Force Mismanagement: AFPC Botches Retirements, Airmen Caught in Crossfire

Update: according to an Air Force news release issued Tuesday afternoon (April 8th), those airmen who received emails revoking an offer of early retirement will be offered retirement after all.  Anyone impacted should stay in close touch with the chain of command, push for and expect answers from AFPC, and keep this thread informed if rhetoric and reality do not converge.

Airmen who employ airpower know how unforgiving it can be.  It’s about precision.  Releasing a weapon from an aircraft one second too early or late can have lethal consequences on the ground, including fratricide or the loss of a battle.  Airpower is also about communication. Confusion or inaccuracy in messages can result in paratroopers being dropped into a hail of enemy fire or wounded warriors bleeding out as rescue helicopters fly to the wrong coordinates.  But it’s also about morality.  Executing unlawful orders or applying combat power in violation of rules of engagement can undermine an entire war effort.

The Air Force has long understood these principles.  It has also understood until recently that these principles cannot thrive unless they thrive universally and continually.  Airmen who don’t practice, experience, and immerse in a culture of precision, clarity, and morality can’t be expected to exhibit these qualities in combat.  In the last few years, the Air Force has allowed these notions to become secondary, and in some cases outright abandoned them in pursuit of imagined efficiencies or advantages or as a function of simple organizational neglect.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the conduct of the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC), which has recently undertaken a rolling chronicle of unprecedented malpractice, leaving airmen frustrated, uncertain, and increasingly disinterested in wearing a blue uniform.

The Air Force has a drawdown to execute, and AFPC is mangling it.  Badly.  General Mark Welsh and Secretary Deborah Lee James have told airmen to expect transparency and straight talk.  They seem to want good faith to be a guiding principle during the drawdown.  AFPC is upending this notion.

The Service Chief and Secretary say they want fair dealing in the drawdown, but it has been elusive thus far.
The Service Chief and Secretary say they want fair dealing in the drawdown, but it has been elusive thus far.

Most recently, airmen anxiously awaited the April 1 scheduled release of early retirement decisions.  Most had applied in January only to weather a season of shifting expectations.  Eligibility criteria changed and changed again.  Expected numbers of approvals were not given, leaving people unable to establish firm criteria to evaluate career options.  Commanders were cut out of the AFPC loop and therefore clueless.  As April approached, airmen had their spirits buoyed by the idea that whatever their fate, it would soon be known.  If approved to retire, they would have to be out of the service before August.  This is not much time to re-purpose and re-direct an entire life and family, so as April approached, anticipation built, with airmen spring-loaded to snap into action once their fates were decided.

But then, April arrived and it turned out that “deadline” was just a “guideline.”  AFPC released an updated timeline giving itself until the end of April to notify airmen.  A few got approval notices, but most continued to wait, each day eating into an already compressed period of time between notification and mandatory separation from the service. The unspoken message from the center was “just kidding.”

In some cases, this meant severe consequences for those who had pursued employment leads and reassured potential employers they’d have a final answer on the ability to commit to a job by April.  A few have shared stories that are heartbreaking in terms of potential lost opportunity.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation, family health care, and school arrangements hang in the balance as AFPC handles Air Force families haphazardly.

As the first week of April culminated, a couple thousand approvals were reported to have been given.  AFPC didn’t explain why it was late.  In fact, it didn’t explain anything.  Even the approval emails were sparing, pre-formatted, and anonymous.  But they were a start, and airmen began to slowly exhale as it appeared AFPC might finally get rolling.

But then, for some airmen, everything unraveled again.  This time, it felt like a cruel joke.

Airmen began receiving "take-back" emails late on April 4th.
Airmen began receiving “take-back” emails late on April 4th.

Late in the day on April 4th (just before AFPC closed its doors and unplugged its phones for the weekend), notices began going out to airmen retracting previously approved retirements, explaining that approval had been “erroneous.” They’d been given permission to retire, allowed to act on it for a few days, and then informed AFPC was “taking back” that approval. In some cases, this second notice came after the acceptance of a job offer or the hiring of a real estate agent.  Spouses gave notice at work or accepted new jobs.  In some cases, child care providers were given notice and told to find new jobs.  In other cases, approval drove commanders to change deployment or assignment plans. In many cases, the changes made were irrevocable and had financial strings attached.  In almost every case, the retraction email came after an airman had informed family of a huge life change, only to have to change their reality again and leave them wondering what might happen next.  Deployed airmen were not spared in this debacle.  As they struggle to focus on combat operations while keeping family back home up to speed, AFPC has added a layer of stress and distraction to the rigors of combat, forcing many to call home and deliver news certain to knock the wind out of spouses and children who, just a few days before, were encouraged to plan for the future.

With this round of “false positives” the mangled AFPC drawdown went from being a huge annoyance to a soul-crushing engine of uncertainty.  No one involved knows what’s going to happen to them, and everyone is now concerned that even an official notice of approval or rejection isn’t solid ground for planning.  Those who have been told they won’t be subject to involuntary measures later in the year no longer trust that notion.  Everyone is beginning to take nothing for granted.  All is in doubt.  When that starts to happen, it becomes a game of everyone for himself/herself, and everyone starts hedging to protect livelihood and family.  This is no way to run a military fighting force. But given some of the examples being shared on social media, uncertainty and hedging among airmen is understandable.

Some airmen applied for early retirement, waited three months to be notified, and were declared ineligible.  In some cases, these airmen appeared eligible according to AFPC’s own eligibility matrix.  Some engaged with the center after being declared ineligible and had that decision reversed when AFPC’s bureaucrats realized a mistake had been made.  Some airmen went through this “false negative” process multiple times in order to stay in the game and are still awaiting a final answer.

Other airmen applied recently and were quickly approved, while others in their organizations who are similarly situated have been waiting months and heard nothing.  This seems like a violation of fairness, and raises questions about how the process is being run within AFPC.

Many applied under the belief they were eligible only to find out they never had any chance of approval.  This meant they published their desire to leave the service frivolously, and doing so invited intangible career jeopardy.  Commanders seek to maximize investment in those who are committed to a long-term career.  This is not a morally correct management practice, but it is pervasive nonetheless. I watched haplessly a couple years ago as my own performance report got downgraded as a direct result of applying for retirement.  Had that retirement later been disapproved, I would have been stuck in a career with diminished potential.  Many thousands of airmen now face that prospect as a result of listening to their own senior leaders, who assured them of fair dealing.

Welsh2Amid all this chicanery, AFPC has not communicated with airmen.  No apology was given for late notifications, including the thousands yet to be issued.  No real explanations were given for false positives or false negatives.  The center doesn’t answer phones or respond to emails, and this leaves airmen with no way to resolve inconsistencies or ambiguities.  Even the egregious “take-backs” are not signed by an individual person with a phone number who can be called for further explanation. The most important and pivotal decisions impacting the careers of airmen and the trajectories of their families are being made, and no one is working to keep them informed.   Gen. Welsh’s promise of transparency and professionalism has been made empty.  Now, as mistakes pile up, Welsh’s inaction is making many airmen believe he is either aloof to the problem or tacitly authorizing AFPC’s tactics.

AFPC 1Tragic as this debacle is, it should not surprise anyone.  AFPC has a commander in name only, and is not a true military organization.  It’s more like a cross between a commodity exchange and a post office, executed with the bedside manner of an insurance company.  People are facelessly traded like pork bellies and their lives and careers sorted, labeled, and passed along an electronic conveyor.  When the time comes to inform them what the “system” has decided to do with them and their families, they get an impersonal email rather than an in-person notification from a commander.  This is true not just of the drawdown process, but of assignments, deployments, school selections, and promotions.

In other words, the most important processes impacting airmen have been removed from the chain of command and consigned to a noticeably underperforming human resource bureaucracy.  No one is accountable for how people are being treated, since a “system” is in charge rather than a leader.  Commanders have lost critical “touch points” with their people, and this has driven a wedge between the leadership element of the service and those it seeks to lead.  Morale is plummeting. By many accounts, the service is coming apart.  Not because of the stress of combat, but because of its own decision to treat airmen like undignified commodities rather than people with stories, families, and souls deserving of fairness, humane treatment, and genuine care.

Uncertainty is perhaps the most powerful stressor.  It creates sleepless nights, blurred focus, and degraded performance.  It is an engine for organizational toxicity.  In theory, human resource agencies are designed to combat this uncertainty by giving people a clear path, solid criteria, and prompt, straight answers from human beings.  But AFPC’s performance is antithetical to these principles and to the Air Force’s own core values. This is no way to treat people.  Airmen know that, and they’re increasingly weary of tolerating it.  The April debacle is rumored to be triggering scores of letters to congressional representatives, which is a sign airmen are giving up on the idea of the service dealing with them fairly and seeking remedies outside the chain of command.  This could land the service an appearance on Capitol Hill to explain itself, which would only further degrade focus and performance at a tough moment.  This is quite a price to pay in lieu of firing AFPC and putting the drawdown into the hands of competent commanders, as was suggested recently on these pages.

“As Air Force senior leaders, we commit to transparency; we will share information as early and often as possible” was the sentiment reflected in a January senior leader newsletter on the subject of force management. General Welsh says the service’s core values are more than just slogans.

In response, airmen across the globe have an answer: “prove it.”  AFPC doesn’t have to be competent and doesn’t have to deal fairly and transparently with airmen.  This leads them to conclude that integrity and excellence are irrelevant at the key nexus of the Air Force’s relationship with its airmen.

Welsh needs to reconcile his statements with AFPC’s behavior, because this is clearly no way to treat people.  Sure, some of them are leaving anyway, but their peers and friends are watching.  Their children are watching.  Short-term mistreatment of people can have long-term consequences in the ability to field the best fighting force.  Besides, it’s just not the right way to deal with people.  The Air Force once understood this.

It also once understood that precision, communication, and morality were not just things to be practiced in combat, but important cultural features — things that had to be practiced all the time if they were to be present when most critical.  Let’s hope the service rediscovers this idea, and soon.  It could start the journey back to honor by firing AFPC and putting the drawdown in the hands of commanders who are accountable for the way they treat people.   But the most important move Welsh can make at this moment is to immediately cancel the AFPC retraction letters and salvage a few shreds of credibility.  After all, in what rational universe are “take-backs” allowed with respect to approved retirements as a matter of bureaucratic convenience?  Not in any universe with a viable value system.

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