Written by Guest Contributor Michelle Zook. You can find more of her work here.
In March, when asked what her priorities would be for the Air Force, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James testified before Congress that her top priority would always be taking care of people, because in every job she ever had, it came down to the people. Similarly, as far back as 2012, Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Mark Welsh was insisting that one of his top priorities was “developing and caring for Airmen and their families.”
It’s been a rough couple of years for the Air Force. Sexual harassment and assault scandals have plagued the institution while budget issues have forced platform advocates to square off against each other. The spring’s AFPC-headed VSP debacle fortunately never gained traction outside Air Force circles, otherwise Gen. Welsh might have had even more headaches from Congress. As it was, Congress got involved anyway over USTRANSCOM’s contractor problems in getting military owned POVs across the pond, with Senator Mark Warner collecting complaints on his website. TRANSCOM, of course, insists that they appreciate the senator’s help—much as, I’m sure, they would appreciate a random UCI or ORI.
However, even as TRANSCOM is reporting improvements in their auto delivery schedule, a newer problem has surfaced. For whatever reason, it has been determined that only one outgoing rotator from Al Udeid will run a week back to the states, ferrying redeployers home to their families. This has caused ripple effects throughout the AOR because of Al Udeid’s role as a regional hub. The rotator is now booking 30-45 days out, with people being stuck at AUAB for three weeks or more, simply waiting on a ride—all while a major international airport is in Doha, where servicemembers could schedule flights home with their government issued travel cards but are not being allowed to do so, and C-17s and C-130s are being underutilized.
It would be easy to say that this is the military, and this is the nature of deployments, and servicemembers and their families should just get over it; after all, shouldn’t they be used to the whole hurry up and wait process by now? Except, of course, that this line of thought flies completely in the face of SECAF and CSAF’s priorities regarding people. Aren’t deployed servicemembers people? Aren’t the families waiting at home for them people, too? So either CSAF and SECAF are completely unaware of the problem, or they were hedging and giving company lines when they answered that people were important, or they were outright lying—and for the sake of the Air Force, I certainly hope it is option number one. Furthermore, in Gen. Welsh’s own AFI 1-2, it spells out specifically in 3.3.6. that:
While Airmen are always subject to duty, leaders cannot treat their subordinates’ time as an unlimited resource. Commanders must strive to maintain a stable and predictable work schedule for subordinates, while balancing mission requirements and additional duties. Any significant long-term change in mission requirements requiring more man-hours than those authorized by manpower standards should prompt commanders to initiate a request for additional manpower or other mitigating measure.
Now, perhaps in Gen. Welsh’s world, a three week extension to a deployment so you can sit around and wait for a rotator at the AUAB pool is no big freaking deal, but I guarantee you to Mrs. Welsh it probably is, especially if he had already been gone for 6-12 months. A three week extension because TRANSCOM has—arbitrarily or not (I really would love to hear a credible reason)—cut rotators down so far that people are now booking 30-45 days out is a significant change in mission requirements to the people at the lowest levels, and, per AFI 1-2, should be prompting commanders at all levels to get involved in this process. Involvement does not mean making excuses or telling subordinates to get over it; involvement means that it’s time to start thinking outside the box. When this topic was being discussed on John Q. Public’s Facebook page, a commenter relayed that when this happened in 2003, the AUAB base commander ordered that no aircraft would leave to go back to the states without every seat filled—which is certainly in the commander’s purview. At the lower levels of command, commanders need to be asking why this is happening and looking at the authorization of government travel cards for commercial flights home; at higher levels, and perhaps even the congressional level, it might be time to take a good hard look at USTRANSCOM and see exactly what is going on there. Perhaps after this summer and the problems with auto deliveries and within AMC itself, it’s time to reconsider TRANSCOM’s “Together, We Deliver” motto and asterisk it with “Only if Congress Gets Involved” and “Only With 30-45 Days Notice.” It is certainly well past time for CSAF and SECAF to notice that all is not right with their people and to take action accordingly.
Michelle served served as an Air Force air battle manager and executive officer at Tinker AFB, OK. She recently completed her coursework to earn a master’s degree in public policy, with her primary interests being defense and foreign policy. You can find additional pieces authored by Michelle here, and she’ll be watching the comment thread for your reactions.