Closing Ranks: New Questions, No Answers in Lackland Firing Scandal

Has Lackland recovered from the problems that rocked it in 2011, or have they been masked by self-obsessed leaders working to preserve their own promotions?
Has Lackland recovered from the problems that rocked it in 2011, or have those problems been masked by self-obsessed leaders working to preserve their own promotions?

In the weeks since the curious sacking of Lt. Col. Craig Perry became public, a growing audience has taken note with escalating concern. Air Force Times reported extensively on the destruction of Perry’s career under questionable circumstances, and a previous JQP article exhaustively analyzed the investigation that led to his firing, calling into the question the Air Force’s official position.  Other outlets have started covering and discussing the story, with bloggers and online spouse networks devoting frequent focus to the story. There is understandable concern that Perry seems to have lost his job for taking good care of people and families. This is something the Air Force denies but hasn’t reconciled through numerous explanations for the firing. Risk that the Perry debacle could trigger abandonment of the Air Force Key Spouse program prompted General Mark Welsh to issue a service-wide memo to all Squadron Commanders and First Sergeants reminding them of their duty to cultivate the program.  Whether his emphasis can arrest growing anxiety within the spouse community is unclear.

The unwillingness or inability of the service to justify Perry’s firing has only intensified the chatter level, sparking broader attention. Several legislators are now inquiring into the case and at least one national news organization is investigating.  Amid all this activity, new questions have been raised about Colonel Mark Camerer — the senior officer responsible for obliterating Perry’s career — and the command climate he cultivated at Lackland.  As new claims and questions have surfaced, the Air Force and Air Education and Training Command (AETC) have closed ranks rather than providing explanations.  The result is escalating doubt about the Perry situation, deepening skepticism about Lackland’s supposed recovery from the scandals that nearly consumed it in 2011, and a chilling effect among current and prospective squadron commanders.

Integrity First, Propaganda Always?

As a rule, the Air Force abhors public conversations about its internal decision-making, and will almost always choose carefully crafted, optimistic rhetoric over straightforward candor when dealing with both internal and external audiences.  The service believes confidence and credibility are best reinforced by minimizing discussion of problems and accentuating the positive.

This “everything is great” tradition dates to the 1950s, when the Air Force was in competition with the Navy for leadership of the nation’s newest defense capabilities. To survive as an independent military branch, the Air Force felt it needed to win control of the emerging nuclear mission, and as a result, it developed and ingrained a strategic communications tradition that persists to the current day (see Jeffrey Barlow’s excellent work Revolt of the Admirals for more on the historical roots of modern US military propaganda). 

Evidence of this idoctrinated philosophy is ubiquitous. The fundamentally dishonest debate about the future of the A-10 is one example, and the service’s tacit support of attempts to retroactively slash veteran compensation is another.  Daily, public affairs offices across the service promulgate endless streams of strategic messaging, having co-opted airmen themselves into writing “commentaries” focused not on the Air Force mission per se, but on the strategic themes it seeks to reinforce. This is evidence the culture of propaganda is not only alive and well, but thriving despite a professed commitment to institutional integrity.

The impulse to handle public relations with talking points instead of ground truth is especially dominant when it comes to the hiring and firing decisions core to the ability of generals to shape the service in their desired image.  Despite a mountain of regulations and policies to the contrary, many senior officers imagine themselves with unchecked power to choose their teams, and to make changes when they’re not happy with the roster.  To be fair, most don’t act on this impulse perniciously.  But some do.  When this happens, the Air Force tends to close ranks and avoid meaningful review of the decision. 

This is a fair assessment of the Perry case. Rather than provide an explanation that would help airmen understand and learn from the situation, the Air Force has withheld key facts while providing a series of intelligent-sounding but empty platitudes that shed no useful light.  This allows the Air Force to claim it has engaged in a public exchange as it avoids providing enough information to be held accountable for the decision and supporting rationale. This is a gambit to lay an issue to rest without truly discussing it, and it works to the extent various audiences are incurious or simply trust the Air Force’s senior officers always do the right thing. 

But not everyone is willing to accept an incomplete explanation for such an important decision. Indeed, the problem with this stonewalling tradition is that it also invites interested parties to probe and speculate, which in turn leads the Air Force to discount their renditions as uninformed.  Failing to provide the facts and then critiquing those who engage in dialogue without having all of the facts is not only disingenuous, it’s a flawed approach for an institution that needs public confidence to succeed.  Yet that is the very path chosen by the Air Force in the Perry case, even as new and concerning questions demand better answers.

Cause for Concern at Lackland

Over the past several weeks, a continuous stream of disturbing facts, claims, and allegations have poured out of the Lackland environment. For example, it’s now clear that Perry’s career wasn’t the only one devastated.  His superintendent was issued a letter of counseling by Camerer’s deputy, stripped of qualifications, pushed out of her special duty career field, and moved to a less consequential job.  Another NCO was similarly moved to a dead-end position, while a contractor who had supported Perry’s squadron lost his role when a new bid was accepted from a company that reportedly didn’t even meet the proposed contract requirements. 

What did these three have in common?  They were each “guilty” of having been allegedly perceived by a few others in the squadron as Perry’s favorites.  There’s no evidence any of them ever did anything to earn this perception, and in fact there’s no credible evidence Perry demonstrated favoritism at all.  Even the investigation used as the foundation to fire Perry stipulates that none of the subordinates he was accused of favoring ever got any material benefit.  Yet these three airmen have seen their prospects diminished and honor tarnished. They have no explanation to offer their families who don’t understand, because even if Perry had done something to create a perception he favored them, it doesn’t follow that they deserved punishment for it.  The idea that they were unjustly rebuked for associating with their own commander is absurd. It should be investigated.  If Camerer or those acting on his behalf carried out unwarranted reprisals, swift and sure accountability should be exercised.  

Career consequences based on questionable investigations are part of a pattern that seems to have taken root over the past few years at Lackland.  In addition to the Commander Directed Investigation (CDI) used to cashier Perry, Camerer is known to have ordered other official inquiries into his own people. One of these was related to contentions of improper test administration at the Lackland Fitness Assessment Cell (FAC).  While the substance of this investigation hasn’t been made publicly available, it reportedly followed two separate incidents in which Camerer argued with FAC staff about the counting of push-ups during his own fitness tests.  The FAC staff members involved have since been removed from their positions. This is one example from among many such inquiries. Camerer’s frequent compulsion to investigate his own people speaks to the kind of environment that predominated at Lackland.  

Investigations are normally used much more sparingly, and for good reason. When misconduct occurs, commanders ordinarily turn to judicial or non-judicial processes under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).  This ensures accountability for wrongdoing and forces a commander to afford an accused airman due process while proving rules were broken.  Administrative actions and in-house investigations, when over-utilized, become pathways to abuse.  They allow commanders to sidestep due process and rob subjects of the ability to confront accusers to meaningfully dispute allegations. 

But there’s another reason with equally important implications: when commanders hound their own subordinates, an environment of paranoia and distrust predominates.  Recent revelations paint the picture of such an environment at Lackland.  Trust had so withered between Camerer and his squadron commanders — the most key members of his team — that some of them had begun making audio recordings of their meetings with him, concerned that they might need a record of their interactions to later vindicate themselves. Lackland’s new wing commander has since been forced to issue a memo to his commanders forbidding them from making such records.  That he would need to do this indicates he inherited an organization riddled with dysfunction.

But while Camerer’s use of investigations is concerning, even more worrisome is the inconsistency with which misconduct at Lackland was addressed during his tenure.  While Perry’s life and career were upended on the basis of flimsy and questionable claims, Camerer apparently turned a blind eye to more serious misconduct.  Another squadron commander was issued a Letter of Admonition and permitted to finish out his command tour after allegedly groping a member of the wing’s legal staff in public.  A former wing Command Chief was allowed to retire rather than face potential discipline after being accused of sexually harassing a subordinate.  When the investigation into Perry illuminated a pattern of toxic behavior by former group commander Colonel Deborah Liddick — including an allegation that she herself ignored a sexual harassment complaint within her group, Camerer again discounted and discarded the evidence, presenting Liddick with a Legion of Merit as she retired.  Finally, Camerer chose to overlook the outrageously insubordinate behavior of one of the wing’s First Sergeants, who blatantly undermined his own commander with false and disparaging public comments made to a media outlet — discriminatory remarks that were much more serious in tone and substance than those used to justify the firing of Lt. Col. Perry.  Camerer’s selective outrage is unbecoming of the stature of a court martial convening authority, and indicative of bias, favoritism, and other ethical compromises.

Taken in the context of observable inconsistency and witch hunting, Camerer’s handling of the Perry case seems capricious and arbitrary.  While on the one hand telling Perry’s peers that he was “still a great human being” and that he hadn’t done anything “illegal, immoral, or anything like that,” Camerer nonetheless made sure Perry’s career would be irremediably wrecked.  Beyond issuing Perry a reprimand, removing him from command, and downgrading his performance report, Camerer made it personal with a few more steps.  He saw that Perry was removed from the senior developmental education list — a way of making sure he’d never be promoted again.  He also sought and secured short-notice change of station orders for Perry despite knowing Mrs. Perry was seriously ill and relying on medical treatment she was receiving in San Antonio (Perry was able to get the orders canceled with a family member exception, but without Camerer’s help).  Most distressingly, neither Camerer nor anyone on his behalf checked on the Perry family for a period of several months. This stands at variance with the fundamentals of leadership.  Moreover, when Perry’s peer group reached out to support him, they were warned against doing so, and Camerer went so far as to publicly ridicule Perry’s fellow commanders who wrote character references to support his appeal.

While essential truths remain hidden behind the veil of Air Force opacity, it’s obvious that at some point, Mark Camerer decided that Craig Perry was not going to be a commander in the 37th Training Wing, and took all means necessary not just to see that objective through, but to do so in convincing enough fashion that no one would doubt that there must be some valid reason for his actions. Perhaps Camerer took these steps because he was actually dissatisfied with Perry for some reason.  If so, that reason doesn’t appear in the official record.  Perhaps more plausibly, Camerer was just out of touch enough that he lacked the foundation to challenge Liddick when she set her sights on making an example out of the one commander who seemed intelligent and confident enough to challenge her toxic and totalitarian leadership style.  Having sided with her initially, Camerer may have calculated that reversing course would mean having to fire his group commander, an action that would have made him look inept. This might have jeopardized his pending promotion to Brigadier General.  This kind of calculation, more often than not, is what leads seemingly moral people to make immoral decisions.  Whatever the rationale behind Camerer’s actions, his parent command and the Air Force seem increasingly confused about it.

The Air Force has trotted out at least four spokespersons to explain the Perry firing, and each has offered a different rationale.  The official spokeswoman for Basic Military Training claimed Perry was sacked because he failed to create the appearance of equal treatment in all relationships across his squadron.  This, of course, ignores the fact that commanders always have closer relationships with key advisors than with others.  But given that this particular mouthpiece went on to construe the Air Force as “a business,” it’s not surprising she didn’t grasp this basic truth of military organizational life.  In his own emailed statement, Camerer explained he’d lost confidence in Perry because “certain things happened that came to [his] attention.” While imprecise, this statement is revealing. It shows that Camerer didn’t recognize any issues himself, instead having them called to his attention.  This shows he relied on Liddick’s judgment, perhaps lacking the direct knowledge for an independent judgment.  This is significant because there is evidence Liddick lacked the impartiality to fairly judge Perry.

As media pressure intensified, AETC decided to wade into the Lackland morass with its own official statement.  Colonel Sean McKenna declared that Perry was fired because of the results of the CDI.  This called attention to the investigation, which has since been widely discredited. Finally, Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson declared that Perry’s firing came as a result of his misunderstanding of unprofessional relationships and how they can create perceptions of favoritism. Her deftly worded statement didn’t actually say that Perry had engaged in unprofessional relationships, only that he didn’t understand them. How having such a lack of understanding — though the evidence does support that conclusion — would amount to cause for career annihilation is not something Richeson addressed, which is unfortunate given that it forms the crux of Perry’s case.

The service has spent innumerable words setting forth conflicting notions about what explains the Perry firing.  Officially, his sacking resulted from either unequal treatment of subordinates, uneven relationships in a “business” environment, a loss of trust due to “certain things” that occurred, the results of an official investigation that hasn’t been official released, or Perry’s failure to manage perceptions.  These galloping explanations demonstrate that the service doesn’t really understand what happened, and is struggling to dial up the correct platitude to retire doubts and dispense with further questioning.

The Tension Between Saving Face and Having Integrity

Notable strategic theorist Thomas Schelling touted the importance of credibility in international relations.  He was famous for arguing that “saving face” is almost always more important than anything else, because it bolsters reputation and influence.  His writings were heavily consumed throughout the Cold War, shaping the thinking of senior officers who now run the Air Force. Given the obvious institutional misgivings reflected in the variance between official statements, the obvious question is why the Air Force doesn’t simply admit the Lackland situation is a mess and initiate a new investigation.  That may still happen, but to the extent there is resistance to it, there is a reason: this decision has been bought at the highest levels, meaning senior officials will lose face if they change course.

The fact that AETC and Air Force spokespersons have been involved in the official explanation means the Air Force is dealing with Perry as an institution rather than simply allow Camerer to explain himself.  This indicates Generals Robin Rand (AETC Commander) and Mark Welsh (Air Force Chief of Staff) are fully engaged.  They’ve sent the signal that they approve of the current course of action by allowing their staffs to explain it to the public. That the decision would be adopted at the four-star level is not surprising given the recent history of Lackland and the high level of congressional interest in the health of Air Force BMT. But it does expose a classic Catch-22.

Generals adopt the decisions of subordinates in order to reinforce credibility and cultivate confidence that it was the right call.  This is, in the first instance, a great strategy, as Schelling maintained.  But it makes reversing course all but impossible when new evidence arises or the facts and assumptions upon which a decision was predicated turn out to be invalid.  The CDI conducted on Craig Perry turned out to be little more than well-dressed gibberish, but the generals who adopted it can ill afford to forsake it, lest they appear to have been inept in the first place.  This helps explain why, in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary, the Air Force has continued to insist Lt. Col. Perry’s performance was somehow so flawed he couldn’t remain in command, even as it touts his skill at caring for people and families, which is the very core of squadron command. 

As a result of so many tangled and conflicting motivations, inexplicable outcomes now characterize this situation. The Air Force now carries on its roster a Lieutenant Colonel who had an impeccable service record until less than a year ago, at which point his 18 years of superb performance suddenly steered into oblivion. Doing what made him successful in the first place led him to ruin.  Since then, he’s been issued a reprimand, fired from a job for which he was hand-picked, stripped of his career, and banished to professional purgatory, all without an explanation.  His peers are watching. The systemic damage is compounding daily as the story filters out.  The debacle is being discussed in professional military education seminars. Judgments are being formed.  Despite their purpose to the contrary, generals are losing face as prospective commanders decide against accepting the challenge of leadership if official abandonment has become this cheap.   

Through all this, the fortunes of Perry’s bosses have flourished. Colonel Liddick retired without publicly explaining any of her decisions, adorned with a shiny new medal.  Camerer recently pinned on his new rank and made his way to a staff tour in Europe.  This is especially curious, given that at least one service-level Inspector General complaint has been lodged against him, an action that should have stalled his promotion and assignment according to recent comments by a senior service official. This is the latest evidence that where Lackland is concerned, Air Force decisions only make sense if viewed through the scope of organizational politics.  Unfortunately, political behavior squares poorly with integrity, something airmen have noted with increasing alarm.

Why Does This Matter?

There are several reasons why registering the implications of this issue is important.  First, there is the matter of individual justice. Craig Perry does not appear to have gotten a fair shake, and that’s not acceptable. If the Air Force wants to fire someone from a job and demolish a career, it needs to get it right. Perry’s situation has been more like something out of a bad movie script than what should be expected of the world’s best Air Force. Many watching the situation unfold are ashamed that a service once so adept at taking care of people now shrugs its shoulders at the ruining of lives without warrant. Systemically concerning is the reality that Lackland nearly unraveled a few years ago because of the abuse of power running unchecked within BMT. If Perry was professionally obliterated through the abuse of power, the problems at Lackland haven’t been solved.

More generally, the Air Force can’t provide national defense if it doesn’t attract and retain motivated officers and NCOs to lead airmen, and it will not attract capable leaders if they are not treated fairly.  Airmen and families travel a long and difficult path to reach leadership roles.  Situations like this one make it clear that the entire journey can be made fruitless by one toxic boss operating within a system that closes ranks rather than dealing with misconduct by senior officers. This reality is likely to dissuade many prospective leaders, leaving the service short of the excellence it needs to win.

But there’s something deeper and uglier going on here. Craig Perry, it seems, was guilty of daring to occasionally disagree with his immediate superiors.  The evidence shows he carried out orders and policies faithfully and produced excellent results, but retained his own ideas and was willing to respectfully express them. This intellectual insolence got him professionally annihilated. That speaks to a dangerous corruption of organizational climate that could bring down the entire service.

The Air Force once cherished its status as the service willing to quarrel with the conventional wisdom and squabble internally with itself.  It believed wars were fought and won “from the neck up,” and therefore understood intellectual freedom and the strenuous testing and clashing of ideas to be vitally important. That’s changing. More recently, senior officers have begun demanding of their subordinates not just conformity of action, but conformity of thought. The age-old habit of measuring organizational performance has been increasingly replaced by the sermonizing of ideas and philosophies. Rather than telling commanders the results it expects them to produce, the service has begun telling them how to do their jobs.  As more senior leaders have reached their positions by following a career checklist, they’ve taken to expecting the same linear performance from their subordinates.  Professional disagreement is now disfavored. To see where this leads, one need only review the history of every air force that ever failed.

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