Last month, JQP reported on demands by two high-profile Congressmen for answers from the Air Force concerning legally and ethically questionable disciplinary actions at Laughlin Air Force Base over the last couple of years.
For those unfamiliar with this story (previously detailed here and here), what started as an inquiry at Laughlin into an alleged unprofessional relationship between an instructor pilot and a student morphed into a wide-ranging investigation that derailed the lives and careers of several officers without apparent justification. On the basis of suspicion alone, arising from joking text messages obtained by authorities on the basis of questionable search warrants, several instructor pilots were reprimanded and permanently suspended from flying status on charges of illegal drug use.
They now face discharge proceedings despite passing drug tests and providing valid explanations for the private text communications used as the sole evidence against them.
Concerned at apparent violations of civil liberties and due process that produced evidently unsupported findings, Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) and Duncan Hunter (R-CA) sent Air Force Chief of Staff (CSAF) General Mark Welsh a letter outlining a series of complaints, demanding the service explain itself and provide evidence supporting its actions.
JQP has learned that in response to that letter, in an extraordinary development, Welsh himself met with legislators and their representatives last week to discuss the matter. This, along with several visits to Capitol Hill by other senior officials for the exclusive purpose of discussing the issue, demonstrates CSAF considers the complaints lodged by Kinzinger and Hunter credible and is understandably concerned about the appropriateness of what occurred in West Texas.
For CSAF to become personally involved in a case like this one is highly unusual, and a possible reflection of the perceived brazenness and severity of some of the actions taken by officials, some of which appeared wholly unchained from legal and ethical standards. But unusual or not, Welsh’s personal involvement was confirmed in an email response from Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Karns:
“A meeting did take place between Congressional representatives and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. I’m not at liberty to discuss the particulars however, as always, we remain committed to addressing Congressional concerns. This matter has the attention of Air Force senior leadership and is being looked into further.”
While Karns could not elaborate on the details of the meeting, other sources told JQP Welsh was accompanied at the meeting by Col. Brian Hastings, the former wing commander at Laughlin who undertook the disciplinary actions now being scrutinized. While details of the conference are scant, discussion was reportedly tense at times and yielded an assurance of swift action and a timely response from CSAF. Welsh is said to be genuinely concerned about the situation and eager to resolve it quickly and fairly.
Separate reporting indicates that in the wake of the meeting, Welsh ordered the opening of at least one new investigation into the Laughlin debacle as he grapples for a full and clear accounting of how things got seemingly out of hand and how officials in the chain of command arrived at a series of eyebrow-raising decisions.
The investigative effort is expected to take a matter of weeks, which will leave those impacted waiting a while longer for disposition of their fates. The officers disciplined for drug-referencing text messages have been grounded for an extended period of time and processed for involuntary discharge. They now anxiously await resolution of appeals requesting that they be reinstated to flying status and given the opportunity to recover.
While the prospect of a longer wait is likely excruciating for those involved and their families, the personal involvement of CSAF and the notion of a fresh, objective look at the situation are hopeful signs.
As for Welsh, he has often been visited with tough editorial treatment on these pages over the past few years. But his choice to wade into this case personally and ensure justice is served is exactly the sort of leadership airmen fervently wish for him to demonstrate. His personal guidance is crucial in a case such as this one, implicating as it does the basic notion of fairness, the presumption of innocence, and the ethical bounding of the exercise of command authority.
Those involved and concerned observers across the force hope that Welsh’s leadership resolves this dark chapter in the Air Force’s unfolding story in a manner affirming the honor of an institution that too often doesn’t deserve the people who make a life out of serving it.