Here’s something unfortunate. I dare say something dumb.
A source reached out over the weekend to share the frustrating circumstances of an Air Force Academy cadet whose reasonable wishes for the conduct of her own commissioning ceremony are being thwarted by the two things that seem to carry the greatest weight in today’s Air Force: unnecessary rules and inappropriate politics.
The graduating cadet wants to receive her first salute at her Wednesday, May 28th commissioning from a civilian relative who is also an enlisted veteran of the nation’s armed services. This is apparently someone whose example has meant a lot to her, and the person with whom she wants to share what will be one of the most memorable moments of her life. The Academy, and the services more generally, have a long tradition of letting honorees set the terms of their own ceremonies … of letting them extract the greatest meaning from their own life-shaping moments in uniform. It’s usually accepted that ceremonies are about honorees, and no one else.
Not this time.
This cadet’s squadron commander has reportedly ruled her veteran relative ineligible to render her first salute … because he has long hair. Citing guidance apparently provided by Brigadier General Stephen Williams, the Commandant of Cadets, the cadet’s boss says she can only get her first salute from someone who falls within one of three categories:
Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2903, which prescribes uniform wear, includes guidance for separated and retired personnel. That guidance stands silent on grooming standards, and for good reason. It’s absurd to think that veterans will continue to meet service grooming standards long after they’ve rejoined civilian life. This does not mean they can’t present themselves acceptably, and their ability to do so marks a long-standing tradition in ceremonies like this one.
By standing silent on the matter, the AFI intends that individuals will apply reasonable judgment under the circumstances of each situation. Williams and his subordinate commanders have replaced that latitude for reasonable judgment with a restrictive and exacting standard. Under their approach, many a hero would have been prevented from lending appropriate spirit and solemnity to many a ceremony over the years. Heritage that has swelled the hearts of airmen would never have occurred. This is a vivid example of how making up too many rules can strip the esprit out of military service, rendering it an emotionless and clinical enterprise that will not attract men and women with the passion to adequately defend the nation’s interests.
What explains such absurdity? It’s hard to believe Williams would be an inherently unreasonable commandant, or that the squadron commander involved would be on a mission to squash a cadet’s morale. So what explains their unusual behavior?
As is usually the case when explaining the other unexplainable, we turn to politics. Defined in this case as excessive concern about appearances.
It turns out Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, will also be involved in this ceremony, something about which the squadron commander involved has apparently expressed acute awareness. Whether or not senior officials like Welsh recognize it, their mere presence at an event warps the calculus of every commander involved. It triggers risk minimization, usually expressed as stricter rules of conduct than would normally apply.
Even though this reactionary claptrap is patently absurd, it’s explainable. A decades-long institutional habit of commanders getting fired over mistakes of perception during senior leader visits has created a culture now exacerbated by political correctness. The only way to roll this culture back is for the four-stars to themselves tell everyone to stop hyperventilating and maintain perspective.
Of course, incidents like this are also part of something else: the modern penchant to wedge our heroes into neatly drawn, zero-defect images. We’ve embraced another cultural sickness across our society – and certainly within our Air Force – that insists anyone worth emulating must be perfect. We can’t abide the notion, no matter how true, that our heroes are fallible and flawed. That they’ve made mistakes and had to recover. That they’re human.
Of course, it’s the humanity of our heroes — their ability to fight and win in spite of flaws, to overcome limits with persistence and toughness — that inspires us, and we get that individually. But when we get together and make rules, such humanity is machine-tooled out of our thinking, proving once again that none of us is as dumb as all of us.
It’s sad that we’ve allowed this tortured reasoning to infect even our most unassailably personal and human moments. These moments are too important to be shoe-horned into the rubric of whatever is deemed anecdotally fashionable. That we would treat a veteran this poorly as a result of such a decrepit adherence to protocol is disappointing, most of all to the veteran and family whose big day is now darkened by awkwardness and indignity where only positivity and uplift should inhere.
Perhaps Gen. Welsh should send a quick note ahead of his appearance. A note reminding everyone that some things should be immune to stupid. That just a few minutes worth of modestly critical reflection would call to mind scores of veterans who were still a part of our national heritage long after they’d ceased meeting dress and appearance standards. That commissioning ceremonies are not about made-up rules, politics, or appearances. That they’re not even about generals or commanders. That they’re about one thing: launching the Air Force’s newest Second Lieutenants into public service with unfettered zeal and maximum forward velocity.
If that velocity is augmented by receiving a first salute from a personal hero who has served our nation in uniform, it’s a privilege that should be granted without hesitation, regardless of whether the hero fits a subjective mold designed by a local authority figure or supports favored perceptions about what veterans are “supposed to look like.”
On this Memorial Day, let’s not forget that the meaning of things is more important than the appearance of things. The length of a veteran’s hair doesn’t reflect that veteran’s character or service. Veterans come in all shapes and sizes, and so do personal heroes. Let’s not tarnish the meaning of what they’ve given us by focusing on superficialities. To do so diminishes them, and it makes us damnable.