On February 4th of this year, Lt. Col. Lance Annicelli’s boss recommended that the squadron he was commanding be given annual recognition for its superior performance under his leadership. Eight days later, she temporarily suspended Annicelli from command. She told him he would be investigated because of specific, egregious allegations about his conduct. She didn’t tell him what those allegations were or who made them. She assured him he’d be put back in command if the allegations were unfounded.
The next day, his boss’s boss made the temporary firing permanent. The mysterious allegations were promptly broadened into a vague, accusation not emanating from a person but from the chain of command itself. An ex post investigation was conducted to cement the legitimacy of the decision. Annicelli was isolated and prohibited from speaking with his former teammates. This also prevented him from confronting and defending against the supposed allegations. His lawyer’s efforts to generate character references on his behalf drew harassing fire from the chain of command and its legal apparatus.
Unable to resist, Annicelli was doomed to professional ruin on the basis of an allegation alone, and he’s never even been told who made it or what he was claimed to have done. After two decades of committed service, he wasn’t even afforded the basic dignity of a fair process. He was promptly abandoned at the whim of a colonel whose decision couldn’t be questioned without embarrassing the chain of command that empowered him. The 2-star general entrusted with a sacred form of appellate authority over Annicelli’s case ignored his valid pleas concerning process deficiencies, conflicts of interest, and obvious lies told by his supervisors to cover the tracks of their specious decision. Just like that, a career was over. This sort of thing has become too common in today’s Air Force, and senior leaders aren’t doing anything to rein it in.
Through silence and inaction, the Air Force is encouraging and even incentivizing abuse of power. Commanders are governed by no meaningful checks or limits on their use of administrative sanctions such as relief, reprimand, and downgraded performance reports. Unlike courts-martial and nonjudicial punishment proceedings, firings and reprimands are not subject to meaningful standards of evidence or process safeguards. This has created a massive punishment loophole for power addicts to enforce not just the rules, but their own stylistic preferences, through a fascist doctrine of total obedience and obliterated agency. The chain of command holds sole authority over whether to question its own decisions, creating a crippling power imbalance and an endemic conflict of interest that leads to corrupted outcomes. It also strangles dissent, robbing the Air Force of a badly needed internal discussion among leaders.
But this doesn’t prevent the mind-boggling lunacy of the process from being exposed and critically questioned. In Annicelli’s case, the velocity and violence with which he went from a commander to the career scrap heap raises huge questions about how absolute the power one Air Force commander exercises over the fate of another should be, and how the system should respond when power is wielded without reasonable or noticeably ethical constraint.
To illustrate the terrain of these questions, let’s take a look at Annicelli’s Promotion Recommendation Form, signed in 2014.
The Air Force was prepared to promote this officer to Colonel two years early, and as this document reflects, there was plenty of foundation for it. His record was a two-decade honor roll of spotless excellence. Had he registered a few high marks here and there but not built a continuous streak, it might be reasonable to think he was just skilled at winning over some bosses but not truly superb enough to impress them all. But a record of near-universal #1 stratifications, constant awards, and recognition at the highest levels of the service speaks to consistency, adaptability, and steady growth in performance over the course of many years. This evidence debunks pet theories about Annicelli’s firing that rely on him secretly being a poor performer, untested leader, or simply hard to get along with.
When you bracket those pet theories and try to square the circle created by his abrupt sacking, there are basically three possible theories.
The first is that Lance Annicelli somehow managed to cultivate and conceal a toxic persona horrific enough to get him fired, but effectively obscured until it suddenly boiled over in the period of eight days, acidic enough to instantly melt the bond of trust and confidence he had clearly established with his boss before that day.
To the extent anyone entertains this theory, it’s a massive indictment of the Air Force’s developmental process. If it’s possible to bring an officer to the brink of O-6 and have that person pushed energetically for early promotion into the senior ranks without the system taking notice of lurking toxicity so severe it necessitates such swift and severe consequences, the system itself is not to be trusted and must be fundamentally re-thought. Paradoxically, this means the system’s own indictment of itself in the form of a questionable firing should not be trusted either, because it was undertaken by officers raised in the same system, themselves potentially riddled with unseen flaws of character despite their awesome biographies.
But this isn’t a promising theory. It stretches plausibility. While it’s possible for a caustic personality to escape the notice of an aloof supervisor or two, fooling a career’s worth of bosses is unlikely, especially in an Air Force increasingly seized with dual fixations on micromanagement and perfection.
The second theory is that sometime between February 4th and February 12th, Lance Annicelli did something so severely wrong that it necessitated upending two decades of proven worth to the organization, yet wasn’t bad enough to get him court-martialed, offered nonjudicial punishment, or even bad enough to make it into either a formal allegation or an investigative record. This theory bears no credence, and to give it any would be to license an unacceptable betrayal of basic process and fairness. The chain of command, as the empowered party in situations like these, is entitled only to the presumptions it is willing to publicly support.
A third theory is more promising. It’s possible that Annicelli’s boss, Col. Jody Ocker, made a mistake, and had that mistake compounded by an impulsive decision by her boss, Col. Doug Lee.
Annicelli had taken command of a troubled unit and had been working hard to restore discipline and morale, starting with standards. He was making changes, acting boldly in some cases. He brought sharp elbows to the task, as we would expect. This was causing some grumbling among his senior NCOs and junior officers. Those complaints were reaching Ocker’s ears, though there is no evidence she ever did anything to peel them apart and distinguish rumor from actionable fact. Given all this, it’s possible that in early February, she found herself entertaining ambivalence about Annicelli and accordingly misjudged his headstrong leadership for abuse.
Her sparing degree of prior command experience would support the idea that Ocker could have misplayed the situation, failing to communicate sufficiently to genuinely understand, process, or correct what she was observing at the level of impression. It’s possible she grasped for the idea of an official investigation to proxy for the inability to sort out conflicting information, and it’s possible that she decided to sideline Annicelli temporarily while sorting things out.
If that was indeed her intent, it was quickly warped into something different by Col. Lee, who took it upon himself to make Annicelli’s relief permanent just a day later. There are indications Lee was looking for an opportunity to make an example of a wayward commander as an example to others. Perhaps Annicelli’s situation was just the opportunity he was awaiting, whether or not there was actually anything to it.
I’d love to be able to debunk this third idea, but neither Lee’s response to a prior media inquiry nor Ocker’s refusal to answer that query provide enough facts to falsify this idea, and the Air Force remains officially silent on the Annicelli debacle despite several Congressional and Inspector General complaints into the matter, along with the coverage here at JQP.
Of course, I’d love to be able to refrain from speculation altogether, and instead write an article analyzing the Air Force’s decision on the merits. But the Air Force doesn’t explain why it fires people, and that lack of explanation is the primary reason the merits, such as they are, should be given no weight. The Air Force is running a “trust us” system without doing the things necessary to deserve that trust. Oh by the way, honor and decency are still important despite the endless dictates of propaganda and political correctness. If a man’s career was committed and excellent enough to deserve the 2-star recommendation above, it deserves nothing less than a fulsome and dignified epitaph.
If the reason someone was fired can’t be explained in plain English, that person is entitled to have his or her job back. Or at least that’s how things should work.