As first reported by Air Force Times, the 2-star boss of Nineteenth Air Force recently resigned from his post after making an inappropriate comment in a public forum. In contrast with the recent treason debacle, this incident showcases a leader swiftly taking responsibility for his mistake.
In a statement issued by Air Education and Training Command (AETC), Maj. Gen. Mike Keltz said:
“I inadvertently made an unfortunate comment, I own it, and I hold myself accountable to the same high standards my subordinate commanders are held to … [a]s a result, I have tendered my resignation from command and requested to retire from service. [AETC Commander] Gen. Rand has graciously accepted that request.”
Rand accompanied his acceptance of the career special operator’s request with comments praising Keltz’s service and dedication over a 34-year career, but acknowledging the need for accountability. This is a sound response. But it does leave observers struggling with a mental puzzle: if Keltz was such a superb officer, what did he say that was bad enough single-handedly scuttle an otherwise scintillating career?
In the past 24 hours, multiple sources have reached out to JQP with first-hand accounts of the incident. Their renditions solve the puzzle. What the general said, and the way he said it, explain why he stepped down and why Rand needed him to do so. There are also indications that the incident was the tip of a troubling iceberg of problems gripping a key pilot training base, and that Rand’s work to remedy this situation may be just beginning.
The remarks came in the context of a public hearing conducted by Keltz under Article 15 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). It was a venue for Keltz to advance allegations of misconduct against a company grade officer assigned to Laughlin Air Force Base, for that officer to respond to the allegations, and for Keltz to consider the response and make a decision about punishment.
This particular hearing was reportedly attended by a crowd of around one hundred officers, enlisted airmen, and civilian members of the Laughlin community. The base trains Air Force pilots, and has been consumed in recent months by a series of investigations into possible inappropriate relationships between instructors and students. The misconduct at issue in this hearing was reportedly tangential to those other inquiries.
According to attendees, Keltz made remarks to the gathered audience before the officer subject to punishment was allowed to enter the hearing. In those initial remarks, witnesses say Keltz gave the impression he had already made up his mind about the officer’s culpability. This is problematic. It suggests the hearing was pro forma, and that in turn raises due process concerns.
But it was during the main exchange between Keltz and the accused officer that the fateful remarks were uttered. After the accused had spoken in his own defense, Keltz began a series of berating comments in which he criticized the officer’s life choices and relationships. In an attempt to refute a claim by the accused that he wasn’t close with another officer assigned to the base, Keltz reportedly produced a photograph of the two standing together at a unit event where he believed they’d been drinking together.
Keltz then scolded the officer that the photo made it evident that he and the other officer were close friends and that the officer in question looked “drunker than 10,000 Indians.”
The comment was offensive and inappropriate. The audience, which apparently included members of Native American descent, was taken aback.
Keltz reportedly continued the commentary a little longer, at one point saying the officer looked “drunker than 10,000 sailors.”
It’s unclear whether Keltz took it upon himself to resign after the hearing, or whether complaints were lodged that made him realize he had offended members of the community, driving him to step down.
In any case, his response is appropriate under the circumstances. While Keltz may well have been simply “shooting from the hip” and wandered into an unintended infraction, his responsibilities and the circumstances of the hearing make the racially insensitive content of the remark untenable for someone in his position.
For Rand, there may be more to worry about. Members of the Laughlin community tell JQP that the environment in the 47th Flying Training Wing is consumed by fear and has become abusive. What began as a well-meaning attempt by commanders to root out impropriety among a few instructor pilots has unhinged into what many characterize as a paranoia-driven witch hunt. Officers say cell phones are constantly being confiscated, administrative punishments are being handed down without proof of wrongdoing, and there is a growing belief that those caught in the investigative crosshairs are not getting a fair shake. Some say guilt by association is driving these efforts.
Rand did the right thing for AETC and the Air Force by allowing Mike Keltz to own his mistake. Now he should arguably dig deeper into the unfolding crisis at Laughlin. If Keltz ran an inappropriate, theatrical, and/or unfair process to decide one officer’s fate, that case and others he oversaw should be reviewed anew and any concerns addressed, even if it means hitting a big reset button to ensure due process.