Open Letter on Seventh Air Force Orientation: Leadership or Helicopter Parenting?

Welcome to the Republic of Korea, Airman Smith. Stay in your playpen and drink from your sippy cup until further advised.

Recently, the 3-star general commanding all Air Force units in the Republic of Korea rolled out a new curfew and prohibition policy that placed severe constraints on the liberty on newly assigned airmen. To sell these constraints, Lt. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas and his Chief Master Sergeants took to print and social media to justify the policy as necessary for combat readiness in a “fight tonight” warzone.  This struck many as dishonest and set off a firestorm of social media chatter.  Jouas reacted by committing to a Q&A session during a radio show to take place on July 30th and encouraged everyone to submit questions via facebook.  In the meantime, MSgt (ret.) Steven Mayne, a frequent JQP poster and someone well-connected within several active duty USAF communities, submitted the following open letter.  We think it nicely captures and explores some of the most the most problematic aspects of the new policy, and offer it for your consideration.

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By Steven Mayne, MSgt., USAF (ret.)

In a recent article, Lt. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas stated that North Korea was not the conventional, Soviet-style threat it once was and that an attack could come with little to no warning. This is an odd statement, because in 2008 the Pentagon decided to allow family members to join their spouses, saying that Korea posed no bigger threat to the South than did the former Soviet Union to Western Europe during the Cold War. This decision was consistent with former United States Forces Korea (USFK) General B.B. Bell’s House Armed Services Committee testimony, where he stated that conflict was not imminent. The decision opened the floodgate for families to live in Korea under a “normalization” program, even in “heightened risk” areas that formerly disallowed families, with the only constraints being infrastructure and resource limitations. DoD actually sought to address these in a plan that envisioned $2B worth of investment.

I am concerned that Jouas is trying to undo years of progress by regressing to old ideologies and outmoded ways of thinking about the mission airmen carry out on the peninsula. Jouas further states that Korea is not just another assignment and airmen are not going to a base where they will deploy to a forward location but in fact, they are the forward location, ready to “fight tonight.” As far as I know, Korea is an assignment, not a deployment. Former USFK Commanders worked very hard not to treat assignments as if they were being made to a combat zone, because in fact, they were not. Deciding to treat Korea like a war zone helps support the narrative that changes to the newcomer program are needed, but is the reasoning for the decision honest? Moreover, Jouas and his Command Chiefs portray changes to the policies governing Korea-assigned airmen as the products of a healthy decision process based on a rise in alcohol-related incidents, but the article states it was in the works for a year. This could lead a reasonable reader to think Jouas made up his mind long ago, and that calls into question just how much his subordinate commanders and Chiefs participated in the policy change. Was Jouas open to feedback over the last year, or is this his pet project rooted in his own philosophy, with nothing possibly standing in the way?

The article and the policy it discusses seems to be trying to mask micromanagement and masquerade it as readiness. The new program involves goals such as “enjoying a massage” and “learning to play a new instrument” as well as visiting “an orphanage” and the “Osan animal shelter.” Supposedly, these activities tie into readiness and help the airmen “fight tonight.” In reality, this is just telling airmen how to live their lives, with the carrot of normal individual freedoms waiting if they choose to comply. I see this as an extreme example of management versus leadership, and my friends who remain on active duty universally agree.

Jouas goes on to assert that if an airman is going to get into trouble, it will generally happen within the first 30 days. Curiously, he provides no statistics or data to back up this assertion. One may wonder if this program will simply push incidents to the right slightly, or worse, create binge drinking on Day 31. Chief Master Sgt. Shelina Frey, 7AF Command Chief, states that most airmen embrace the program,
yet gives no evidence to back this up. Was there a vote, a show of hands, a survey, or some other method to get buy-in from airmen for the program that was developed over the last year? Leadership has stated that this program, where airmen lose their right to buy or consume alcohol, is not a punishment. Yet, a 51st Fighter Wing memorandum states that in fact there may be punishment under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice for airmen who fail to comply. At best, this is a mixed message.  At worst, it is an injury to the integrity of the leaders fielding this program with too much double-talk. Even my 8-year-old son knows that when I take something away from him that he would otherwise be entitled to have, he’s being punished.

Overall, there seems to be a desire to achieve directed results at the expense of individual liberty.  This is a painful irony as these airmen fight to preserve the very thing they are being denied.  Preemptively punishing airmen upon arrival at a new duty station is bad enough, but making up rationale about the nature of their assignment to make the policy sound more reasonable is just plain dishonest.  Trying to convince them it is not punishment — while at the same time telling them it is punitive — is laughable.  It feels like airmen assigned to Korea are being forced to prove their faithfulness to the Air Force all over again, while the leadership of 7th Air Force is giving those airmen reason to doubt whether it understands what core values are all about.

A threat to liberty anywhere is a threat to liberty everywhere, and this is what makes the Jouas policy frightening.  Once the brute force rule structure is in place and leaders can point to fewer alcohol-related incidents, they’ll claim the policy is working, declare victory, and expand it to be effective throughout the entire one-year tour for all airmen.  Such “success” might gratify General Jouas, but it could create many slippery slopes, leading airmen to enjoy continually less of the liberty they’re fighting to preserve while having continually less confidence that their leaders have any idea what they’re doing.

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