Editor’s Note: David R. Warren is a pen name. JQP has verified the author’s identity and credentials. For reasons explored later in this article, Mr. Warren is apt to remain anonymous for the time being, but the reader can safely assume he’s eminently qualified to write about this issue. See also his previous guide, “How to Fire an Air Force Squadron Commander,” which struck a chord with many readers.
Warren continues to take satirical aim at a subject that richly deserves it, but there’s an appropriately serious edge to his commentary as well. As I wrote recently, the Air Force has a grave problem with unaccountable conduct by senior leaders, and it threatens to be the straw that breaks the service’s back. As you digest these painfully but clearly rendered paragraphs, bear two things in mind. First, they describe a problem that, if left uncorrected, will almost certainly wreck the Air Force by dissuading its most talented people from seeking greater responsibility within a broken culture and system. Second, if you’re a current or future commander at any level, file this away for safe keeping. You may need it, and the mocking tone it adopts does nothing to diminish its accuracy. Please enjoy and comment. -Q.
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The News. “The Commander would like to see you,” says the voice at the other end of the phone, resulting in a session with your Group or Wing Commander relieving you of command. You should fully expect that you will not actually be told why you are being fired. Instead, expect some combination of “this just isn’t working out,” “it’s not you, it’s me,” or simply just reading a letter while you stand at attention. Expect to be so stunned that you won’t have any immediate questions, and if you do, they won’t be answered. The session informing you of being fired is one-sided, the decision has been made and almost nothing you can say or do will change your boss’ mind. Your boss’ goal is simply to get your signature acknowledging your relief of command and give you future instructions. You are faced with two initial options: 1. Go quietly, pick up the pieces later, keep your cool and composure, prepare for the “long war” against the system, and don’t do anything else you’ll regret later (like punching the SOB in the face or judo chopping the jugular); or 2. Raise a commotion, stick it to them, threaten to see the IG, Wing Commander, Congressional representative, sue, etc.
Regroup. On some level, you highly valued an Air Force career, service to the nation, and the opportunity to lead America’s sons and daughters. You were probably told by past superiors, peers and subordinates that you were on a high trajectory, and maybe you started to believe your own press. The reality is those dreams are shattered. What matters is you hopefully still have your family, your faith in whatever you believed in that wasn’t the Air Force, and your values (which the Air Force as an institution in this action doesn’t also espouse). You’ll need to decide fairly quickly if you intend to just let it go, or if you will “let it go” (“Frozen-style”), take up all instruments at your disposal to fight this injustice, and not be held back. You are facing some tight timelines, and you’ll want to be able to look back without any regrets on what you could have done.
Help. If you need help coping, get it, plain and simple. Losing a job and moving rank in the top five of most stressful situation lists. Mental health still has a stigma that it shouldn’t, and you may even be improperly referred by your chain. Other options include the Chaplain, peers, mentors, and former supervisors. While the “official” Air Force almost certainly will appear to have turned its collective back on you, there are many great Airmen who would eat off their own arm to help you through this situation.
Family. Your family will be affected. They will most likely be ostracized by the spouse groups and even their friends still in the chain’s good graces, while receiving little to no support from the former Air Force “Family,” similar to the treatment expected during an ugly divorce. You will quickly learn the real bounds of this alleged “Air Force Family.” The firing may require a short-notice move, possibly affecting a spouse’s job and/or children’s school, while causing additional financial stress. Due to the poor treatment, emotional turmoil, and unjust nature of the entire event, they may hereafter hate the Air Force. Children too young to understand will still pick up on the family tension, while you struggle for ways to explain the situation to older children.
Senior Leader Responses. Chances are likely that you didn’t get to be a Squadron Commander without at least one mentor, and you probably have many. After being relieved, your relationship with many mentors will certainly change. The fact that no mentor wants a protégée’s “failure” linked to them might explain this dynamic. Some mentors will remain true, offer advice and encouragement, hear you out, and maybe even inspire you. On the other hand, some mentors will ignore you, not respond, or encourage you simply to leave the Air Force as soon as possible. However, they almost certainly will not get involved. An unwritten and highly followed rule in the Air Force is to not interfere in another’s command, even to call out apparent and egregious wrongs. If true leadership were somehow as ingrained in senior leader psyches as this rule, toxic leadership would be eradicated.
Area Defense Council (ADC). When you contact your local ADC office, expect referral to an ADC at another location because of your previous position, current rank, and need to somehow eliminate any conflicts of interest. Expect to never actually meet your ADC without taking leave. Expect that your ADC has never worked a case like this. Expect that your ADC will change out at least 1-5 times before all “reviews” are complete. Finally, expect your ADC to have significantly more important cases, such as courts martial, competing for their time and availability.
Gather Supporting Info. Write a narrative of the events, listing as many details as possible. You probably won’t be sleeping much initially, and recapping the events of former leadership encounters can be therapeutic, and even medically helpful if you suffer from low blood pressure. Evaluate your situation to consider any and all facts that would support your case, including e-mails. Consider asking supervisors, peers, and subordinates for letters explaining their views of the situation. Expect justifiable reluctance by everyone still under the Group or Wing Commander to refuse to provide a letter, even your best friends. The fact that you were so easily fired and suffered career destruction on a whim serves leadership’s purpose of discouraging dissent. Your ADC can help provide letter templates. For cooperative authors, request different letters for different purposes, such as one for complaint resolution channels and another for the administrative records appeals process. If you are given a no-contact order, your ADC can reach out to request letters on your behalf.
Referral OPR. When given your Referral OPR, you initially have only three days to provide rebuttal comments. In this short timeline, chances are high that you won’t even have an assigned ADC, so you will need to request an extension to your senior rater or Wing Commander. You are limited to 10 pages of comments, which can include supporting letters from others. Since this referral OPR will enter your permanent records, you have nothing to lose by submitting the full 10 pages—it’s not like a future board will somehow flip so fast as to miss the “referral.” Your ADC may have experience with referral performance reports and can be a great resource. Once your OPR is signed, expect many months until it becomes a “matter of record” and officially enters your records, at which point you can appeal. You may have to make numerous calls and send countless e-mails to your base personnel office and the Air Force Personnel Center to make this happen. The Referral OPR is extremely important, as it remaining in your records almost certainly permanently bars you from a wide range of options including: ROTC detachments, JROTC positions, Air Force Academy instructor, PALACE X programs to enter the National Guard or Reserves, and more. Depending on your career field, your assignment options are likely limited to either a NAF/MAJCOM staff or a low impact flying job. However, while the Air Force will likely make your talents unavailable for future exploitation of your potential, it would love to use you on a deployment.
Evaluation Reports and Appeals Board (ERAB). Once your OPR is officially in your records, you can initiate an appeal to the ERAB. This is an opaque process that produces no public results, advertises 6-8 weeks yet takes a year or more, and essentially assumes the report’s correctness at the beginning and end of the process. Anecdotally from those “in the know” on this process, it is essentially a rubber-stamp denial. This appeal is filed via Virtual MPF. If you need to remove or change a file later, the system cannot actually do this, so you’ll need to create a new appeal. Expect that no one from this office will ever answer the phone, or reply to an e-mail or Total Force Service Center question within three months. Expect your appeal to be denied, despite any number of regulations not followed, rights violated, and/or facts presented to the contrary of the OPR.
Air Force Board for Corrections of Military Records (AFBCMR). The AFBCMR is the final step in attempting to clear your records, and this appeal can only be initiated after the ERAB denies your appeal. The AFBCMR appeal is paper copy and mailed to the Air Force Personnel Center, where the same ERAB personnel have the opportunity to comment on your appeal. You receive their comments and can respond. Several iterations are possible until the whole package reaches the Pentagon and your case is scheduled for a board. Since your ADC has likely never done an AFBCMR appeal like this, consider hiring a private attorney. This process advertises taking 8 to 10 months and, based on reviews of publicly released cases, has actually overturned some reports, delivering justice approximately two years late.
Developmental Education. If you were a school Select, expect to receive a letter from the AF/A1 permanently banning you from attendance. The letter misapplies a process of voluntary declination from AFI 36-2301 and confuses school selects from a promotion board with school selects and alternates assigned to attend a specific school slot in a specific year. Additionally, the letter is placed in your permanent Officer Selection Record. If you were not a school select, there is no additional repercussion of being fired.
Inspector General (IG) Complaint. Filing an IG complaint is one option at your disposal, but you should realistically expect no results. The IG is part of “the system” which is ultimately designed to protect itself. Consider filing the complaint at the wing, major command, Secretary of the Air Force, or Department of Defense levels. Ultimately, the complaint will likely end up back at the wing level for a “complaint analysis” anyways, and while you may feel better filing at a higher level and assume that this will increase scrutiny by providing a higher review, the only likely effect is a slower processing time. AFI 90-301 governs the IG complaint resolution system, and it contains a “not all inclusive” table of 45 ways to transfer a complaint to some other agency. This regulation also requires that complaints must be filed within 60 days of the knowledge of the issue. Evaluate the regulation’s “acid test” of abuse of authority for determining an “arbitrary and capricious” act. Doing so will illuminate that this is extremely subjective and nearly impossible to either prove or disprove, so the decision will be made by someone in the chain, who at least tacitly approved your firing. Expect the investigation to be poorly conducted, completely subjective, and possibly not even interview you or any other witnesses you identify. When news of your firing spreads, others may volunteer considerable information, evidence, and statements of your former boss’s pattern of abusive behavior…consider adding this into one giant complaint. Do as much work as possible for the ultimate investigator, such as writing out the complaint analysis, acid test, etc., to doing everything you can to overcome the institutional laziness of the system and individual laziness of the assigned investigator. Write each complaint separately and redundantly, as your complaint may be chopped up and portions redacted, you can’t assume what you submit will make it to an investigator in one piece.
Article 138. Consider filing an Article 138 complaint requesting redress in any and all forms. The Air Force’s process for implementing this article under the Uniform Code of Military Justice is governed by AFI 51-904. This process allows 6 months from incident to filing, so in rare cases you may actually have IG complaint results before filing. The IG can dismiss complaints already filed under Article 138, so you should submit the IG complaint first if you intend to file both. In this process, you write the commander that wronged you, detail the wrongs, and specify requested redress(es). Your former commander then responds by denying the request. You can then submit additional information and request redress from the General Court-Martial Convening Authority (GCMCA). Unfortunately, the regulation is not clear about the chain, and due to relocations it is possible that three different GCMCA’s could be considered: your current GCMCA, your former commander’s GCMCA, or the GCMCA in your chain before you were fired. Expect a GCMCA to eventually claim a thorough review in a one to two paragraph letter denying your appeal and claiming the firing was within your Group or Wing Commander’s authority. Do not expect that the GCMCA’s thorough review of the situation will be so thorough as to actually correctly identify you in the response. The GCMCA’s response is forwarded to the Secretary of the Air Force’s legal staff, who conduct a rubber stamp review and send you another letter (which claims careful review but also may not be correctly addressed to you), closing the case.
Congressional. As recently demonstrated, it is in fact not treasonous to contact your congressional representatives. However, you should realistically not expect any actual results from this approach. As the Air Force seems to place decisions a chain made in relieving Squadron Commanders in higher regard than any core values, and defends these decisions aggressively at all costs, the Air Force can be expected to stonewall and resist any attempts by Congress to investigate, intervene, and/or aid their constituents in receiving justice. Rather than conduct a thorough review, which might possibly mean admitting a mistake, the Air Force would rather fall on its sword with Congress by stiff-arming inquiries. If you choose to request assistance from Congress, you’ll need to decide on the assistance for which to ask. Options include: expediting the OPR or ERAB and AFBCMR appeals; requesting a new investigation; requesting an answer for why you were actually fired; and requesting the Air Force explain its actions. Based on what you have already received from the chain, you could probably even write the response yourself, expecting it to look something like this: “Dear Senator/Representative, thank you for your interest in national security. Insert excuse: the review is proceeding according to established processes and will be completed as soon as possible; we could use additional manpower/funding to expedite these requests; your constituent was relieved of command because of a ‘loss of confidence’; or the situation was already duly investigated with results that were already provided. Thank you. –Air Force.” Chances are, the perpetrators of your relief will never even be aware of this as the Air Force will handle the response at Legislative Liaison level, or possibly via consultation with “experts” from the Air Force Personnel Center. Expect no further actual review or substantive results beyond paperwork getting moved around.
Too Late. Assume for a moment that your records are corrected via some miracle, maybe a GCMCA who will actually review your case which then supports an AFBCMR action. It won’t matter. It’ll almost certainly be too late to recover.
Re-hash. Unfortunately, the fact you were fired will never go away and several events will periodically bring it all back. In every security clearance investigation from now on, you’ll have to check a block and have a lengthy discussion with the investigator. Similarly, many job applications and interviews will touch on this subject. The best bet is to develop a narrative about it, learn from it, and be able to explain your lessons learned unemotionally. Your attitude will go a long way. Turn this into a strength down the road.
Good luck with future security interviews.
Public. A question you will mightily wrestle with is whether or not to go public. Perhaps the Air Force already released a statement on your firing or maybe you’ve already been on the cover of a military-focused publication. Depending on what has already been released or the circumstances of your situation, you may have nothing to lose. Consider the opportunity to share your side of events and restore your reputation while expecting the Air Force to not respond externally and senior leaders internally to just smile smugly and state “there’s more to the story.” Also consider going public as an opportunity to turn up pressure on those who treated you unfairly or to make a difference by trying to prevent others from suffering the same injustice. Going public may be therapeutic, or it may cause even more stress. Conversely, consider if you want to bring your family into the mix, the fact that your name may be tied to any google search that could adversely affect future employment, impact on ongoing and future appeals, and that the Air Force – or, more likely, others acting with tacit approval – may bring up unpleasant or private aspects of your past in vicious counter-attacks. You may simply be very private and not want your story out there, regardless of how unjustly you were treated, or you may see nothing to gain by speaking out.
Next Step. One of the steps in dealing with being fired is self-reflection, admitting what you may have done wrong, and reconciling to improve in the future. Unfortunately, in multiple cases over the past several years, Squadron Commanders have been relieved without actually doing anything wrong. Furthermore, despite exercising some combination of the above options, many have not only failed to receive justice, but have also not adequately received a truthful explanation as to why they were fired. One of the only ways to move forward is to acknowledge the disparity between your values and the values of the institution that you so loved, cherished, and assumed was in perfect alignment with your values. At this point, it’s time to consider how you could contribute to preventing others from receiving the same injustice and to start looking at other options for an earlier than expected departure from military service. “It’s not you, it’s them.”