Losing Confidence: Damage Control Backfires as 4-star Confronts Disquieted Airmen

General Darren McDew is the Commander of Air Mobility Command, an organization recently embroiled in controversy concerning the firings of multiple squadron commanders.  His recent attempt at steering the narrative may have backfired, or may provide a great opportunity to regroup.  It's a decision that rests in McDew's own hands.
General Darren McDew is the Commander of Air Mobility Command, an organization recently embroiled in controversy concerning the firings of multiple squadron commanders. His recent attempt at steering the narrative may have backfired, or may provide a great opportunity to regroup. It’s a decision that rests in McDew’s own hands.


JQP featured a long-form case study last week about the seemingly arbitrary sacking of an Air Mobility Command (AMC) squadron commander and the implications of this and other recent firings for an Air Force struggling to prove to legislators, the public, and even its own airmen that it does not have an ethics problem.  The response to last week’s article was forceful, and it has reportedly stirred reactions at the highest levels of command.

Before proceeding, a brief disclaimer is in order.  This story is based on hearsay, meaning the information giving rise to this story was passed through intermediaries before being shared with JQP rather than coming from those directly involved.  The nature of the information makes it easy to understand why direct participants would be reticent to share it for fear of reprisal — the constant handmaiden to caprice we’ve been documenting here recently, and a genuine concern for airmen whose livelihoods continue only by the good graces of the very commanders we’ve been discussing.  Even the multiple intermediary sources for this story were not willing to share without anonymity, but their accounts sufficiently corroborated one another to an extent that made the information credible.

The obvious question begged is why publish a story that can’t be verified first-hand?  The answer is intuitive, though not free from controversy: because the discussion reachable by sharing the story is important enough to justify the risk of minor factual inaccuracies or the injuries those inaccuracies might inflict on JQP’s credibility, which is only worth safeguarding to the extent the writings here can make a difference in the issues covered.  This story can advance a discussion with the promise of making a difference, and that’s the mission of JQP, so we take the risk that it might alienate a few readers who prefer traditionally grounded journalism.  With that said, I hope all will trust that diligence and honorable intent were held in center focus as this article was crafted.

Mentoring Session.

The reporting done last week on Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser’s firing apparently captured the attention of General Darren McDew.  McDew is Commander of Air Mobility Command (AMC/CC), which administratively owns Little Rock Air Force Base’s 19th Airlift Wing (19 AW), the command within which Kaiser’s firing took place.  The precise nature of McDew’s interest in last week’s article is not something he has publicly shared, but for whatever reason, he elected to discuss last week’s blog post and its subject matter with a group of majors visiting his headquarters for orientation as they began a year of developmental education in the School for the Advanced Study of Air Mobility (ASAM).  It’s standard practice for this group of 20 or so O-4s to meet with AMC/CC for orientation.  It is not standard practice for him to discuss with them matters under review in a congressional inquiry  — matters that also involve protected communications from an Inspector General (IG) inquiry. 

McDew reportedly decided to use the ASAM orientation meeting as an opportunity to address last week’s blog with these future AMC leaders, and to workshop with them how he might deal with or respond to its implications.  This is a good impulse.  The best evidence indicates that Air Force officers, especially those on the leadership track and most especially those in AMC, are consistently reading here at JQP, and that their participation here is catalyzing discussion and debate within the walls of the Air Force that is important and overdue.  It’s also very astute for any senior leader to seek the insights of his “braintrust” . . . generally represented by field grade officers (FGOs) who have both experience and education feeding their curiosities as they transition from leading small teams to commanding large organizations.

But the resulting conversation wasn’t just McDew consulting and workshopping with the ASAM braintrust.  Reportedly, both they and he exchange candid opinions about the Kaiser firing and its implications.  Remember, this discussion is being chaired by the 4-star boss of the wing commander who did the firing, meaning he probably endorsed the firing before the fact and barring that, certainly “bought” the wing commander’s decision after-the-fact.  This is standard Air Force practice, and explains why firings are seldom reversed. Remember also that McDew himself has been obliquely implicated in the firing, in that an officer widely thought to be McDew’s protégé stepped into permanent command as a function of Kaiser being pushed aside.  Bear in mind also that multiple investigations into both Kaiser and the 30th Airlift Squadron (30 AS) fell within the administrative ambit of McDew’s command, making his discussion of or opining upon any of their included matters a minefield of perceived or actual command influence.  With that context set, consider the significance of what happened next.

At some point in the conversation, a female member of the audience raised her hand and declared that she was uncomfortable.  As it turned out, she had good reason to be disquieted: she was the complaining party in the IG investigation McDew had placed at the center of the discussion, and she had complained under the promise of protected communication with the IG.  This likely made it a complete shock to her when the big boss of her entire community, to whom that IG reports, delved into the details of her case in such a setting.  Throughout the conversation, McDew had allegedly been using the first name of the complainant, and other details of the case had already been made public and were known to members of the audience. This meant that at some point, she realized her peers might be concluding she was the source of the complaint being discussed.

Given that the investigation involved sensitive allegations of gender bias, it’s easy to imagine that opinions hostile to her complaint would have become excruciating for her to endure, especially in the presence of the 4-star.  This possibility – of being dragged through the mud — is exactly the fear that chills many potential complainants from using the IG process.  To have it done at the hands of such a senior officer is unimaginable.

Realizing immediately he’d made a mistake, McDew pulled the outed officer aside and reportedly apologized in a private meeting. What is not known or knowable is what damage the incident may have done to this officer’s reputation with her classmates – peers with whom she’ll theoretically share the endeavor of leading airmen in the years to come. 

The next day, McDew cleared a few hours from his calendar and met once again with the ASAM cohort.  This time, his lawyer and other staff were present as he reportedly spent two full hours on a methodical walk-through of talking points. Observers took this as an attempt to repair the damage of the previous day, complete with witnesses in attendance to corroborate his account later.

What to Make of This?

General McDew’s reported interaction with the majors of ASAM is an important reflection from the Kaiser story, and an opportunity to extract lessons and raise new questions.

McDew’s choice to discuss the matter with the ASAM cohort is not necessarily a huge misstep or error of judgment.  More significant is the choice to do so without knowing the audience, and this could reflect one of a couple of things.  It might mean he simply didn’t prepare well enough or give his staff the chance to prepare him.  This is not uncommon for someone with a schedule like McDew’s.  But it might also mean that he and his staff (to the extent they knew in advance his intent and felt free to register candid opinions with him about it) didn’t have enough curiosity about the audience, which is another way of saying there may not have been enough sensitivity about the issues to be discussed.

While not clear error, the general’s choice to engage this subject in the manner he selected is odd.  Viewed in the most favorable light, he was attempting to teach future leaders about the anatomy of power relationships, the relative merits of hiring or firing certain subordinate commanders, or perhaps giving learned advice on dealing with sensitive issues of unit climate.  Viewed more objectively, it could be perceived that McDew was simply trying to influence the thinking of his officers, sharing details to which they wouldn’t otherwise be privy as a way of tamping down the growing discontent over toxic leadership and perceived arbitrary firings at Little Rock and elsewhere in AMC. 

Viewed less favorably, his choice could be seen as a potentially inappropriate disclosure of protected communications or otherwise private information.   To the extent the IG complainant felt compelled to raise her hand and stop discussion, it’s fair to conclude that enough detail was shared for some sort of disclosure rule to apply.  Since privacy and protected communication are the bases upon which the Air Force has not been publicly responsive in the Kaiser case, McDew’s willingness to share these details with officers uninvolved in the underlying issues creates an inconsistency.  Whether the general was complicit in violating (or creating an ad hoc exception to) disclosure policy or whether the information he revealed is not covered by such a policy, it seems more blatantly compelling than ever that both Blair Kaiser and the airmen of the 30 AS are entitled to an explanation about his firing. 

Some will wonder if this is an example of a senior leader out of touch.  The Kaiser story, and the Craig Perry debacle before it — are raising anxieties among airmen about whether the service to which they’ve dedicated themselves is functioning properly.  The blog published last week provided an opportunity for General McDew to address the issue and lay it to rest by providing a clear explanation, which is the only thing airmen will accept at this point, having forsaken platitudes and appeals for blind trust in the generally anxious context of the moment.  This was (and remains) an opportunity for AMC to strengthen the bond with its airmen by doing the right thing.  To the extent McDew’s mentorship session was an opportunity to resist dissent or exert influence rather than to take decisive steps to remedy the situation, it might reflect that he doesn’t appreciate the seriousness with which airmen are viewing this situation.

This connects to a pattern I’ve noted lately and discussed offline with many officers still actively serving, most of whom agree that senior leaders are not recognizing the depth of the problems they need to solve, and are thus treating things superficially while actively working to remain out of touch with the truly concerning direction of the service.  For more than a decade, the Air Force has been growing less democratic and more centralized.  Things have reached such an onerous point in some quarters that the culture of the institution has begun to offend basic American values, and this has ignited a democratization movement of sorts within the service.  Social media is part of what enables this movement, which is mostly championed by people who were around before 9/11/01 and recall an AF modeled on participative leadership and decentralization rather than autocracy and the provision of risk-averse, politically correct, bureaucratic answers to combat or otherwise military problems. 

Alcohol prohibitions, curfews, investigative witch-hunts, bad firings, micromanagement, personnel management absurdity, and the loss of human resources and genuine authority at the squadron commander level . . . these issues have become important conversations in the blogosphere.  To the extent General McDew has spent energy trying to marginalize and undercut JQP and others in his recent travels (as reports indicate), he is missing an opportunity to keep discussion flowing and pick up key signals from his people.  The military will never be a democracy.  But for it to remain a benevolent dictatorship, leaders must never exceed the moral bounds of their authority. 

There’s another inherent inconsistency in McDew’s choice of subject matter that is worth registering here.  As I wrote a few days ago, it was in large part McDew’s well-known concern about the gender bias complaint filed from within the 30 AS that set the conditions for Blair Kaiser to be fired on the basis of unrelated and unproven allegations.  But if McDew believed this was a serious issue warranting the firing of a squadron commander — a decision he most likely endorsed before the fact but at least knew about after — why would he talk about it while it was still a matter of congressional inquiry?  Given the significance of firing a commander over the issue, why wouldn’t he recognize the name of the officer involved and spot her in the audience? 

Even with the best of intentions, the general may have unwittingly facilitated the re-victimization of the complainant, putting her in a position where revealing herself as the source of protected communication was the only way for her to halt the re-victimization. Did McDew really believe the complaint was serious enough to justify Kaiser’s sacking (notwithstanding Kaiser wasn’t named in the complaint)?  If so, it doesn’t make sense he would discuss it openly (one might argue carelessly) with uninvolved parties.  If not, Kaiser’s firing should be wholly revisited, given that the Air Force has cited these same unit climate issues in explaining Kaiser’s relief to a U.S. Senator.  Either way, it’s fair for the airmen of AMC — in particular squadron commanders — to ask General McDew to reconcile this conflict for them so they can operate on a system of stable expectations.

Finally, one last question raised by this reported incident is whether General McDew is willing, under the right circumstances, to change course after making or endorsing a decision. It’s possible that at the time Kaiser was relieved, it seemed to McDew a supportable decision.  But since that time, with multiple investigations demonstrating that the allegations implicating Kaiser had no factual basis, it’s fair to wonder why McDew has not rescinded his endorsement and directed Col. Patrick Rhatigan, 19th AW Commander and the man who fired Kaiser, to give the situation a fresh review. 

The answer to that question might lie in the question itself.  As AMC’s leader, McDew is in some sense responsible for the conduct and policy choices of his wing commanders, and would therefore lose some credibility in that respect if it were to turn out he hired or tolerated a wing commander who’d behaved unethically.  This becomes more true the longer such a wing commander is allowed to run amok, as each important decision made is actually or perceptually adopted from on high.  This might explain why McDew hasn’t acted to reign in Col. Rhatigan despite some signals that Little Rock is coming apart.  With three squadron commanders and an operations officer (who was himself slated to take command of another squadron within months) fired within a short space of time, it’s fair to question whether all is well within Rhatigan’s kingdom.  Score of additional anecdotes indicating toxicity at Little Rock have been registered on social media outlets but will not be published here, at least until they have been corroborated. 

The one allegation that has been made corroboratively by dozens of airmen is that Rhatigan came to command stating flatly that he didn’t believe in many aspects of the C-130’s tactical airlift mission and generally felt the crew force was not professional enough, even before having observed their performance first-hand. To some, this seemed like the kind of impression-based leadership too often seen in AMC but not unexpected.  To others, it was more serious — a prejudicial indictment of airmen Rhatigan was hired to lead, inspire, and care for.  This was a valid reason for many to doubt his bona fides as a commander, and it is said that he’s only doubled down on his contempt for the C-130 mission in the time since.  At the very least, there is evidence Rhatigan despises many of his own people, and that should be cause for McDew to at least question some of Rhatigan’s decisions, if not to order an investigation into the command climate in the 19th. Lack of cohesion at a flagship airlift wing should be at or near the top of McDew’s list of concerns, easily outdistancing his compulsion to quarrel with bloggers or workshop with ASAM students.  The general, with all due respect, should be less concerned with message control and message delivery and more concerned with the substance of issues, which speaks louder than words ever could. 

Perspective

Does any of this make General McDew condemnable?  No.  In fact, as I’ve written here many times previously, honest mistakes that don’t involve criminality or hurt anyone are to be embraced.  We learn much more from them than from our successes.  But this should hopefully be a reminder to McDew that anyone is capable of making honest mistakes, even the seemingly infallible 4-star.  The benefit of the doubt to which McDew is entitled as a function of the special trust and confidence placed in him is the same benefit of the doubt to which others are entitled.  As a commander, he gets an additional presumption of honor that other commanders are also supposed to enjoy.  This is the benefit of the doubt Blair Kaiser never got.  As I’ve written repeatedly with respect to the Kaiser case, there is zero chance that Colonel Kaiser is a perfect human being or an infallible leader.  There is no doubt he made mistakes.  The question isn’t whether he’s ever made an error, but whether he recovered from errors appropriately and whether their commission should have any bearing on his ability to command effectively.  Even more significant is whether the process used to answer the previous question was fair, and free from undue influence.  To the extent he made a mistake, the same test should apply to McDew.

This is a Call

The reason this blog is able to tell vivid stories about the Air Force is because airmen are tired of the direction of the institution and its leadership.  Tired enough to keep this and other media outlets supplied with credible reporting. In the current institutional environment, the chance that General McDew or others similarly situated can turn the tide of internal opinion by tamping down commentators like JQP is something approaching nil.  In fact, even delivering his own message would likely leave McDew short of the tipping point he ostensibly seeks in bringing airmen back to a posture of faith in the chain of command. 

Despite his enormous influence and the broad respect he has cultivated throughout a distinguished career, airmen love the Air Force too much and are too intelligent to settle for lip service from McDew.  He and others will instead have to institute meaningful change.  This means recalibrating power relationships, restoring squadrons to their former glory as the focal organizations of the Air Force, pushing authority down to where it belongs, and listening earnestly to the concerns of airmen when they push back.  It means knocking off the constant tests of commitment misguidedly administered to volunteers who raised their hands to join or stay during a time of war.  It means knocking off the “seniority culture” of the Air Force and rolling up shirtsleeves to focus on mission-focused business rather than ancillary or saccharine dog-and-pony garbage.  When those things happen, airmen will unplug from this blog and rejoin on their leaders.  This blog will be happy to see that day come.

I’ve been writing about toxic leadership not to make trouble for General McDew.  He’s a respected senior officer with whom I’ve had a long association, and there is neither personal malice nor professional grievance between us.  I dare say my own squadron command would not have happened without his blessing, though I speculate in doing so.

I write about this issue because I share the objectives of McDew, General Welsh, and so many others, who want to see an AF vibrant and healthy as it protects American interests.  McDew should not respond to these well-meaning inputs by trying to tamp them down. These are opportunities to see and address dysfunction and correct wrongs that have sprung up in his blind spot.  Of course, some believe McDew represents the problem.  That he has sponsored some of the wrong officers and championed practices that feed narcissism and toxicity among the senior officer corps in AMC and elsewhere.  That he has placed too much value on appearances and not enough on substance.  It’s up to McDew to prove these propositions wrong.

Final Note

Some of you reading this piece are aware of the identity of the individual who originated the IG complaint mentioned.  That officer’s name has not been used in this piece and is not welcome in reaction to it.  However anyone might feel about the veracity of the complaints she made or what might have motivated them, two things are true.  First, she is entitled to make protected communications without having her identity revealed in association with them, which exposes her to reprisal of various forms.  Second, this individual is entitled to the same due process as those she accused, and should be extended respect and dignity as that process is conducted.  I implore commenters to refrain from making this a referendum on her character, and to instead focus on the main subject matter.


Comments are closed.