First, the Air Force falsely accused them of illegal drug use based on unfounded suspicions. Then, it removed them from flying status and left them to rot professionally for six months while it decided what to do next. Then, it reprimanded them, even after they’d passed drug tests and showed themselves to be innocent. To top it all off, they were left to sit idle for an additional year while their cases and complaints were appealed and eventually dismissed without remedy.
Finally, after media pressure and Congressional intervention gave Air Force senior officials a sufficient political and perceptual incentive to demonstrate concern, an Inspector General (IG) inquiry ordered by the service’s top officer exonerated three Instructor Pilots (IPs) from Laughlin Air Force Base of drug use. The service assured Congress and the media that they’d be returned to flying status immediately and that their records would be scrubbed of any reference to drug use.
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, who got personally involved in the case, privately assured Congress he would follow through. He did this while publicly soaking up credit for resolving the matter.
There’s now reason to believe that credit was undeserved, and one Congressman is demanding Welsh explain the difference between the Air Force’s rhetoric and the considerably harsher reality.
As I told you last week, none of the three pilots implicated in the false drug charges is being returned to flying status immediately. Two of the three, however, have been given near-term changes of station that will result in them returning to flying status in other aircraft. While not ideal, this allows the Air Force to accurately claim that the two will fly again and be able to recover.
The third pilot, however, has been scheduled for discharge from the service in May of this year based on an approved separation request pre-dating the baseless drug charges. Someone — it’s not clear who, but presumptively Lt. Gen. Daryl Roberson — is now refusing to put this third pilot back in the air, claiming Laughlin lacks the resources to support his requalification.
This is one of the more transparently nonsensical statements ever made by the Air Force on any subject. Any time someone gets significantly hurt or sick, pregnant, or deploys to the desert for an extended period of time, they have to be requalified. It’s part of what squadrons do. You can bet that if the chain of command wanted this individual to be requalified, it would happen.
That means this is nothing but an excuse, and a flimsy one at that. The fact that anyone would feel comfortable making such an excuse exposes something general about the current state of decrepitude among the Air Force’s leadership corps. The fact such an excuse would be made in a case that has received the personal attention of the service’s top leader demonstrates that the person making the excuse either (a) wants to be fired or (b) believes s/he has top cover from the Chief of Staff. I’m guessing (b) applies here.
Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) isn’t buying any of it. In the letter below, sent to Welsh earlier today, he asks some tough questions and demonstrates he’s not going to back down until “IP-7” is made whole, which is what Welsh has promised all along would happen if the drug allegations proved false.
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Leaving someone for dead professionally for an additional four months and then chucking him into the civilian job market is an odd way to restore the damage inflicted by injustice.
What’s happening to this officer is grotesque and shameful. Whoever is making the decision to deny him the ability to recover after absorbing 18 months of professional injury on the basis of false charges should be dismissed by sundown, replaced by someone capable of doing the right thing. When he was falsely charged, he was an IP. Now that those charges have been thrown out, he should be an IP again. It’s that simple.
It’s bad enough that the commander who got this whole mess started has been spared public accountability for having ruined multiple lives with an out-of-control witch hunt. Failing to give those caught in his errant, indiscriminate crossfire the chance to recover compounds the damage. It shows that not even a legally operative finding of innocence derived from a process ordered by the Chief of Staff himself is enough to overcome the political inertia propelling and protecting toxic leadership.
Instead of answering the questions in Hunter’s letter, Welsh should do what his conscience should be nagging him to do: pick up the phone, call the misguided bureaucratic miscreants preventing IP-7 from getting back to work, and issue a direct order.
With each day that doesn’t happen, it becomes more reasonable to believe Welsh never had any intention of remedying the Laughlin mess … that he merely made a nice show of things to get the political pressure to dissipate.
That would make him part of the toxicity rather than part of the solution to it.
It would expose him as a politician rather than a genuine leader committed to taking care of airmen.
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