The account that follows will make you cynical about the process of justice and basic fairness in the United States Air Force. But better the bristle of hard truths than the beguiling caress of false comfort.
If you’re in the Air Force as a commander, supervisor, or just an ordinary airman, you need to process and grasp the gravity of this story because it impacts the organization to which you’ve consigned your life and given your trust.
If you’re anyone else, you need to process and grasp it because it impacts the defense of our country, our way of life, and the safeguarding of our bedrock values. Unless our Constitution has at long last been so picked apart by its foes … their infiltration eased by the neglect of the self-interested, blissfully oblivious, and otherwise inept … that we’re now prepared to chuck it aside in favor of a purely Benthamite utilitarianism that permits any absurd end to justify any grotesque selection of means, this is a story that raises fundamental concerns.
“IP7” was a Captain in the USAF and an Instructor Pilot (IP) at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. What follows is the story of how he went from being successful and well-regarded officer with a brilliant future to being criminalized, ruined, and forcibly ejected from the service, all without ever having committed a wrong.
First, some context.
Laughlin is part of Air Education and Training Command (AETC), an organization that operates the USAF’s training pipelines in order to qualify airmen in a broad range of skills, including flying, before sending them to operational assignments.
In 2011, AETC was embroiled in a scandal involving improper relationships between trainers and new recruits undergoing Basic Military Training. As a result of that debacle, which earned the scowling of national leaders in both political branches, the Air Force conducted a departmental review that implemented (eventually, at the speed of bureaucracy) new rules mandating greater professional distance between instructors and students in all of its training programs.
The sexual element of the Lackland scandal was particularly damaging to the service’s image given its decade long, documented inability to contend with an unacceptable instance of sexual trauma in the ranks. The issue became politically volatile in 2013 after Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin used his discretion to overturn the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson without first permitting the appeal process to exhaust itself. The move was seen by many in Congress as an abuse of power and a derailing of justice for the victim in the case. It invited harsh scrutiny, galvanizing support for proposed legislation mandating a wholesale revision of the military justice process.
The Air Force’s response to that political pressure (which continues to the present day) was to engage in a visible and intensely politicized gambit to look concerned and capable on the issue of sexual assault prevention and response, and to show toughness in dealing with misconduct carrying any sex-related component. Notably, none of this moved the service any closer to solving the problem. In the years since, the organization has weakened and the problem of sexual assault has not been appreciably diminished. But the response wasn’t just benignly inept. It made things worse.
Orphaned in much of the service’s response was careful thinking about the issue of sexual assault. Truths about the difficulties inherent in effective prosecution of sex crimes, the tangled complex of interests at stake when law enforcement authority is vested in the chain of command, systemic failures to protect and rebuild victims, and the many self-inflicted challenges to cultivation of healthy and self-protective organizations … these important policy discussions were actively suppressed, replaced with a zero-tolerance, “tough on crime” narrative carried forward on the rails of social engineering and politicized prosecutions. Through the everyday miracle of bureaucratic alchemy, a leadership failure was transformed into a problem for the rank-and-file.
Most airmen shrugged at one another in confused acquiescence before descending into frustration as an endless barrage of hollow messaging and faux concern persuaded them they were no longer in a military organization, but in a social justice movement dabbling in aviation. Instructed, on pain of official disfavor, to regard improper sexual thoughts, harmless jokes, and pictures of bikini-clad models as part of a “continuum of harm” leading inevitably to sexual violence, they took the new training at face value and recognized their generals were turning a serious issue into a joke. They mostly laughed and tried to focus on their jobs – the most timeless and dependable approach to preventing just about any form of criminality.
But for some, the impact of the Air Force’s politically protective lurch was no laughing matter. It was personal and disastrous. IP7 was one of the unlucky ones.
In the fall of 2014, in a development that stunned him to his core, IP7’s cellphone was seized and searched by investigators from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). The warrant authorizing the seizure was signed by a mission support officer with no legal training, and was broadly worded to permit a comprehensive review of IP7’s personal data. IP7 had been in the Air Force long enough to know (or believe) that OSI was only dispatched to investigate serious crimes. Accordingly, he was understandably shaken.
The search order was incidental to a separate investigation involving another Laughlin IP being investigated because commanders suspected he had engaged in an unprofessional relationship with a student pilot. This other IP had exchanged texts with IP7 before a barbecue at IP7’s house. They were friends. IP7 told him to bring whatever meat he wanted to cook on the grill. The other IP responded “you got the Molly,” and IP7 responded “you know what it is.”
On the basis of this text exchange, Laughlin’s wing commander at the time, Col. Brian Hastings, and his legal advisor, Maj. Michael Toomer, theorized that IP7 was distributing ecstasy, which is sometimes discussed using the street name “Molly.” IP7 was interrogated by OSI, and an exhaustive review of his text messages surfaced more notes to friends making similar references. Hastings, apparently emboldened by whatever legal advice he was receiving from Toomer, rushed to the conclusion that IP7 was a bad apple.
There was just one problem. His conclusion was totally wrong.
IP7 hadn’t been texting about drugs. He’d been engaging in goofy banter with friends while citing Miley Cyrus lyrics and quotes from the film “Entourage.” This sort of pop culture infused repartee is common among young people, including the twenty-somethings comprising IP7’s circle of friends. To believe he was a drug offender would confound every observable fact about his character. IP7 was convinced that he need only tell the truth and explain the misunderstanding, and all would be fine.
He was mistaken.
IP7 argued his case, pointing out that his explanation – harmless joshing among fellow IPs – was at least as plausible as the theory concocted by Hastings and his lawyer. He was on firm legal ground making this argument. In any case where two explanations are being weighed against one another to determine culpability for potential misconduct, the finder of fact is required to accept the explanation of the accused, in the absence of other evidence, provided that the accused’s explanation is at least as plausible as the alternative inference.
But in this case, there actually was additional evidence. IP7 took and passed a urinalysis test to prove his version was true. The test came back clean. He then provided a hair sample to a laboratory for additional testing. That test also came back clean.
Interestingly, the Air Force didn’t order the urinalysis nor request the hair sample. Nor did the Air Force work with local authorities to arrange for a search of IP7’s home. They didn’t even conduct a search of his car.
These are remarkable facts.
If he was truly suspected of using and distributing illegal drugs – serious charges indeed – these would have been routine investigative actions. It’s fair to speculate that investigators either lacked enough evidence to establish the probable cause necessary to conduct the routine searches, or they tactically avoided looking for fear of the damage that would be inflicted upon the investigation if they were to search and find nothing.
When all of the initial evidence was in, all Hastings had was a bare suspicion based on a private text exchange uncovered in a separate investigation with which IP7’s conduct had no connection. IP7’s reasonable explanation, backed up by eight years of spotless and exemplary Air Force service and multiple voluntary drug tests, should have been the end of the matter. Hastings should have sent him back to work with apologies for having developed an inappropriate interest in his private communications, perhaps nudging him to be careful about how his associations might be perceived by others.
But that’s not what happened.
When Brian Hastings came to Laughlin as its wing commander, he found himself in a difficult position. The wing had a longstanding reputation for churning out world class pilots to fill the service’s operational cockpits, but that reputation was matched by its notoriety as a booze-fueled party atmosphere.
Laughlin has always been a place where young officers undergo one of the most transformative and exhilarating experiences of their lives. But it’s also a difficult year and an emotional roller coaster, with futures determined and in some cases bounded based on measurements taken in feet and knots, false moves and unlucky wind gusts. Pilots, since the dawn of flight, have always responded to the special pressures of their craft by blowing off steam. They’ve also been known to gather around the bar and conduct mentorship and lesson-learning over beer and scotch.
None of this has historically presented Laughlin wing commanders with any special challenge. It’s part of running a pilot training base. But as Hastings took the reins, history was changing. The Air Force’s institutional lurch to protect unfettered ownership of its legal system by looking tough on sexual assault rippled through AETC as a general ban on any hint of co-ed impropriety. For Hastings, this translated into a powerful incentive – if not a mandate – to “change the culture” at Laughlin by putting a damper on its party lifestyle. It’s fair to say his professional future depended on it.
This explains why the investigation into IP7 persisted even with his innocence having been made plain. Hastings could not look soft on a party culture that might be conducive to inappropriate relationships or sexual shenanigans that could threaten institutional interests. He also couldn’t afford to lose face or surrender credibility by failing to carry through on charges once he’d begun and everyone knew it.
He was determined to come down hard on suspected wrongdoers, including the unfortunate IP7. This is probably why Hastings didn’t let go of his suspicion, no matter how unwarranted it had proven to be. Indeed, in a fateful error with grave consequences, he bit down harder.
Instead of the investigation closing, it remained open for seven agonizing months. During that time, IP7 was grounded and his flight pay stopped. His qualification lapsed. He was removed from his position in the squadron and marginalized from his team. He was given a gag order by his group commander that prevented him from seeking help, interacting with his support network, enlisting witnesses, or effectively raising a defense. (More on that order later). His family was traumatized and his associations and reputation permanently damaged.
Throughout this time, he was told nothing. Meanwhile, OSI agents were fishing among his associations, using contacts found in his cellphone to arrange and conduct interrogations … trying desperately to assemble proof IP7 was the bad apple Hastings had determined him to be.
Finally, on March 10th of 2015, IP7 was called in and issued a Letter of Reprimand (LOR). Hastings had concluded, based on the text messages alone, that IP7 “wrongfully possessed, discussed the use of, and used controlled substances.”
IP7 was gobsmacked. He had assumed the matter was going to resolve in his favor, not only because he was innocent and had shown himself to be, but because of the result reached in a related case.
IP7 had been just one of four officers placed under investigation for drug use after their cellphones were seized. The evidence against each of the four was virtually identical. The first of the four to have his case disposed had been offered nonjudicial punishment based on the errant text messages and had chosen to contest the Article 15 in a public hearing – a right afforded the accused under such circumstances. His presentation at that February 11th hearing persuaded Maj. Gen. Mike Keltz, the presiding officer, that the evidence was too weak to sustain any punishment. Keltz summarily dismissed the charges and the officer went back to work, his record scrubbed clean of suspected wrongdoing.
IP7 and the other two officers ensnared in the spinoff inquiry assumed that basic fairness would dictate the same outcome in their cases. They expected total dismissal of the matter and began preparing themselves to go back to work.
But after a month of silent deliberation, Hastings had apparently determined that they were still bad apples even if the evidence didn’t say so. He needed a way to punish them without taking the risk that they could successfully contest the charges and escape punishment. An Article 15 generally can’t be offered unless a commander believes the evidence is strong enough that it can result in a conviction if the accused refuses punishment and opts for a trial by court martial. An LOR is subject to no such standard of evidence. In fact, no standard of evidence applies whatsoever.
A commander is free to issue an LOR based on his own judgment as to the culpability of the recipient. It’s a system that grants huge discretion to commanders on the assumption that they will apply their power carefully, ethically, and judiciously. The discretion they’re given is so they can effectively shape and customize disciplinary actions to maintain good order and discipline, all of which is about ensuring the mission gets done.
In this case, Hastings’ actions actually harmed the mission by taking three IPs off the schedule for what would ultimately be a period of nearly two years, distracting an entire wing with what would become an eminently avoidable media calamity. Through his choice to end-run the justice process with an administrative sanction, he would undermine his own credibility and that of the Air Force through an unhinged vendetta masquerading as a legal process. The drug allegations he’d used to ruin IP7 would eventually be tossed out.
But this is only half of the story, and not even the worst half.
IP7 fought back against the drug LOR, just as we would expect any innocent person to do – especially one committed to principles. He sought legal advice, crafted and submitted a rebuttal, and pressed formal complaints via the chain of command and the Inspector General (IG) arguing unfair treatment and lack of fair process.
IP7 continued to assume that at some point, the chain of command would see sense, someone would rein in the witch hunt at Laughlin, and he’d be placed back in the position he’d occupied before the nightmare began.
But he was wrong. Hastings and the AETC chain of command closed ranks and declared IP7 a bad apple … part of a “bad culture” that needed to be rooted out at Laughlin. Never mind that the evidence said just the opposite. They were going to hunt him to professional extinction and public disgrace one way or another.
Later in March of 2015, IP7 was again summoned to meet with Col. Hastings. This time, he was offered nonjudicial punishment under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The offer included two specifications (actually three, but the third ended up being irrelevant, and we will omit it for clarity’s sake).
First, the chain of command sought to punish IP7 for allegedly violating a gag order he’d been given by his group commander, Col. Timothy MacGregor, in connection with the drug use investigation. Second, it was alleged that IP7 had known about an unprofessional relationship (UPR) between an IP and student and failed to report it.
IP7, for his part, was again completely dumbstruck. By this time, he’d seen the entire report of investigation into his text messages and knew that investigation had not even remotely implicated him in having knowledge of an inappropriate relationship. He had never been suspected or investigated in connection with such a charge. This hadn’t been the subject of any questioning or inquiry. It seemed to materialize out of thin air, and he immediately recognized that the chain of command had turned irrevocably against him regardless of evidence.
Hastings provided no evidence to support the UPR allegation, violating a basic rule of adversarial discovery in the quasi-judicial Article 15 process. IP7 was entitled to review the evidence against him and to confront any witnesses. He later surmised that the sole evidence relied upon by Hastings to support the charge was IP7’s name having been mentioned in a recent public Article 15 hearing discussing who’d had knowledge of a UPR.
The person to whom the statement had been attributed later recanted its essence, clarifying that she didn’t believe IP7 had any idea about the relationship in question. When she told the chain of command that she’d be signing a statement clearly attesting that IP7 had not known about the relationship in which she’d been involved, Hastings’ lawyer, Maj. Toomer, reportedly threatened her that such an action would result in harsh disciplinary actions being sought against her. She persisted, but if the threat was made as reporting indicates, it represents a potentially serious episode of witness tampering and prosecutorial coercion that should be investigated. If there’s any truth to it, every case prosecuted by anyone involved should be examined anew.
This wasn’t IP7’s only challenge in mounting a defense. Even before any investigation had been completed or any charges filed, he was issued a career-ending referral performance report, meaning his boss decided he did not meet basic standards as an officer during the reporting period. Air Force instructions specifically caution commanders against this.
When his colleagues and friends wrote letters of reference supporting his character, many were issued official admonishments by the chain of command for daring to support him. Some had their own performance ratings downgraded, their supervisors coerced into going along.
Every one of these reported actions is potentially criminal abuse of power and should be examined by the Air Force. That said, the Air Force is aware of the conduct and has not yet done anything about it.
As he gathered himself and sought legal advice, IP7’s defense team noticed several fundamental errors with the offer of punishment presented by Hastings.
First, the specifications against him were oddly framed. Rather than simply charging him with violating orders, each charge construed his actions as implicating Article 133 of the UCMJ, Conduct Unbecoming an Officer.
This was an attempt at shrewdly coercive lawyering by Hastings’ judge advocate. It’s well known within the Air Force legal community that offers of Article 15 punishment are often founded on evidence that would not stand the scrutiny of a trial if the accused opted for court martial instead of accepting the offer. What ensues is a game of brinksmanship, with prosecutors representing that even if they can’t convict on the original specifications, they will find a liability hook upon which to hang an accused at trial.
That hook is very often Article 133, which is a broad prohibition on just about anything the chain of command finds subjectively unacceptable. By including reference to the article in IP7’s offer of punishment, Hastings was sending a not too subtle message that IP7 had better take his medicine and stay out of court, where he would surely be found guilty of something and risk severe and lasting consequences.
Second, the charge alleging violation of the MacGregor order was moot for two reasons. First, the order issued by MacGregor wasn’t lawful. In its initial form, the order directed IP7:
“to not discuss the details or nature of your interview, the investigation overall, or anything related to said interview or investigation [except] with his leadership, OSI, or his [Area Defense Counsel].”
Officers can only be guilty of failing to obey an order when the order covers a specific mandate related to a military duty. For example, “don’t talk to anyone” would lack requisite specificity and “don’t play bingo during your off-duty time” would lack the necessary relationship to military duty. Orders can’t be lawful when they unacceptably infringe on civil rights, and violating an order – even a lawful one – does not necessarily constitute “conduct unbecoming an officer.”
MacGregor’s order wasn’t specific. It also didn’t implicate a military duty (other than the duty to follow the order issued, which doesn’t meet the standard). It was overbroad, essentially including every other person on the planet, including IP7’s family, close friends, and vital support network, to include helping agencies. Critically, it unacceptably impaired his freedom of expression, and by preventing him from enlisting witnesses, it extinguished his due process guarantees under the Constitution.
MacGregor employed a tactic too often embraced by Air Force commanders acting on concerns about attempts to obstruct investigations. But this is the wrong approach. If an accused obstructs an investigation, s/he is culpable for that conduct and may be charged. But preemptive concern about this can’t obliterate the ability to raise a defense.
Perhaps sensing these problems, MacGregor continually revised his official renditions of the order over time, officially changing his account of what he had said to IP7 several times. The ultimate version contained more caveats and details making it appear consistent with the legal requirements necessary to charge a violation. That version require that IP7″
“not discuss the on-going investigation into potential violations of Article 112a, UCMJ by Laughlin AFB personnel … to not discuss any details of the OSI investigation with anyone other than privileged persons such as his defense counsel.”
Note the changes. Ongoing … potential violations … a specific UMCJ article … Laughlin personnel … privileged persons … defense counsel. This is a completely different order than the one originally issued.
But even if it had been the original order, there’s a more fundamental problem: IP7 never violated it. Unbelievably, the charge arose from a sworn statement by an officer from another base in another state who attested that IP7 actually complied with the order. When asked by this other officer, a friend of his stationed at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, about what was going on at Laughlin, IP7 responded that he “couldn’t talk about what was going on with the investigation.” Just this mere acknowledgement of the existence of the investigation in an exchange with someone completely unconnected to it was the basis to charge a violation.
This is where the “conduct unbecoming” charge becomes important again, because to punish IP7 as charged, the government needs to show that this exchange he had with his Hickam friend was “morally unfitting and unworthy, rather than merely inappropriate or unsuitable.” Certainly not the case.
The second charge in the offer of nonjudicial punishment is even more problematic. The government alleged that IP7 was aware of but didn’t report a UPR between an instructor and a student. The evidence provided by the government to sustain the charge is a text message from early 2014 that the government says should have made IP7 suspicious enough about a UPR to report it. The only problem is that by that time, the alleged student in the relationship was no longer a student, which meant neither IP7 nor anyone else had a duty to report anything.
To get around this, the government implies, though it doesn’t offer evidence to prove, that a statement made by the student counterpart in the relationship at another court proceeding indicates he had knowledge of the relationship at an earlier point in time but did not report it. Not only does this allegation base itself in hearsay attributed to a witness who refused to corroborate it despite coercive threats, but in doing so, it alleges a violation of an Air Education and Training Command Instruction (AETCI) that didn’t even exist at the time of the conducted specified.
AETCI 36-2909 provides the following with respect to the reporting of suspected UPRs:
“1.3.1. Duty to Report. Recruiters, faculty, and staff members with knowledge of an alleged violation, or attempted violation, of this instruction shall immediately report the allegation to an appropriate authority, unless otherwise exempted by operation of law, regulation, or policy.
22.214.171.124. “Knowledge” means awareness of an allegation. It does not require a belief in the accuracy or truth of the allegation. Knowledge may be obtained by any means, including, but not limited to, witnessing the offense, statements by third parties, and course surveys, critiques or comment cards.”
AETC has interpreted these provisions to mean that even a bare rumor overheard in line at the commissary, a drunken exchange of jocularity between buddies at the bar, or a manifest example of gossip … that any of these must be reported as suspected misconduct. The rule probably violates the basic principle of nullum crimen sine lege, which bars vagueness from statutes describing criminal conduct so that citizens are on notice of what constitutes misconduct and therefore capable of avoiding violations. This, after all, is the first objective of any criminal statute – to reduce criminal violations by warning potential offenders and not to trip them up in a Byzantine code.
But even if it doesn’t violate this ancient stricture of criminal law, AETCI 36-2909 as applied in the case of IP7 violates something more fundamental: the prohibition on retroactive law. No one can be guilty of a crime that didn’t exist when it was allegedly committed. The government alleges IP7 gained some vague awareness of a UPR sometime around April of 2014. What they don’t mention is that while AETCI 26-2909’s reporting requirement became effective on December 2nd, 2013, Hastings didn’t brief the new requirement to members of the Laughlin command until July of 2014 – a few months after IP7 was expected to have taken notice of some vague awareness of a relationship between an instructor and a former student. The government’s charge expects him to have made an inferential leap that his vague knowledge must have referred to a relationship that must have necessarily extended backward in time to when the former student was still a student … making it, at some point in time, unprofessional. But even had he made that leap, he would have had no idea there was a requirement to report it — not for several more months.
If this makes your brain hurt, that’s good news. It means your brain is functioning properly.
Incidentally, Hastings kicked off investigations into a series of suspected UPRs and failures to report on July 31st, 2014 – the day after he briefed the new reporting requirement to the wing. The investigations he initiated alleged conduct from before the briefing, raising the appearance that Hastings sought to criminalize prior actions or inactions based on ex post facto law. This has been prohibited in developed legal systems for hundreds of years.
Despite the problems raised by IP7’s defense team, the Article 15 offer proceeded. Rather than passively accept punishment, IP7 elected to contest the issue in a public hearing before the officer formally proposing his punishment, Maj. Gen. Mike Keltz. What happened at that hearing became a national embarrassment for the Air Force.
As the hearing got underway, Keltz abandoned his role as an impartial finder of fact and began actively prosecuting IP7 in front of a large audience of the general public and interested parties. He began introducing evidence that wasn’t part of the case, a violation of discovery rules. He was railing angrily at IP7, interrupting his answers to questions while issuing volley after volley of accusatory statements pre-judging IP7’s guilt. Witnesses in attendance, including family members, felt they were witnessing a kangaroo court.
At some point, Keltz’s enthusiasm spilled over into rabidity. Producing a picture of IP7 consuming alcohol with an associate, Keltz foamed, before a shocked crowd, that the accused looked “drunker than 10,000 Indians.”
The hearing had clearly derailed. As it concluded, complaints about Keltz’s racially discriminatory tirade began pouring over the phone lines into AETC headquarters. Within a few days, Keltz’s career was over. Gen. Robin Rand accepted Keltz’s request for early retirement. He also terminated the offer of nonjudicial punishment against IP7, astutely concluding that no punishment should be founded on such a disastrous process.
IP7 was optimistic that the derailment of his public hearing, together with the ardent defense he had offered and growing unfavorable media attention focusing on the Laughlin mess, would mean an end to this chapter of his unfolding nightmare. He was wrong.
Within a few weeks, Hastings re-offered nonjudicial punishment on the same charges with the same evidentiary basis. IP7 again appealed, this time in writing. His appeal was denied. From there, it progressed to the very top level of the Air Force, where it was ultimately denied by the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force in December, 2015, right around the same time a supposedly comprehensive inquiry into the Laughlin debacle urged by two Republican Congressmen exonerated IP7 of any and all drug-related conduct.
IP7 now finds himself having been fined $4500 partially for supposedly violating a gag order emplaced as part of a sham drug investigation that was eventually ruled baseless, his career fatally poisoned by the fruit of a poison tree since felled. Despite being cleared of drug charges and reinstated to flying status after nearly 18 months of grounding, he’s still not flying. AETC’s new commander, Lt. Gen. Daryl Roberson, insists IP7 can’t be an IP again even though the charges that grounded him have since been vacated. Roberson’s deputies are telling IP7 there are insufficient resources to requalify him – a manifestly false claim that has been thoroughly debunked and about which Congress is openly skeptical.
Commanders are comfortable advancing this excuse because they’re busy kicking IP7 out of the Air Force, thereby removing the main resource impetus for requalifying him. He had requested voluntary separation before the investigation into him opened, and the Air Force has since revived and fulfilled that request. Of course, his prospects for service in the reserves and his ability to be hired by a civilian airline are almost completely extinguished by having been grounded for an extended period without much explanation for why.
Thus far, the moral repugnance of the situation in which he’s been placed has had no impact on a chain of command seemingly bent on ruining his life well beyond the point where he ceases serving in a blue uniform.
This is an important case for the Air Force, and it says something damning about the service’s long-term prospects for running its own legal system.
For years, commanders have been engaged in a protective effort to maintain control over their legal system as Congressional reformers have claimed commanders are unable and sometimes unwilling to conduct legal processes with professionalism, ethics, and impartiality. But ironically, the effort to save the system is unraveling it. Rather than a relatively narrow issue about the inability to effectively prosecute sexual assault, the service now faces broader questions about due process, conflict of interest, overzealousness, and abuses of investigative authority. Why are some of the best and most highly trained investigators in the world digging into the suspected victimless sexual peccadilloes of Lieutenants? Why indeed.
In this case, an Air Force officer with an impeccable service record was grounded, shamed, isolated, and hounded on drug charges that proved false. His career and livelihood were destroyed. His appeals for redress were ignored. His guilt was presumed by the commanders charged with protecting his right to the presumption of innocence, responsible as they are for supporting and defending the Constitution guaranteeing those rights. None of those commanders have been held accountable, save for the berserk Keltz, who was cashiered because his actions were politically untenable.
IP7 was issued an illegal gag order. He chose to follow it and was charged with violating it anyway. He was charged with failing to report a rumor of a relationship involving a student pilot he didn’t even know, having met her for the first time after she had graduated from training. The rule he was charged with violating is probably not lawful, and even if it is, he didn’t know it existed and didn’t violate it.
Despite all this, he now finds himself with a referral performance report based on a reprimand that has since been rescinded and another referral report likely to be written based on an Article 15 that was terminated over process fouls and later re-instituted only to spend months in an appeal process for which not a single sentence was written to justify any of the denial decisions.
He’s also out tens of thousands of dollars, having been fined, lost flight pay, hemorrhaged future earning potential, surrendered any chance at a future military retirement, and absorbed huge legal fees. His family is understandably strained. His friends were punished for supporting him. His colleagues were vilified for aiding in his defense.
This all happened in an Air Force that claims it is capable of conducting the business of law and order without any outside help and with lawyers subject to the whimsical authority of commanders who answer to political pressure as much as operational commands.
What makes this story so much more distressing, and an example of the compounding tragedy of an Air Force that has lost its way in so many ways, is that the Chief of Staff himself, Gen. Mark Welsh, got involved and failed to make things right. He’s standing by and allowing this officer and his family to be destroyed despite unquestioned knowledge of some if not all of the problems outlined here. We can only speculate as to why Welsh is choosing to do this because he refuses to speak publicly on the matter or provide a rationale for his inaction that might be subject to public falsification. What we know is that however he’s using his considerable power, it’s not being used to find the right outcome in matters of individual justice — at least not when the political costs threaten competing interests.
But we also know all we need to know, and this case illuminates it almost single-handedly. Individual justice is a dead letter in today’s Air Force. It’s time for reform, and Congress should take the first step toward reform by demanding the Air Force set aside every charge against IP7 and restore his record to its ex ante condition.
There is, of course, little reason to expect this will happen. Which is why dark days lie ahead for America and her Air Force.