Laughlin Wing Commander Restricts Reprimand Authority

Col. Thomas Shank speaks at an Air Force Ball ceremony in 2014. Shank recently issued guidance to his wing at Laughlin reining in authority to issue punitive reprimands to officers. (Air Force photo).
Col. Thomas Shank speaks at an Air Force Ball ceremony in 2014. Shank recently issued guidance to his wing at Laughlin reining in authority to issue punitive reprimands to officers. (Air Force photo).

In advance of the results of a senior-level review of reprimands issued to several officers in the debacle now known as Miley Gate, the commander of Laughlin’s 47th Flying Training Wing, Col. Thomas B. Shank, is placing new limits on reprimand authority within his noticeably troubled organization.

Shank’s predecessor, Col. Brian Hastings, reprimanded and permanently grounded three Laughlin instructor pilots after accusing them of drug use, refusing to rescind the career-ending letters after drug tests disproved the allegations. After media coverage sparked acute concern among airmen and in Congress, Gen. Mark Welsh ordered an inquiry into whether the punishments were appropriate. The results of that investigation are expected any day.

Perhaps reading the tea leaves (or perhaps coincidental, if you believe in that sort of thing), Shank’s new policy relays appropriate concern about the profound and life-altering consequences of an officer reprimand. It then goes a step further, removing issuing authority from squadron commanders.

Here’s a screen capture of the letter, which went out to all Laughlin commanders and supervisors.

LOR Screenshot

In one sense, Shank’s adjustment can be seen lifting authority to the level where it should reside. A reprimand essentially ruins an officer’s future and jeopardizes the feasibility of a career. This rule becomes less fixed as officers ascend in rank and status, but is certainly the case for majors and below. The power to end a career approximating the sort of severe outcome traditionally only available through judicial or non-judicial punishment, it should arguably reside with someone who has that kind of authority.

But in another sense, Shank’s input misapprehends the problem. The punishments that kicked off the scandal at Laughlin were issued by group and wing commanders. To the extent those punishments demonstrate a flaw in the Air Force’s leader development process, this move won’t negate that flaw. If anything, it further marginalizes the voices of squadron commanders who are best positioned to administer discipline that constructively accounts for both the mission and the rehabilitation of careers often worth preserving.

The great irony here is that reprimands became mandatory enclosures in officer personnel files because senior leaders were concerned the Air Force was promoting bad apples and wanted them to be more easily identified. Rather than focus on growing better apples, they decided to micromanage the accountability process. Now, faced with the adverse consequences of that micromanagement, they’re tightening the screws even more.

It’s all an elaborate and confused substitute for appropriate trust and latitude at each level of command, and it’ll only warp the system even more, throwing it further out of balance.

For a decade now, the Air Force has been reducing the authority vested in its squadron commanders. This has sometimes been done directly, as in this example. But more often, the corrosion has been more subtle and indirect, with losses of manpower, money, and process ownership gradually turning commanders into button-pushing clerks and caretakers rather than leaders entrusted to speak and act on behalf of the service.  

This is a reckless trend. As squadrons go, so will go the Air Force, and they can’t thrive if they’re being led from standoff by tower-perched colonels and generals. As the Air Force responds corporately to questions about its ability to administer justice and conduct discipline, it is disempowering squadrons as a defense mechanism. What no one seems to realize is that the squadron is the Air Force, so anything that degrades it degrades the service overall.

One thing is clear: Shank senses something is amiss with officer reprimands, and is taking steps to control it within his own sphere of influence. Whether the imminent report on the fate of the Molly Three catalyzes the Air Force to take a more comprehensive look is an open question, and hopefully one that will be answered soon.

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