Officer Dismissed Over Consensual Friendship

Take a look at this slice of Air Force “justice” … chronicled recently in Stars and Stripes.

Summary: Lt. Col. Denis Paquette, a deployed squadron commander, was convicted at court martial for an unprofessional relationship with an enlisted airman. He was dismissed from the Air Force after 18 years of service, losing all eligibility for VA benefits, and will be viewed as a felon in whatever state he chooses to reside. This will make Paquette nigh on unemployable, and result in a permanent loss of certain civil rights, to include the right to own a firearm.

It must be the case that Paquette and the airman were involved a torrid sexual tryst, flaunting their forbidden union to the extent that it destroyed good order and discipline, upending his ability to lead effectively. The two must have been unable to resist one another, sauntering off to shadowy bunkers in the dead of night to indulge in forbidden love.

Except those aren’t the facts at all.

From what we can see in the scant record provided, Paquette was taken to trial over a victimless, consensual, non-sexual relationship that started as mentorship and resulted in exchanges of g-rated private letters and at least one instance of the two drinking a single-digit number of beers together.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have much sympathy for Paquette. He was given the privilege of leading airmen and descended far enough from the moral high ground to leave himself open to an investigation. An investigation that found he’d developed a close friendship with a much younger and much junior female airman. A relationship prosecutors contended included sexual attraction. This isn’t the sort of conduct we expect from a commander, who is by definition paid to be the adult. Perceptions do matter, and as a commander you can’t open yourself up to stuff like this.

But from a systemic perspective, I find this alarming, with the fact no one else thinks it is alarming making it all the more alarming.

There’s no evidence these people had sex. There’s not even any conclusive proof they touched one another. The airman openly insists she is not a victim, and the prosecution neither contended nor proved that Paquette attempted to use his position or power to extract or extort anything from his female counterpart. The evidence is that he wrote inappropriate private letters to her. Private letters. This means that the provably inappropriate aspects of their relationship were not public, and therefore could not have undermined his ability to command. This is a consensual friendship between two adults that prosecutors have turned into something tawdry.

But let’s give Big Blue the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume for a moment that the energy between Paquette and this unnamed Security Force apprentice was so obvious as to distract and dismay others in the organization. Let’s assume some some of the other enlisted airmen were chagrined that Paquette might promote his perceived pal at their expense. Let’s assume one of his officer colleagues couldn’t sleep at night from the burning and itching of moral indignation that the two might be engaging in mutual mindcrime by fantasizing about one another. This still leaves the question of why such a severe course was taken.

There’s a better way to handle stuff like this.

To locate that better way, it helps to start where the chain of command and prosecution should have started — in the context and circumstances of the alleged conduct.

Paquette and Airman X were part of a whirlwind experience. They were flung into a deployed environment in an isolated region on short notice, literally tasked with building the installation they would inhabit and operate. They lived and worked in a space the size of a football field and shared the experience with 70 other airmen.

This raises a nontrivial question. If you’re a commander of 70 people in an isolated location and living with those people in a tiny camp, how do you not become familiar and even friendly with them? Especially when your Chief of Staff tells you it’s your job to know their stories. Especially when the success of the unit depends on your ability to keep airmen inspired, motivated, and contented while they are isolated and deprived, many of them on just days notice. Getting to know them is an implicit duty.

So if we accept it is not only OK but required for commanders to know their people, we’re talking about matters of degree that separate right from wrong. How well to know them is a judgement call, and anyone arguing otherwise has not worked in a unit where officers and enlisted members frequently live and work in close quarters, often becoming close. Often — gasp — drinking together.

And if it is a failure of judgement and not a clear, red-line rule that has been violated, then a court martial and dismissal are overkill.

The way to handle this was to give Paquette a warning when his conduct was noted and put him back to work. If he then repeated the failure of judgement, the conclusion should have been that he wasn’t cut out for command. He should have been relieved and sent home, a replacement sent in his stead. An explanation should have been issued for why he was fired — thereby deterring others and affirming confidence in the chain of command — and whoever made the decision to hire and deploy him should have been prevailed upon for an explanation as to why this streak of leadership pathology escaped prior notice.

Instead, we created a villain to collect all of the blame, in the process calling more attention to a situation that did not need to be widely known. We took an officer who had redeemable value and threw him on the human rubbish pile over a victimless and consensual relationship that does not appear to have done any harm.

Never mind the expense of flying in 15 witnesses from all over the world. Never mind the time wasted by prosecutors and investigators that could have and should have been spent on real crimes with actual victims. Never mind that OSI investigators were so desperate to make the case worthwhile that they tried to turn an alleged thigh touch into “abusive sexual contact” … a baseless charge resting on an act never proven to have occurred. What we should be noticing here is the extinguishing of individual justice in the pursuit of political approval.

Far as I can see, the worst thing Paquette is guilty of is being a 40-plus heterosexual with a friendly disposition and relatively senior rank. In the totally insane times we inhabit, this made him an irresistible target for a system bent on showing it will destroy defendants whose demise aligns with the prevailing political narrative.

This looks to me like an irresponsible commander who needed to be relieved and perhaps mildly punished. But the prosecution that ultimately condemned him is even more irresponsible … for leveraging the life of a human being as collateral in a bid for a Congressional pat on the head.

Don’t look for anyone to do anything about this. We’re punishing leaders for leadership failures within an ironically leaderless environment.

Parting thought: if the young airman had been male … would the result have been the same? What if both the commander and airman had been female?

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