Until a few months ago, Col. Leland Bohannon was on the fast road to generalship. A quick scan of his record by anyone with basic tribal knowledge confirms it. Pentagon internship as a captain, strategy school, successful deployed command, experience in both the mobility and combat air forces, and three sponsored graduate degrees. He’d been promoted early and given command of the Air Force Inspection Agency — a one-star grooming role. Bohannon was the very definition of the term “fast burner.”
But recently, Bohannon’s collision course with destiny was remapped, sending him careening into career oblivion. A fast burner no more, he’s been unofficially blacklisted … damned to the alternate fate of serenely marking time, likely in a windowless office, while he awaits deliverance via DD-214.
What did Bohannon do to earn this fate? Well, he managed to do the one thing considered more professionally devastating than theft, bribery, or even sexual impropriety: he was successfully accused of discriminating against a subordinate on the basis of sexual orientation. In today’s politically correct environment, this is the king daddy of all sins … the apex of misconduct. A person would have a better chance of surviving being found naked with a bowl of jello and Al-Qaeda literature.
I don’t have the patience to veil my commentary on this one, so bear with me while I tell this story without the pretension of objectivity. Luckily, I’m disgusted at the conduct of basically everyone involved, so this will be an equal opportunity bashing.
First, let’s visit upon Bohannon’s actions, because what he did here is every bit as stupefying as anything I’ve seen in a quarter century of closely observing a fairly substantial degree of per capita stupidity.
One of Bohannon’s people, a Master Sergeant, was scheduled to retire. Bohannon’s job as commander was to sign a number of honors and certificates to be presented to the honoree on the occasion of his retirement. One of these was a certificate of appreciation for the Master Sergeant’s spouse. The catch is that both the honoree and the spouse were men. They happened to be gay.
The correct action would have been for Bohannon to sign the certificate and move on to real problems. He went another way.
Lurching into controversy, Bohannon took the request as an affront to his sincerely held religious beliefs. He felt that signing the document might land him an all-expenses-paid trip to visit with the Prince of Darkness for all of eternity. Fearing the heat and thinking he wouldn’t look too good in those tattered clothes, Bohannon refused to sign. He chose instead to consult with the local lawyer and local chaplain for what to do next.
The chaplain told him, inter alia, to pray.
The lawyer counseled Bohannon to seek a religious accomodation. He so sought. The request was allowed to languish unanswered until it died, leaving Bohannon in limbo. Rejecting the strong hint of disapproval from his 3-star boss, who refused to approve the accomodation, Bohannon arranged for someone else to sign the certificate.
Let’s pause here, because the oddity of this action is telling. If one truly doesn’t believe gay marriage is morally tenable, then one does not avoid affirming it by having someone else do so. Not only would this unconscionably condemn that person to theoretical Hell, but in a way it’s committing the same perceived sin by employing an accomplice. In fact, if you’re morally inconsolable on the subject of gay marriage, co-opting someone else into the practice of tolerating it would be a truly low act.
Nonetheless, it’s what Bohannon did. And when the Master Sergeant realized his husband’s certificate had been signed by some 2-star stranger proxying for the commander, and figured out why, he complained to the local Equal Opportunity office. That complaint was substantiated, finding that Bohannon had discriminated against the retiree on the basis of sexual orientation. This is, in fact, what he did. He refused to do for one retiree what he did or would do for others, and based that decision on sexual orientation.
Here’s the issue I have with Bohannon. When you’re a commander, you command everyone — not just those who align with you philosophically or religiously, and not just those who share your view of what constitutes a morally acceptable lifestyle. You don’t get to set the rules on gay marriage, and you don’t get to treat people differently because they’re in same-sex marriages.
But more than that, this feels to me less like a strong leader who also has principles and more like a guy tripping over his religious views as he tries to lead. Signing a certificate of appreciation for someone else’s spouse is not an affirmation that you believe in their version of marriage. It’s simply your way of saying thanks. You’re not certifying that you believe they are a spouse. Beyond the fact that a higher authority already did that (even if you don’t recognize it, which is maybe the whole problem here), it’s not important whether you believe the person is a legitimate spouse. This is about what the honoree wants and what the honoree believes. It’s not about you. If he wanted the certificate to be presented to his pet iguana, you should have been happy to sign it.
But let’s not give the Air Force a pass on this one either.
Since when did it become a career death sentence to stand on a principle? This guy may be misguided, but he has conviction. That’s a virtue in short supply. So why not take this as an opportunity to mentor and redirect him? We invested 20 years into this fellow. He is among our very best and most talented leaders at his level. He didn’t lie, embezzle funds, engage in profligate waste, or screw his secretary (all of which might have actually bolstered his qualification for generalship). So why is this career ending?
And make no mistake, it is just that. Off the back of the EO complaint, Bohannon’s boss removed him from command. He also wrote a letter to the O-7 board declaring Bohannon unqualified. These two actions obliterated any chance at future advancement.
What bothers me about the Air Force response is how transparently political it is. Commanders who’ve done far worse have walked away unscathed. But because the Service feels like it needs to look tough on this kind of issue in order to stay in the good budgetary and oversight graces of the Congressional left, it’s happy to make a grease spot out of a superb career deserving of a more fitting end. This sort of utilitarian nonsense is anathema to a principled recognition of individual worth, and it can’t coexist with moral leadership. If anything, they’ve proven to Bohannon he was in the wrong service all along … one governed by politics rather than principle.
We need to cultivate an Air Force confident enough in itself to do right by its officers and airmen, even when they make mistakes or misjudge situations, as Bohannon has done here. This isn’t a crime, but a mistake, and it should be recoverable — even if it means some star-adorned bureaucrat has to sit in front of a microphone and later defend the decision.
The kind of Air Force I’m talking about doesn’t destroy its best and brightest airmen over unsigned spouse certificates. It rehabilitates them and extracts value, expecting improvement in exchange for seeing the bigger picture.
Bottom line on this one is that Bohannon gambled away his career. He knew what was at stake, which is why he consulted carefully. In the end, absent top cover, he decided to go it alone. When you do that, you more often than not pay the price.
It’s difficult to locate any sympathy for Leland Bohannon on an individual level. A man this intelligent had to know he was laying it on the line, and if the principle at stake was valuable enough to support that decision, it can and must also bear the consequences.
But it’s silly in the extreme that we’ve let something so trivial bring an end to a career in which so much has been invested. We need people at the top who make mistakes and recover … not just those skillful enough to avoid mistakes (or at least their detection) altogether.
First Liberty Institute appealed to Secretary of the Air Force on Col. Bohannon’s behalf earlier this month. You can read more about the case here or by searching google.