unprecedented operational tempo.

Colonel Tim Bush
Colonel Tim Bush

This didn’t happen because Colonel Tim Bush had been immoral, toxic, or made bad decisions.  In fact, Air Mobility Command was quick to point out that his firing was not “for alleged misconduct or wrongdoing.”  So, what offense was severe enough to warrant a firing but minor enough not to involve wrongdoing? According the Air Force statement, Bush’s relief stemmed from his “failure to comply with physical fitness standards.”  What it doesn’t make explicit is that Bush was actually quite fit, passing the pushup, situp, and running portion of his physical fitness test. But he was still deemed unfit because his abdominal circumference was two inches larger than authorized.

This superstar officer, Bronze Star recipient, respected veteran commander, and regaled combat pilot, who by all accounts behaved honorably and performed impeccably, was jettisoned from a position of special trust — a position to which he’d been approved for appointment by the senior officer of the Air Force — because at 6’1” tall, he was unable maintain a waist circumference of less than or equal to 39 inches.

And on Planet Bizzarro, the news was no-doubt greeted with thunderous applause. Here on Earth, one has to wonder if this is some sort of experiment with dark humor.    According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average waist size for a male American of Bush’s age, irrespective of height, is 41 inches.  So it seems the man was fired for being an accurate physical reflection of the society he serves.

What makes this so eyebrow-raising is that wing commanders have been known to survive wrecked airplanes, failed inspections, operational failures of various sorts, unfavorable climate assessments, rashes of disciplinary issues, and even outbreaks of criminal activity within their organizations.  In a way, this makes sense.  When someone is given command of a wing, they by definition place among the very most talented, developed, and upwardly-mobile officers of the service, and it therefore stands to reason that things that happen within their sizeable realms should be considered in context, with the service reserving relief for those situations where leadership failure is clearly manifest.  Apparently, in today’s Air Force, being a larger than average person qualifies as such a failure, even if crashing an airplane or failing an inspection doesn’t.

Adding to this unintentional rolling comic strip is that the fire-able offense of being exceedingly rotund is defined in today’s Air Force not by scientists, doctors, or even on-scene commanders, but by Air Force Instruction 36-2905 and a human counterpart with a fiberglass tape measure.  Unfortunately, the case of Colonel Bush is just the latest in a spiral of human resource malpractice that has been handmaiden to the Air Force’s experiment with abdomen-driven personnel management. He isn’t the first senior officer or enlisted member to be fired in this way (though he was the first wing commander), and while the issue gets more attention when it impacts senior personnel, it has most profoundly impacted airmen at lower grades.

Military-Justice1Career servants along the entire rank spectrum are increasingly subject to involuntary discharge for having unauthorized girth, with mid-level officers and NCOs most vulnerable. Across the service, discharge boards are convening at a quickening pace, discharging airmen at a rate 400% greater than before as pressure is exerted on commanders and medical professionals to either involuntarily discharge or medically disqualify those unable to pass the measurement. Excess abdominal circumference of even one-half of an inch forms a single criterion for a career-ending performance report.  And most astonishingly, this is true no matter the height, weight, strength, age, running speed, medical condition, career status, genetic background, or relative value of the airman in question.  The tape doesn’t care if you are an Olympic triathlete with a dozen confirmed kills; cross that 39-line, and you’re just another violator of standards.  Given the zero-defect mentality currently governing the service, failing the measurement is a bit like being convicted of a crime; you become damaged goods, and dozens of doors to the future slam closed instantly.

Your Waistline is Approved.
Your Waistline is Approved.

Because the Air Force has nested the measurement within its fitness test, which is closely associated with readiness for duty, the inability to pass it is looked upon in absolute, almost scornful terms.  Being a half-inch too robust for the tape transforms an otherwise fit airman into a failure … someone considered unfit for duty.  This structure actually works most of the time, providing the kind of systemic pressure and predictability cherished in human resource models rooted in central planning.  A good many airmen who lacked the self-discipline for enduring military service have been caught in the net created by the waist measurement and given their walking papers, and that’s a good thing.  However, this system becomes deeply problematic when it must confront unique or non-standard situations, some of which argue for special consideration.

For example, nursing an immobilizing neck or back injury or recovering from a related surgery allows an airman to avoid testing temporarily, but typically the system has trouble accounting for weight gained due to medication-induced metabolic impacts or long periods of inability to exercise.  Airmen with chronic injuries are often bounced back and forth between medical and command processes that struggle to determine their fitness for duty.

40-inch waist? Your fitness is invalid.
40-inch waist? Your fitness is invalid.

As a simple standard, the measurement fails to account for variances in human form.  For example, a tall airman with a barrel chest capable of bench-pressing 300 pounds might inspire fear in the hearts of enemies.  But if that same airman has a 40-inch waist, he only inspires within his chain of command the yearning for a referral report and a discharge board.  In other words, the service’s current rule structure actually justifies the discarding of some airmen who are particularly prepared for war … simply because they don’t fit an established mold.

Indeed, fitness is no guard against the fitness test.  Being physically strong and fast may make a warrior an unstoppable force in the annals of martial history, but in the modern Air Force, the abdominal circumference measurement is an immovable object; by regulation, an airman can complete a 1.5-mile run in 9 minutes, bang out 60 pushups and 60 situps in 2 minutes, and still fail to be defined as physically fit if s/he has an abdomen measuring more than 39 inches.  This is true whether we’re talking about a 5’2” aerospace leprechaun or a 6’10” aerospace giant.

For an Air Force claiming — accurately — that people are its most important asset, application of the waist measurement as an inviolate standard rather than a relative indicator leads to constant conflict within a value system that drives commanders to take care of people but also expects them to hold people accountable. Conflict in this system has been building for years and sapping the focus of leaders.  Yet, no one is stepping in to clarify the goal of the program or resolve its occasional inanities.  As currently fielded, the waist measurement creates too many nonsensical outcomes to be considered valid.

Perhaps more concerning in an era of tightening budgets, sunken costs are completely irrelevant to the waist measurement.  Whether someone has served for one year or twenty one, whether they re-enlisted yesterday or four years ago, whether they occupy a senior billet or a junior one, and regardless of the extent to which they’ve been developed through rare opportunities or retained via special bonuses … an extra inch around the middle currently justifies vacating all previous investment.

The transparently counterproductive behaviors attendant to the waist measurement raise questions concerning its value to the institution, and whether it is doing more harm than good.  But to understand its value would require understanding the actual objective of the waist measurement.  Many airmen don’t currently understand what it is meant to do for them or the Air Force, and their confusion is understandable given the program’s open contradictions. If fitness for duty were truly the objective, the Air Force would not discharge otherwise fit airmen on the basis of waist size. If the objective were to generate useful information for the Air Force and its airmen to apply in getting more fit, the standard itself would be intelligently designed and applied to account for human variation.  Moreover, if fitness were truly the goal, airmen would be given time during the duty day to work out, and commanders would be mandated to provide resources to help unfit airmen improve before professional consequences could be imparted.

Some believe this is really about engendering professional appearance, but that theory doesn’t hold much water either.  If that were the case, the Air Force would make allowances for different body types, and would give commanders the final say concerning whether someone looks professional enough to be retained.  If it were a matter of encouraging a fit appearance, the service would simply direct commanders to use the performance appraisal and feedback systems to more effectively pursue this end.  If it were indeed about appearance, the standard wouldn’t drive expulsion or firing of people like Colonel Bush, who looked just fine in his uniform.

There’s always the chance that the Air Force doesn’t really know what it’s trying to achieve with the abdomen measurement.  In fact there is evidence of institutional ambivalence on the matter.  If the service really believed in the standard, it wouldn’t allow four failures in a two-year period before requiring a retention review.  It probably wouldn’t retain pregnant women beyond a certain term if it truly believed the size of someone’s abdomen was a singular authoritative data point in determining fitness for duty.  Moreover, if the service really thought everyone with a waist larger than 39” deserved condemnation, it wouldn’t sell uniform trousers for people with much larger measurements.  Walk in to any clothing sales outlet, and you will find on the shelves an unspoken acknowledgement that not everyone can pass the measurement.

Wherever we find policies unmoored from organizational interest, plagued with ambivalence, and at odds with the value system within which they operate, we’re likely to find a malfunctioning bureaucracy.  That’s the case with respect to the Air Force waist measurement policy, and the reason it persists in spite of demonstrable dysfunction.

A little less than a decade ago, the service decided to push forcefully away from the entrepreneurial culture it had developed in the early 1990s – characterized by fewer rules, leaner organizations, and a push for decisions to be made at lowest levels – and move toward a more martial culture characterized by stricter standards, a tighter focus on accountability, and human resource processes driven by central planning.  It was felt by senior leaders at the time that the Air Force’s role and relevance in an increasingly expeditionary joint force mandated this shift.  A new fitness program was introduced as part of this series of initiatives.  It was originally envisioned that fitness would be considered a core duty unlike ever before in the Air Force, and accordingly, the program was first codified in a 10-series instruction, meaning it would be shepherded by the operational community.  Later, the program was re-introduced in revised form in a 36-series instruction and consigned for stewardship to the service’s personnel bureaucracy, making it a human resource program.  In the time since that change, it has been continually revised and testing procedures overhauled several times.  Over time, with human resource managers rather than commanders setting the agenda and shaping policy, the program has lost operational focus and is now more focused on its own efficiency in managing the herd.  This is a typical course of events any time a program is handed to a bureaucracy rather than a commander. Bureaucracies are not tuned to provide operational outcomes; they’re designed for consistency, efficiency, and above all, conformity.

Conformity is a necessary element of military culture, and can be wholly positive when the standards designed to produce it are properly established.  Unfortunately, the Air Force struggles with this.  Air Force Instruction 1-1, Air Force Standards, while it has much to say about expectations, does not include a definition of the word “standard” in its 27 pages.  This is an odd, even concerning omission. Most military leaders would agree that a standard must meet certain criteria to be regarded as legitimate, among these consistent measurability (as a precondition for consistent enforceability) and relevance to the mission.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the lack of Air Force guidance on how to build a standard, the waist measurement is troubled on both counts.

Air Force waist measurements are imprecise, a troubling reality given the service’s status as the most technologically advanced warfighting organization in world history.  These measurements are not done with lasers.  There’s no calibration equipment.  A band of fiberglass is drawn taught around the abdomen of an airman – not by a doctor, but by a civilian fitness bureaucrat or another airman – until it is “snug, but does not compress the bare skin.”  This tautness is not indicated by the click of a torque wrench or the hum of a range finder.  It is achieved when an airman judges it to be so.  At this point, the band indicates a girth, which is recorded. A verdict is rendered.  A career continues aloft or crashes and burns.  In a service that has long measured success in tenths of seconds and fractions of feet, it is astonishing that something of this magnitude is entrusted to a legion of laypersons grappling with a decidedly unscientific and inherently inconsistent method. It’s also a failure of implementation. Abdominal circumference is not being consistently measured as currently fielded, and therefore fails as a standard of any sort.

But the larger question is that of mission relevance.   The mission of the Air Force does not require thinness, and the fact is that people can be rotund and great at the same time, a maxim proven throughout history by figures as varied as Luciano Pavarotti, William Howard Taft, and Marlon Brando.

Gen. Curt LeMay

General Curtis LeMay was a portly man, and not a particularly healthy one either.  He was often found with a cigar hanging out of his mouth.  But he led the Air Force during historically pivotal times, was among the most feared airmen in our history, and created an organization that held the Soviet war machine in check for decades.  Amazingly, he did all of this without a svelte appearance or slim waistline.

foglemanGeneral Ron Fogleman was a superb Chief of Staff.  He understood how to align organizational goals with the disparate motivations of individuals.  He guided the Air Force to rely on values for a shared identity.  He demonstrated moral courage and showed us the importance of accountability, even when exercising it meant bucking political headwinds.  He was also not a thin man, and in fact pictures of Fogleman as a Colonel are not altogether dissimilar from recent pictures of Colonel Tim Bush. But no one ever doubted Fogleman’s fitness for duty.  Had they done so, the Air Force might have been denied his leadership and lasting contribution as a general officer.  Given the number of past leaders who might have trouble passing the waist measurement in today’s Air Force, it’s fair to question the validity of a standard that would eliminate them.  It’s also alarming to think that the service might be discarding the next LeMay, Fogleman, Schwarzkopf, or Patton with the current policy, starving itself of the best possible future in order to cling to a rule that manifestly has little to do with mission accomplishment.

The waist measurement pretends to be a fitness standard, but is actually a poorly disguised medical guideline at best.  It belongs in a doctor’s office, where it can be considered as one aspect of a medical evaluation for duty.  As airmen are pressed to defend their career viability by making sound arguments differentiating fitness and wellness, the structural dishonesty of this issue is increasingly apparent.  It’s not about the mission or even fitness more generally.  It’s about a drive for an unhealthy level of conformity that envisions airmen as interchangeable commodities.  But they’re not. Sometimes a slightly overweight individual is more valuable to the Air Force than a svelte one. Leadership does not arrive in neat, analogous packaging.  The timeless story of military success — populated with heroes in all shapes and sizes — should do much more to animate policy than a few articles in a medical journal.

But even if every word of this admitted screed has been unconvincing thus far, consider the following three reasons why the current waist measurement should be discarded.

1. Wing Commanders are arguably the most pivotal frontline leaders the service employs.  If their energies are excessively devoted to lesser included requirements — like making certain they and their airmen meet an arbitrary waist circumference — they can’t possibly be fully focused on the intellectually saturating business of air, space, and cyberspace power.  That the firing of a wing commander over a waist measurement should consume even an ounce of the capacity of a general officer speaks to the level of structurally mandated micromanagement at work in the modern Air Force.  Reducing focus on such peripheral matters and giving local commanders the authority to decide who is “too fat to serve” would allow commanders at all levels to be more effective.

2. Fitness does not equal wellness and vice versa.  A fast runner might not be well, and a fat man might not be unfit.  The false equivalency resting at the foundation of current Air Force fitness policy must be resolved before the policy can be expected to function reasonably.  Caring about the wellness of airmen is a virtue.  Firing them to enhance their wellness is unserious.

3. The current fitness program is too wasteful.  Tossing aside a joint-qualified wing commander with decades of selective development is no small thing. The Air Force does not have countless Tim Bush replicas lying around looking for gainful employment.  Investments in the development of key leaders comprise considerable taxpayer expenses that argue for smarter human resource management.

With this latest case, the Air Force has unintentionally demonstrated that a rule does not equal a solution.  Building a thorough instruction, complete with charts, has proven a poor substitute for genuine investment in the health and wellness of airmen. A solution would involve much more.  It would allocate workout time during the duty day, give commanders access to professional dietitians and nutritionists, and persistently involve medical and psychological professionals in daily unit affairs, to include diet and exercise regimens.  It would mean the careful recruitment of members capable of defying an increasingly unwell society.  Perhaps most importantly, it would seek to control individual stress and workload, restoring a healthy work/life balance and sufficient calendar “white space” for airmen to invest in their physical wellness without neglecting other priorities.

Countless men and women who rank among the best pilots, navigators, maintainers, traffic controllers, special tacticians, terminal attack controllers, combat financiers, and forward logistical coordinators could not possibly achieve the maximum score on their fitness tests, but they demonstrate unequaled fitness in doling out punishment to enemies and securing their country.  They are fit for duty, as was Colonel Tim Bush, and deserve to be acknowledged as such.

But more important than the treatment of individual airmen is the vitality of America’s Air Force.  An outwardly silly policy that victimizes individuals can be tolerated.  A policy that hurts the entire organization – and in this case injures national defense by tossing aside people of considerably invested worth – cannot be tolerated.  Hopefully, the Air Force will correct this particularly aberrant policy by re-thinking how it defines, measures, and pursues fitness.  Giving local commanders authority to set aside the measurement completely would be a great start.

Air Force — you’re obviously conflicted about this; listen to your gut.

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