Laughlin: Updating An Unnecessary But Instructive Scandal


Reaction to a story posted here a few days ago has been remarkable in a number of ways, creating a timely moment for reflection on some of the deeper meaning behind a damaging scandal that — for lack of effective leadership — simply won’t die.

For the uninitiated, Laughlin is an Air Force Base in Texas where the service trains roughly a quarter of its pilots. It’s also the name given to a scandal involving investigations into those pilots. What started as an inquiry into sexual improprieties between a few instructors and a few students at the base broadened into a wide-ranging survey of the private communications of others not engaging in misconduct. It devolved into a witch hunt. Exculpatory evidence was ignored as commanders at multiple levels rushed to judgment, destroying the careers of multiple officers with false drug charges.

A recent inquiry cleared those officers of drug-related wrongdoing, but Laughlin, under direction from its parent Air Education and Training Command (and perhaps higher) is continuing to punish some of them. One in particular — “IP7” — is being denied requalification as a pilot and processed for a short-notice discharge. His commanders have claimed they lack the resources to restore him to the level of qualification he held before the false drug charges were levied, a claim that resulted in Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) sending Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh a series of tough questions about resource utilization.

Those questions have, thus far, gone unaddressed, as have additional questions about how a retired 2-star general seemingly became privy to an investigation report the service has refused to share with the complainants.

The controversial recent post involves a photo provided by several sources at Laughlin who supported its authenticity with additional information. The photo told the story of a training sortie conducted with the primary purpose of retrieving shrimp sandwiches from Chennault, Louisiana for a chapel event. Someone in the squadron had undertaken a well-intentioned obligation to help with the event, reportedly compelling Operations Officer Lt. Col. Brian Burke to change the destination of the sortie from Lubbock, Texas to Lake Charles, Louisiana to orchestrate retrieval of the coveted supplies. While some training was logged on the flight, none of it was essential and none of it required Lake Charles as a destination.

What we can safely conclude is that while the sortie wasn’t a total waste, it represents the availability of resources Laughlin claims it doesn’t have. A squadron lacking the resources to re-train an instructor doesn’t use a T-1 sortie in this way.

To be clear, the point of sharing the photo was not to decry the sortie per se, though pointing out its dubious core objective unavoidably incidental to telling this particular chapter of the Laughlin story. Every day across the Air Force, valid training objectives get accomplished on missions conducted in furtherance of specious objectives. Making the best of such situations — and even extracting “good deals” from them — is part of life in the Air Force. 

But the real point of exposing the mission was to expose the lie about lacking resources to requalify IP7. If Laughlin is able to bend a training mission around the need to retrieve supplies for a “Single Airman’s Dinner,” it is able to bend its resource model sufficient to do right by one of its instructors wrongly grounded by the chain of command. Indeed, IP7 could have logged training requirements toward his requalification on the Lake Charles mission, especially given that at least one of the pilots who flew it had no required training to accomplish.

Reaction to the post, both at Laughlin and elsewhere, extends the story.

One notable reaction unfolded the day after the post went public. Ops Officer Burke reportedly went ballistic, holding a series of squadron meetings in which he berated whoever shared the photo as “unprofessional” and did his best to ferret out the source and intimidate anyone else considering sharing information to the media. He also reportedly enacted new policies tightening down on various uses of training hours.

Part of Burke’s schtick was reportedly to vilify this blog, claiming my article had accused Laughlin instructor pilots of actively advancing a wasteful culture. This is a silly idea. Just as the airlift pilots who transported goats, used tires, empty pallets, and scrap metal into Afghanistan over the years were free from culpability in the wasteful culture into which they were powerlessly co-opted, the actual operators of the Chennault sortie were not the targets of any actual or implied criticism. My guess is Burke knows this.

His apparent reaction was misguided in other ways, though I should be clear that I’m not personalizing criticism to Burke so much as aiming it toward the system and culture his reported actions exemplify.

First, focusing on trying to determine the origins of information appearing in the media is a waste of time and a misapprehension of the problem. I have well more than a dozen sources at Laughlin, including many in places no one would suspect. His suspicion that my information is coming from a few malcontents is baseless. People are broadly disgusted with the state of morale and leadership at Laughlin, and they’re talking about it, even if there isn’t universal agreement about the advisability or constructiveness of every editorial choice made here.

When inconvenient information becomes public, focusing on how it got released and vilifying whoever released it as a “mole” or a “spy” or a “traitor” is a waste of energy. Better to focus on why there exists such an energetic and widespread willingness to share, corroborate, and assist with the analysis of unfavorable information from within the Laughlin community. Addressing why people feel their only recourse is to talk to the media — or in many cases, members of Congress — would be a much better use of leadership energies than hounding those acting against every impulse in their socialization to speak out.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand and even identify with the longstanding cultural preference for keeping things in-house and refusing to air dirty laundry. But that preference has historically assumed a responsive chain of command willing to genuinely and honestly address grievances in-house … a chain of command willing to listen and that could be trusted to do the right thing. Such assumptions having been invalidated at Laughlin and elsewhere, no one should be surprised people are speaking out. They’re not “rats” as the quasi-fascists de-humanizing them would have us believe … they’re concerned wingmen trying to force a solution to the root problem of failed, toxic, abusive leadership, precisely because they care about more than their narrow self-interests.

Burke’s reported alteration of training policy is downright eyebrow-raising. It’s either an admission that the reporting validly exposed waste, an attempt to “fire for effect” to dissuade any official curiosity about possible wasteful practices, or a shrewd attempt to engender resentment among his own crew force, knowing the locus of that resentment will likely come to rest on the shoulders of IP7 and others whose cases have given rise to the whole sordid mess.

If that was his tactic, it may be working.

The online reaction over the last few days has been disconcerting in part. It turns out that for some, concern over the abuse of fellow airmen only stretches to the point where self-interest is implicated.

A number of anonymous commenters have made it clear that as much as they agree that IP7 and others at Laughlin have been unfairly treated, and as much as they agree that the chain of command is telling a whopper of a lie when it cites “lack of resources” as an excuse, they’re hostile to any truth-telling exercise that might raise questions about how Laughlin instructor continuation sorties are managed.

They fear, as Burke has already somewhat already validated, that leaders will respond to bad publicity by outlawing any use of training time that might raise even the vaguest suspicion of waste … and that this approach will constrain their latitude and extinguish what little remaining fun they’re able to squeeze out of working in an otherwise miserable environment. They’re also, if I’m being charitable, animated by a sense of mutual support … they don’t like the idea of some of their friends being negatively associated with a wasteful activity, and are responding accordingly.

It’s not a surprising or necessarily invalid response. Laughlin leaders have shown that they will, as a default, overreact to external pressure at the expense of individual outcomes.

But ultimately, this is a morally unacceptable position to take. It implies that the destruction of a fellow officer behind a veil of hypocritical dishonesty is acceptable if lifting that veil might threaten dearly-held interests. This is exactly why the Air Force is in so much trouble … a state of moral rot that has legitimized the unwarranted exertion of power so long as that exertion is undertaken to protect an important institutional interest … like looking tough on sexual assault, maintaining total control of the justice process, or advancing a particular budgetary position.

In this case, some folks would rather I not write a story that exposes a lie if it might mean collateral damage to their culture, their community, and their camaraderie. This is understandable. But what they’re forgetting, or stepping too quickly past, is that individuals matter. How they and their families are treated matters. It matters as much as anything. A status quo within which this kind of abuse occurs is a fool’s paradise, and not worth preserving.

Some will recall the sequence from the 2000 movie “The Beach,” in which the victim of a shark attack is exiled from a secluded commune because his suffering is ruining everyone’s fun. Each of the members of the commune claims to feel sympathy for the hapless man, whose condition continually worsens as the group refuses to jeopardize the secrecy of their beloved outpost to seek medical care. Some members genuinely do feel sympathy. But in the end, they’re happy to see him die … because it allows them to return to their hedonistic existence, free from the nagging intrusion of too much reality.

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In the end, the commune collapsed under the weight of its own moral baggage. So might it be for Laughlin or any other community unwilling to maintain an unequivocal position on the tolerance of abusive misconduct by senior officials. Whatever the costs of exposing it, the costs of not doing so are higher … and we can’t claim the mantle of moral or righteous conduct unless we’re affirming the dignity, worth, and fair treatment of individuals caught in the toxic cross-hairs.

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50 years ago, Col. John Boyd began developing theories that he would nurture into maturation over the next couple of decades. One of these postulated that conducting activity on a cyclic rate appreciably higher than the rate achievable by an adversary would result in that adversary reacting out-of-phase, wasting energy on maneuvers that had no relationship to the contemporary position or energy state of the opposing actor. Boyd understood that speed of maneuver could eventually create such a disparity in energy level between adversaries that the slower reacting force would be rendered toothless, vulnerable, and subject to easy anticipation.

Such it is with the current state of Air Force communication with Information Age media outlets such as this one. While Burke was busy wasting energy hounding “moles” for sharing information, the essential truths exposed were rippling through the information environment, creating new conversations and influencing attitudes. By the time he settles himself with the reality that he can never know the multiple identities of those in the 86th more committed to truth-telling than muzzle-affixed loyalty, two or three more chapters of the story will have been written, and he’ll have missed his chance to influence the discourse.

But he’s simply exemplifying the way the Air Force communicates. Neither he nor the Air Force have taken Boyd’s lesson … and thus, entropy at Laughlin and across the service continues.

I’m somewhere between disappointed and mystified that this is the case in an organization whose life began with the invention of the Signal Corps … an organization that has long understood rapid action was the key to strategic advantage … an organization that continually claims the mantle of innovation.

I’m sincerely hopeful that in the time ahead, we’ll see less energy invested in useless attempts to control information and more energy committed to rapidly communicating the truth. Honest answers to fair questions are the ultimate and instant antidote to scandal. Honesty obliterates distraction. Candid communication rallies and focuses groups of people with common objectives … it distills what matters from what doesn’t. It engenders trust, reducing the need for constant surveillance and monitoring.

With all the sincerity I can muster, I yearn for the rapid closure of the Laughlin scandal, which is easily achievable with clear, honest communication and the action to back it up. In the Air Force I joined, this was most of leadership.

All of this, of course, begins with a commitment to actually telling the truth. On this score, Laughlin and the Air Force have a lot of work to do, as this unnecessary mess continues to demonstrate.

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