After it became plainly evident that one of his wing commanders had consigned several officers to professional purgatory on false drug charges for 18 months, riding roughshod over their Constitutional rights in the process, Gen. Mark Welsh reassured Congress he would make those officers whole again. Employing his trademark likability and exploiting the trust and deference afforded to a man of his stature, the Chief of Staff successfully defused a public and Congressional calamity by giving his word.
He then marched out his trusted agents, who conducted a pro forma review, produced a report no one impacted has been permitted to review, sealed it with an inanely-worded press release, and pretended to fix a massive episode of institutional corruption and malfunction by restoring three sets of aeronautical orders.
It became evident almost immediately afterward that not even this modest measure would be faithfully undertaken. Lt. Gen. Daryl Roberson, standing tyrannically silent while embracing the tyrannically petty, decided that even though the officers were clean of the false drug charges that had grounded them, he wouldn’t allow them to fly as instructors again. He didn’t explain himself because Air Force officers don’t typically do that. But even had he wanted to, he couldn’t, for there is no suitable explanation. The moral rot of the situation is grotesque, with double standards and free-floating enforcement creating absurdities that have scarred the entire service.
The practical effect of the Roberson fatwa is that two of the pilots will move on to new flying assignments, albeit at a considerable disadvantage. For the third officer, the effect is more disastrous. He’s being put out of the service based on a separation request approved before he was professionally ruined, and Roberson’s edict prevents him from healing any of that ruin before he and his family are chucked into the civilian job market. It also kills any chance at flying for the reserves, which had been the plan before the taint of false drug charges wrecked that plan.
As the service was pressed for answers, the bullshit began piling high. Rather than admit Pope Roberson had summarily condemned the pilot from on high, other officers in the chain of command, including Col. Thomas Shank (Laughlin’s Wing Commander) and Lt. Col. Christi Legawiec (86th Flying Training Squadron Commander) started carrying the water, perpetuating a blatant lie that “IP7” couldn’t be requalified because they “lacked the resources” to conduct the requalification. This garbage idea led to public pratfalls and deepened the scandal in an important way by making institutionalized dishonesty part of the discussion.
The notion has been thoroughly and embarrassingly debunked, but in reality it is self-debunking. If you have three pilots on the roster who can’t fly but you have the same number of planes and same number of hours to expend, you have more resources than before, not less.
Lifting his watch above the steeply-scaffolded morass, Rep. Duncan Hunter put the Air Force on the spot about the excuse, sending Welsh a letter with some tough questions. He respectfully demanded, as members of the House Armed Services Committee are wont to do, that Welsh get back to him by January 21st. A few days later, he added some more questions to the list after a noticeably unhinged retired 2-star showed up on social media to do some brief but impactful braying about his inexplicable and probably illegal access to the Inspector General report on the pilots — which Hunter hasn’t been permitted to review — before deleting his comments and slinking back into anonymity.
Today, Mark Welsh is a week late providing a response. He obviously doesn’t see a need to comply with the requests of Congressional representatives performing their oversight function, and he obviously couldn’t care less about actually correcting the situation. IP7 remains grounded and the nonsensical excuse being fed to him remains the official line.
If you’re serving in the Air Force, take these words to heart, because they are proven by this case: Mark Welsh does not care about you unless you’re in his personal circle. If you’re “just” an ordinary airman, NCO, or officer, he will turn his back on you the moment it becomes politically, institutionally, or budgetarily inconvenient to remain downwardly loyal — and trust me, downward is how he sees it. You’re not his equal. You’re the help, and therefore expendable when the circumstances dictate.
I’m taking pains to point this out because you’d never know it by listening to the man. He claims to love airmen and tells a hell of a good war story. I count myself among the many who have been charmed by his folksy wisdom. But it’s an act. A schtick. A public relations gimmick. His actions tell the true tale, and in the case of IP7, those actions (and inactions) speak much louder than his words. Gen. Welsh is unwilling to admit that the Air Force over which he presides has a problem with command abuse and overzealous prosecution. If he makes IP7 whole — rather than claiming to do so while tacitly green-lighting a 3-star toadie to keep IP7 in the penalty box — he risks arming his critics with too much evidence to make their case that he and his colleagues have no business conducting criminal investigations or trials implicating Constitutional guarantees they clearly don’t even recognize, let alone respect. This would be close to saying they have no idea how to properly wield authority or exercise life-changing power over fellow human beings … which would be admitting they don’t know how to command.
The cost of symbolically admitting a series of wrongs in this case makes letting a good man burn the rational choice in a strict cost-benefit analysis, especially given the relative freedom from accountability within which our senior generals and civilians operate. And that is as complicated as Mark Welsh truly is. This is not about love or respect or trust or even shared duties. It’s about political calculus and his commitment to doing what he thinks is best for himself and the image of the institution he leads. Perhaps that makes sense or is even normatively justified in the minds of some. But it’s not how Welsh sells himself, and if you’re serving, you need to understand that.
I reached out to Duncan Hunter’s chief of staff Joseph Kasper to get a reaction to the Air Force’s refusal to answer the Congressman’s recent inquires. In his candid response, Kasper astutely invoked the recent report of airmen decertified in the nuclear community after a mishap that damaged an ICBM:
“In [the ICBM] case, the Air Force stripped three airmen of their certification for their role in a significant mishap—in dollars alone–that Air Force leaders, until now, have swept under the rug. A year later, those same airman are recertified and back to work. The fact that they were stripped of their certification in the first place, under the circumstances, underscores the fact that the Air Force probably had good cause to do so. But the fact that they are back on the job should compel the Air Force to put IP-7, at least, back in the cockpit as soon as possible. If they don’t, a message is being sent to all airmen that even if the Air Force investigates you and determines they were wrong to have even investigated you in the first place … or wrongfully accused you of something severe … you’ll still suffer the consequences for the inconvenience that was caused. Otherwise, the only way you can be recertified is if you are part of a broader effort within the Air Force, among its investigators and leaders, to hide the truth to avoid accountability and any negative attention. Because if that’s the case, it’s better to be wrong and on the side of the Air Force’s wrongdoing, then to possess all the right qualities in the face of wrongful accusations.
That’s just nonsense, and it defies everything that Airmen are taught or any service member is taught. Further, Representatives Hunter and [Illinois Republican Adam] Kinzinger have yet to receive the IG reports that they have been asking for—all we can take from that is there’s a reason we haven’t seen them yet. And the reason is that there are findings and determinations within the reports that the Air Force doesn’t want us to see.
Last—I think perhaps we were too quick with our praise for General Welsh in this case. Because making the right decision is one thing. Failing to see it through or trying to redirect Congress—as seeming to be the case here—is another. He still has a chance to prove he was serious and leadership actual respects his decisions and intent, but time is running out. The Air Force seems to make a habit of infuriating members of Congress for all the wrong reason and I’m just shocked that they are hanging their hat on this Laughlin issue, just to protect a few egos and toxic bands of leadership.”
This case started as an ember that could have been easily snuffed out with a decisive act of command responsibility driven by common sense. It has grown into a dumpster fire. Now, as ordinary airmen and their Congressional representatives alike continually wonder what the hell Mark Welsh is waiting for, this is turning into an inferno. What’s getting burned? Trust and confidence in the senior officers who lead our Air Force.
All for want of genuine leadership, which has itself been asphyxiated by the toxic smoke of politics and is gasping for survival.
As Chairman Mao notoriously said — and reference to him is ironically appropriate given the state of the Air Force’s culture these days: it’s always darkest just before everything goes black.