Another Commander Sacked: is the Air Force in an Unrecognized Ethical Tailspin?

Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser took command of a C-130 squadron in summer of 2013.  He spent most of the next several months deployed to Afghanistan, commanding a different squadron.  He was then fired upon returning home from the war, and no one satisfactorily explained why.  This is the latest indication of an Air Force ethically off the rails and unable -- or unwilling -- to acknowledge it.
Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser took command of a C-130 squadron in summer of 2013. After a brief time at the controls, he spent five months deployed to Afghanistan, commanding a different squadron. He was then fired upon returning home from the war, and no one has satisfactorily explained why. This seems like the latest indication of an Air Force ethically off the rails and unable — or unwilling — to acknowledge it.

**Update: documents obtained by JQP show the referral OPR issued to Lt. Col. Kaiser and his response. They can be viewed here.**

In February of this year, the commander of the 19th Airlift Wing relieved Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser of command of the 30th Airlift Squadron, an active duty C-130 unit embedded within the Wyoming Air National Guard. The news came as an absolute shock to Kaiser and his 200+ airmen.  He’d just returned from commanding a deployed squadron in Afghanistan, a job he’d done with great distinction despite having been dispatched on short notice almost immediately after being given command of the 30th.

For the select few, including JQP, who have seen the full details of Kaiser’s story, there is abundant reason to look skeptically upon his removal.  Indeed, there is cause for alarm.  This looks like more evidence of a toxic command climate within the Air Force — one that allows wing commanders and general officers to abusively discard and destroy subordinates without providing proper cause, and to the detriment of the airmen and squadrons involved.  In this case, the 200+ airmen across 35 Air Force specialties who comprise the 30th AS were given no rationale for the firing of a commander they respected.  Their temporary commander was given the full-time reins, and both morale and performance have suffered since.  It’s possible the airmen of the 30th never got an explanation because no suitable rationale exists for what they’ve been ordered to endure.

Kaiser’s firing appears utterly baseless. He came to command with a spotless record of performance and an impressive list of achievements.  He was humble, credible, and broadly respected, continuing to earn accolades right up to the day he was fired.  A climate assessment conducted before he deployed, and ordered by Kaiser himself, was overwhelmingly positive. His selection for the deployment — ironically at the hand of the same wing commander who would later order his relief — reflects confidence in his leadership ability given the challenge and high stakes of combat airlift in Afghanistan.  By all accounts, his unit respected him and was performing quite well during his brief stint at the controls before deploying.  Yet, without explanation and on the heels of a deployment he tackled at a conspicuously high level of performance, he was unceremoniously cashiered immediately after returning from Afghanistan.  No warning, no notice, no feedback, no opportunity to correct, and no clue why.

Backing out and viewing the situation from high altitude, the absurdity of it is manifest. An Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with an impeccable service record was chosen for command.  After commanding briefly, he was then sent thousands of miles away, where he had no way of directing or even influencing the unit he was hired to command.  Then, he was fired, theoretically for things that happened in a unit over which he had no control, which was being commanded by another officer, and while Kaiser was busy temporarily commanding another unit.  Only after he was fired was a commander-directed investigation performed, and it provided no retroactive basis for his removal.  Not a single claim against him was substantiated, yet rather than being reinstalled as commander, he and his family were isolated, neglected, and marginalized.  Not a single phone call to check on him and no communication from his chain of command.  He waited in personal and professional limbo for months, confined to a vacant office with no job before finally being involuntarily dispatched to man a cubicle in the air operations center supporting Air Mobility Command (AMC) headquarters.  Kaiser was later issued a performance report that charged him with creating a poor command climate, something he’s apparently alleged to have done in the scant weeks between having taken command and deploying to Afghanistan, and something for which zero credible evidence exists.  In fact, much evidence exists to support the exact opposite conclusion.

What explains this kind of absurdity?  One possible answer is that Kaiser was doomed from the beginning.  To the extent the 30th had any problems, he wasn’t given time to address them before being deployed.  While deployed, he was out of sight and out of mind as far as his home station leaders were concerned, something to which most airmen ever individually deployed can relate. But more concerning is that the major chosen to stand in Kaiser’s place and command the 30th in his absence was given not just the standard leash length of a stand-in boss, but full legal authority for the squadron and its members. In conducting his first commander’s call, this “acting” commander gave the impression he was at the helm of the 30th to stay, briefing a dozen slides on his personal background and leadership philosophy.  These circumstances are extremely unusual.  Considering this major was known to be (and readily told everyone who would listen that he was) a personal favorite of the general who at the time directed every wing in AMC and has since become its commander, these circumstances could be perceived as more than simply unusual.  Was Kaiser the victim of active or passive command influence?  If not, what explains his firing?  Was he simply pushed out of the way to make room for someone more consistent with a personal vision of the Air Force with which Kaiser was somehow inconsistent?

Kaiser is understandably seeking answers to these questions and asking that his good name be restored. Since February, he’s been faithfully exercising the system, most recently seeking redress via a Congressional Inquiry delivered by the Arkansas delegation to Colonel Patrick Rhatigan, commander of the 19th Airlift Wing and the person who ordered Kaiser’s removal.  Kaiser eagerly awaits an answer to the inquiry, his hopefulness tempered by the reality that AMC will have carefully vetted any response. 

The JQP community is also watching closely, intensely interested in an apparent spike in specious firings across the Air Force.  In many cases, such as this one, these actions seem to reflect toxicity and other increasingly obvious institutional ills.  General Welsh has recently professed that the service does not have an ethics problem.  But cases like this one cast doubt on that assertion, begging further explanation.  We encourage General Welsh and Secretary James to take a closer look at Blair Kaiser’s case.  Absent sharp correction from within the system, this situation stands to become another public embarrassment for a service that needs to be credible with its own airmen and the public it serves.  

If honesty and fair dealing still have a place in the US Air Force — not to mention the core value of integrity to which the service lays rhetorical claim — this situation will be remedied, and an explanation provided. Colonel Kaiser, his family, and his airmen deserve at least as much.

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