Epilogue: Molly Three Pilots Move On, But Case Continues to Echo Through Air Force

Welsh CSAF

Over the course of several months, we brought you the concerning tale of the Molly Three, a group of Laughlin-based Instructor Pilots who found themselves ensnared in the dragnet of official suspicion and had their lives crushed before the truth of their innocence on drug charges could catch up.

You can find the full library of articles here in the JQP Laughlin archive.

The short version is that the three had their cellphones seized and searched by federal agents after an unrelated investigation into an illicit affair between two officers turned up text exchanges interpreted as commiseration about drug activity by an overzealous chain of command. The three were grounded, officially disciplined, and given career-ending performance downgrades before the evidence was in. When that evidence exculpated them, the chain of command ignored it, sticking to its guns. Only after media scrutiny and Congressional pressure made inaction untenable did Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh direct a fresh inquiry.

That inquiry was mostly a sham, sidestepping fundamental questions of command reprisal, illegally altered performance reports, and suspect legal and investigative tactics. No commander at any level was held accountable for the destruction of multiple careers without foundation. But the review did persuade Welsh to toss out reprimands issued for drug use after the Inspector General found no evidence to support such claims and plenty suggesting just the opposite.

With the dust now settled, it’s a good moment to visit upon a few key footnotes that can help us understand what actually happened in this case and what it means to the current and future Air Force.

Wings Restored

After finding no evidence to demonstrate the Molly Three used drugs, the Air Force gave their wings back. It took too long, and was done too reluctantly, but it was done. As we’re fond of saying here, it’s not everything, but it’s not nothing. While it would have been even better had the commanders involved faced discipline for having destroyed three lives based on bare suspicion, the lifting of the ban allowing them to get back to work was an important outcome.

Interestingly, the Air Force’s decision to restore flying status for the three created a new problem: how to salvage the reputations of the senior officers who had grounded them in the first place. After all, if the Molly Three were right that they’d been grounded unfairly, then the cabal of officers responsible for implementing and upholding their punishments had to be wrong. This group included Gen. Robin Rand, who decreed that the three would not be permitted to perform as Instructor Pilots in his command again.

To avoid the reputational damage that would fall upon Rand, now commander of the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise and a known good friend of Welsh, if his “never again” decree were to be openly defied, two measures were taken.

First, two of the Molly Three were simply moved out of Air Education and Training Command (AETC) and into follow-on assignments. This was a good outcome for them as individuals, allowing each a fresh start in a new weapon system away from the toxic climate created by their former bosses. It swerved the question of how they could be utilized in AETC without the command selling out on Rand’s order.

The third (an experienced mid-career officer given the pseudonym “IP7”) was scheduled to separate from the Air Force just a matter of months after the Welsh inquiry culminated. This allowed AETC to simply run out the clock, conveniently and continuously finding reasons why his training couldn’t be completed. IP7 never regained his qualification, leaving Rand’s edict, later adopted by his successor Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson as a show of crony loyalty, unperturbed.

Discipline cases in the Air Force are only about individuals and broken rules in the abstract. One the chain of command decides to act, they become about protecting the image of the chain of command by making decisions and actions stick. The higher ranking the commander who delivers or weighs in on a particular disciplinary case, the more committed the system will be to sustaining the perceived appropriateness of the course of action taken. Obviously this doesn’t bode well for a system in which the highest ranking generals now routinely involve themselves in squadron-level cases.

Thanks to broad support, his own superb record before the Laughlin debacle, and the sort of common sense that exists only beyond the walls of the USAF, IP7 managed to catch on with an airline and has successfully moved on.

But what the Air Force didn’t count on was that IP7, despite it all, would still want to serve in the Air Force Reserve as a T-1 Instructor Pilot. This leads us to footnote number two.

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure

Disillusioned as he was with the way he’d been treated at Laughlin, IP7 had served in other, better organizations before … and had come from a long line of Air Force officers. He believed in the organization in spite of its actions, and more than it deserved. After learning he would be restored to flying status, he was excited to regain IP qualification and get back to work.

But there was a problem. The AETC commander had decreed he could never again be an IP in AETC. The order had been tied to drug charges that had since been proven baseless, but the commander had chosen to leave the order in-place. This left IP7’s local commanders inhibited as to his requalification and lacking much rationale to expend resources getting him back in the air. His training languished until he separated from the Air Force.

During that interim time, he began pursuing placement with the Reserves. This would, in theory, permit him to regain IP status and continue serving without remaining on active duty and without disturbing the edict from on high concerning his role in AETC. But there was still a problem. Reserve units were excited to interview him and eager to bring him on board, but they couldn’t be certain how the limitations emplaced by AETC might constrain his service. They asked IP7 to help them distill a clear answer from the USAF about what he could and couldn’t do.

This led to another round of regrettable shenanigans by the chain of command.  Delays, obfuscation, unclear answers, and basically a huge run-around. No one would make it clear to him what he could and couldn’t do in a Reserve unit that happened to fly AETC training lines … likely because no one wanted to explicitly admit that AETC doesn’t have the power to tell the Reserves who can and can’t be an IP in Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC).

Refusing to make a clear statement accomplished at least two command objectives. First, it continued the reprisal campaign against IP7 by frustrating his ability to get hired into a Reserve unit. Second, it prevented IP7 or his advocates from challenging the Air Force’s ruling. Without a final ruling, there was nothing to challenge.

But once again, Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) rode to the rescue, pushing Gen. Welsh’s office for fair play. Hunter wanted a clear statement about IP7’s capacity to serve in the Air Force Reserve, and on May 10th — months after an inquiry found the Molly Three clean of the drug charges that got this entire mess started — Welsh finally, at long last, did the right thing.

In a memo issued to Hunter’s office, Welsh makes it clear that IP7 can’t be prevented from serving as an IP in a Reserve unit. 

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That’s pretty clear. But lest we drift into the idea that that doing the right thing has suddenly become a guiding principle in this debacle, let’s take a look at one more footnote … this one containing clear evidence of abuse of power that should be dealt with severely.

One Reporting Period, Three Reports

Before he was stained with the false suspicion of drug abuse, IP7 had a superior performance record and was universally regarded as a member of the future senior leadership of the Air Force. He was, by all accounts, a leader and a consummate operator.

Here’s the relevant excerpt from IP7’s 2014 Officer Performance Report (OPR). This was written based on his actual performance during the period, and was signed by both IP7 and his squadron commander.

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After this was signed, but before it had been filed in his personnel records, IP7 came under investigation. His OPR was swiftly pulled from coordination, wiped clean, and re-written. His performance was fundamentally re-characterized. All of this was based on suspicion alone … the investigation wouldn’t close until November 24th, 2014 — 19 days after IP7’s chain of command formally documented a report treating their suspicions as conclusive.

Here’s the dummied up version.

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Note that the closeout date of the report was extended. But note also that that nearly three months passed between the original signatures and those affixed to the modified report. Air Force Instructions permit a maximum extension of 59 days. In other words, the Laughlin chain of command dragged its feet beyond the timeframe authorized by law, and took no notice of the requirement to end the delays at some point and file a report based on the information available.

This would be a referral OPR for IP7, meaning it would officially declare that he didn’t meet minimum performance standards.

Remember, the entirety of the evidence available to the chain of command indicating drug use was a series of text messages later revealed to be lighthearted party banter between friends. And yet, these commanders saw fit to immortalize drug use in a man’s official performance record before the insufficient investigation was even complete. This violates basically everything our system of law is about while simultaneously defiling countless principles guiding professional interaction between airmen. 

But the story gets worse. 

Two years later, the Air Force would recognize that the reprimand issued to IP7 for drug use was baseless, but there would be no voluntary effort to go back and correct his 2014 OPR. He was forced to appeal through the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records, which found that the re-written version of the OPR was inappropriate given the reprimand had been tossed out by the Welsh-directed investigation.

So, Laughlin went back and re-accomplished the report. Here’s what they came up with.

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They cleared the referral, but didn’t restore the ex ante performance record IP7 had rightfully racked up. The group commander’s bottom line is laughable … openly evincing a struggle for what to say instead of telling the truth about where this guy stood in his peer group in 2014 before the cross-hairs settled on him.

This is a perfect reflection of the Air Force created by the unprincipled generals of the last two decades. One where suspicion is enough for condemnation, the rules of performance reports can be ignored by commanders at will, and where what actually happened matters less than the official record sought by self-interested actors willing to abuse their administrative authority. Performance reports should tell us what someone did and how it mattered to the mission. What they really tell us is whether and to what extent a given commander approved of someone.

That doesn’t reflect principle, it reflects power. Nothing more.

The Laughlin debacle has become a touchstone for airmen who’ve noticed the corruption of the institution and its unmooring from principle. They see in this situation everything that’s gone wrong. Commanders who care more about official approval than doing the right thing. Decisions based on impressions or politics rather than facts. Leaders who turn on their people at the drop of a hat.

While Gen. Welsh’s decision to wade into the Molly Three situation resulted in a better series of outcomes than would have otherwise resulted, he didn’t follow through. He didn’t act on what the situation ended up revealing. He didn’t dig. He did just enough to make certain Congress wouldn’t make a big deal out of it, and nothing more. That’s a failure of principle, and it’s what distinguishes him from Gen. Ronald Fogleman … who didn’t just talk about doing the right thing, but actually did it, even and especially when it carried risks.

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