Air Force Still Improperly Firing Squadron Commanders

For several years, we’ve devoted substantial energy to chronicling the unaccountable firings of Air Force squadron commanders.  If you’ve followed JQP, you’ll recall the cases of Craig Perry, Blair Kaiser, and Lance Annicelli, to name a few.

These cases shared a common pattern: a squadron commander benched without a clear reason, a subsequent investigation that failed to substantiate the relief from command, and refusal by the chain of command to reinstate the commander despite the absence of good cause.

These and dozens of other cases share another common trait: the use of weaselly, say-nothing press releases creating the vague perception of wrongdoing without providing a verifiable or falsifiable rationale. To make matters worse, the commanders themselves are ordinarily given nothing more than these same mealy-mouthed responses when they push for feedback on why they were fired. IG complaints are framed to avoid exposing corruption and cynically closed off in ways that protect the chain of command. External requests for information are delayed, dissembled, and ultimately ignored.

This is no way to run things, but it was no surprise it was permitted to thrive for the past several years when the Air Force was not in good hands. This is why it is particularly disappointing that it is continuing to happen now that a leadership change at the top has given airmen reason to believe things are on the mend.

Case in point: Lt. Col. Mario Verrett, who was sidelined from his role commanding the 496th Air Base Squadron at Moron AB, Spain as reported by Stephen Losey at Air Force Times.

I don’t know Verrett. No idea about his reputation. But his prior record is exemplary. Everything publicly written about Verrett before April of this year was favorable. He’d been successful and praised by his bosses, and had earned enough confidence to be entrusted with command of a geographically separated unit operating at a stand-alone “mini-wing” in Spain. This meant he was the face and voice of the US in a foreign community, and that whoever gave him that task believed he was capable of tackling it.

And yet, nine months into his tour, he was fired and has since been sent back to the US, a junior officer hastily pressed into the role.

What triggered this extreme response? We don’t know.

It can’t have been anything criminal, because Verrett has not been charged. It could be something lesser included — a flaw or misdeed not serious enough for charges but serious enough to justify removal. If this is the case, the Air Force should say so. It’s critically important that the service take a stand on why it has done something so that it can be challenged … because any system that holds itself free from challenge will inevitably devolve into a corrupt one.

An Air Force that won’t be challenged on reliefs — thereby signalling to senior officers that they won’t be asked to explain themselves — is one that will see commanders fired over matters of preference, style, and whimsy rather than legitimate professional misalignment or shortcomings. When no justification is necessary, politics and political correctness will creep in, edging out strong leaders who don’t have sponsorship in favor of weaker ones who do. The case of Blair Kaiser was a vivid example of this … a firing motivated by cronyism that resulted in an incapable officer being given command and himself failing within a short space of time.

Is Verrett’s case another such example? Again, we can’t know, because of the moral cowardice that has been baked into the service’s handling of senior management decisions. The O-6 who fired him has cited the tired, old standard “loss of confidence” rather than give a legitimate reason.

This gutless phrase means absolutely nothing. It describes the result of something rather than the cause. It’s a dodge, and not even a clever one. What is most contemptible about it is the implicit arrogance and imperiousness, as though the subjective judgement of one human being should stand unquestioned so long as it emanates from authority.

What I despise most about this is the absence of leadership. Leaders don’t play word games with important decisions. They take and defend positions. They keep actions and intentions clear to keep a team unified. They inspire confidence in their authority rather than take the trust and confidence of subordinates for granted.

What makes me especially skeptical about the Verrett case is the citation of the “Privacy Act” as an excuse for not explaining why he was relieved. The Privacy Act protects personally identifiable information. It has absolutely nothing to do with these situations. The propagandist who spouted it has no idea what s/he is talking about, which should make us suspicious of the chain of command represented by the nonsensical statement. Privacy concerns don’t prevent the Air Force from throwing airmen under the bus when it is politically convenient to do so. Airmen accused of sexual assault can expect to have their dirty laundry reeled swiftly to the top of the flagpole.

Why the different standard in cases of relief? Because when commanders screw up and get relieved or when senior commanders screw up by relieving someone without cause, it’s an embarrassment for the Air Force. Failure to own it transparently is about limiting that embarrassment rather than protecting privacy. Unfortunately, not having to pay a perceptual price for command shenanigans means the Air Force lacks a corrective mechanism to heal its command maladies, and this helps explain why it has continued to deteriorate year-over-year, compounding the rate of entropy with a Communist-style public dishonesty honorable airmen find disgusting.

Verrett was investigated, according to the Times coverage. Whatever that investigation found, it wasn’t even enough to implicate his security clearance. We know this because he’s been reassigned to a responsible staff post in the Pentagon. If it didn’t rise to that level, then what’s the privacy concern? More likely, the “investigation” either didn’t substantiate the firing or was entirely pro forma in the first place … designed to give official cover to a decision already made.

This is a gutless way to do business, and it has no place in an institution of honor. If an Air Force officer was capable and esteemed enough to be given command in the first place, s/he is then entitled to fairness and transparency in any decision removing that privilege. If the relief is over fit, style, or philosophical differences or to make room for some other fair-haired love child, this should be made clear so that the commander can continue professionally and earn another opportunity.

If it is for valid cause, let that cause be stated. This will demonstrate to observers that the service is intolerant of misconduct or ineptitude. It will also give the public and the officer involved a fair opportunity to challenge a career-ending decision.

This is an area of improvement opportunity for Gen. Goldfein and Sec. Wilson. The Air Force is still miring this part of itself in a PR-driven corporate culture, and it’s quite disappointing to see given the considerable strides underway in so many other areas. None of those other improvements will matter if there is a cancer of dishonesty yet growing in the service’s leadership corps.

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