Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, published a letter to all Navy flag officers and senior civilians on May 12th. His message, delivered with blunt eloquence, was to remind the service’s most senior officers of their duty to remain tethered to moral and ethical moorings.
We’re sharing Richardson’s missive here for a few reasons, but most of all because it illuminates a stark contrast in the leadership approaches taken by the senior leaders of the Navy and Air Force.
Around the same time Richardson was publishing his letter, the Air Force was approving the in-grade retirement of Lt. Gen. John Hesterman despite a Inspector General finding that he conducted an inappropriate relationship with the spouse of a subordinate. This is the sort of conduct that often results in harsh punishment for the rank-and-file, and if there is a suspicion of unlawful sexual activity, a court-martial is a foregone conclusion for mere mortals.
The Hesterman debacle reinforces the growing recognition of an unfair disciplinary double-standard across the Air Force. Ordinary airmen — translated generally as officers below wing command who lack powerful sponsors and enlisted members who aren’t command chiefs — routinely lose their careers and reputations over penny ante mistakes that are eminently remediable and should be character-enhancing rather than life-crushing.
But for the empowered, anything short of being caught on video nude at a Communist party meeting is survivable. Worst case, you’ll be asked to quietly retire.
For example, three instructor pilot captains at Laughlin Air Force Base were reprimanded, permanently grounded, and given unfavorable performance appraisals because they were suspected of drug use based solely on their private text messages. Other officers who stuck up for them had their performance reports downgraded. When it was later determined that the charges had been unfounded and exculpatory evidence had been ignored, the wing commander who led the witch hunt wasn’t even investigated, much less disciplined.
After overseeing the witch hunt at Laughlin and doing nothing to stop it, Gen. Robin Rand was given the reins of another major command.
When Rand’s subordinate, Maj. Gen. Mike Keltz, unloaded a racist slur during a public disciplinary hearing connected to the witch hunt he had at least partially honcho’d, he was promptly approved for in-grade retirement with no disciplinary review.
When Brig. Gen. Kathleen Cook retweeted an inappropriate partisan message about the Obama Administration, she was permitted to investigate herself, predictably find nothing, and simply claim she didn’t know what happened.
When Gen. Darren McDew inappropriately discussed protected information about an Inspector General complaint with an audience that included someone involved in the situation, nothing was done to address the mistake.
When Maj. Gen. Mark Brown publicly disparaged a fellow officer in front of a crowd of airmen, nothing was done.
Blair Kaiser, Craig Perry, and Lance Annicelli were all relieved from squadron command without proper cause. In each case the wing commander involved faced no discipline, and if they were scrutinized at all, it was done quietly and without public accountability.
When Maj. Gen. James Post was found to have unlawfully restricted officers by labeling them traitors if they didn’t agree with the service’s budget positions, he was given a stock reprimand and promoted to a position of greater responsibility.
When issues of institutional neglect triggered morale and misconduct issues across the nuclear ICBM community, the damage was tied off below senior command levels, with key decision makers keeping their jobs while scores of lower-ranking airmen were marched to the professional gallows.
These are just a few examples touching on relatively clear violations of rules and ethics. The pattern holds when it comes to sheer incompetence as well. Look no further than how service generals ignored warnings of an approaching shortage of pilots and maintainers until it was too late to do anything about it, placing national security at risk by mismanaging their most precious resources.
Not one senior official has lost his or her job for running the service off the rails, and most of the key players have actually been promoted. Meanwhile, airmen who misplace tools, lose copies of paperwork, or miss appointments are crushed.
With each one of these regrettable episodes (and a score of others not publicly reported but still known within and across organizations), the Air Force has corroded the critical bonds of trust and confidence between senior leaders and ordinary airmen. People are tired of hearing platitudes about accountability and commitment to values … when the service’s actions at the top level tell a different tale.
This is how organizations collapse. Nothing is more toxic than a double standard, because it offends the basic sense of fairness embedded in the egalitarian ethos of a military service. If indeed we’re a fighting team, then we all live by the same rules … or so says tradition. When that basic logic is poisoned by tolerance of a status-based double-standard, everything breaks down. Morale, discipline, order … the whole fabric starts to come apart … because at the end of the day, it’s only possible to lead those who have given their consent to be led. And no one will consent to following someone who isn’t on the same team.
Admiral Richardson seems to understand this. He reminds flag officers that checking with a lawyer may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient. He warns against entitlement, ambition, selfishness, and other impulses that often lead senior leaders astray. Most importantly, he reminds his colleagues that the values of the Navy are those evident from the actions — not the words — of its leaders.
This is a message Gen. Mark Welsh would do well to consider, because if airmen were to list the Air Force’s core value according to the conduct they observe from their generals, the resulting list would be justifiably disturbing.
Admiral Richardson’s letter:
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This is not to say that everything is sweetness and light in the Navy. It’s a service with its own problems. But at least the CNO is willing to say the right things, publicly, to those who need to hear them … rather than merely mouthing them to captive audiences of junior personnel. His letter admits there is a problem, which is the first step toward fixing anything.
The contrast with the USAF couldn’t be more stark. Gen. Welsh continues to say publicly that morale is pretty darn good in the service, and has never conceded there might be an ethics problem among his generals. What’s happening instead is that junior airmen are facing an endless stream of policies designed to tighten the reins and clamp down on them ever more … as Welsh and others seem to sense growing disquiet even as they publicly say otherwise.
I’m often told — both directly and indirectly — by today’s Air Force senior leaders that the justification for control-oriented disciplinary and human resource policies is that they don’t want to see a repeat of the Vietnam-era Army … with a severe breakdown in morale leading to intra-service violence and a total loss of unit cohesion.
But by their actions — and the variance of those actions with their spoken words — the generals are making such a breakdown more likely. They forget that the Vietnam Army wasn’t broken so much by Vietnam as by itself … through a decade and a half of bad decisions, entitled and otherwise poor leadership, and fundamental neglect of the company-level soldier. The old Army was broken as much by aloof bureaucrats playing micromanagerial warrior from a hovering helicopter — while real soldiers fought and bled their way through absurdly idiotic plans in the jungles below — as by anything or anyone else.
If today’s Air Force generals are to learn from history, they need to dismount the All-Call stage, stop yammering on and on about core value, and start living them. Gen. Welsh could start by writing his own letter like this one. Airmen are eager for him to stop cheerleading and start leading — even when it means holding his cronies to account.
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