“Witch Hunt” Wing Commander Mentors Airmen, But There’s a Problem

Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Education and Training Command, is greeted by Col. Brian Hastings, 47th Flying Training Wing commander, at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, March 12, 2015. (Photo: Air Force Staff Sgt. Nathan Maysonet).
Gen. Robin Rand, former commander of Air Education and Training Command, is greeted by Col. Brian Hastings, former 47th Flying Training Wing commander, at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, March 12, 2015. (Photo: Air Force Staff Sgt. Nathan Maysonet).

Col. Brian Hastings, the former commander of Laughlin Air Force Base’s 47th Flying Training Wing, has become a controversial figure of late, and not without good reason. It was Hastings who reprimanded and permanently grounded three Laughlin instructor pilots on the basis of their private text messages, which he used as the sole evidence in labeling them drug users and declaring them in violation of Air Force standards.

After the situation caught the attention of Congress, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff (CSAF), agreed to have the matter assessed in a new investigation, which has since commenced.

However, Welsh’s staff has also gone into damage control mode, and CSAF himself has since doubled down on the philosophy and logic Hastings applied. In an eyebrow-raising message to the field, Welsh warned that airmen have no meaningful privacy and that their personal lives are subject to review against the broad and vague conduct standards found in Air Force Instruction 1-1.

“Airmen don’t have to worry if they’re doing what’s right,” Welsh declared, making the expectation of privacy contingent on command assessments and suspicions.

These recent developments have been deeply unsettling for airmen in the field, for two reasons. First, the Air Force seems bent on creating an unrealistic and unwelcome conduct policy that infringes unnecessarily on civil liberties as a condition of service while making everyone subject to disciplinary action based on command fiat. Second, it appears the service may be looking for a way to rationalize and justify the Laughlin debacle, which would extinguish justice for those involved while creating a chilling precedent for everyone else.

It’s against this backdrop that a new video has surfaced depicting Col. Hastings delivering a Wingman Day address during his tenure at Laughlin.

Here’s an excerpt.

In the first instance, this is a heartening display of a wing commander doing exactly what we should want him to be doing. He’s explaining his personal experiences, demonstrating his own humanity and humility, and building a foundation of trust for an open exchange of ideas. He’s using what he has learned to mentor and guide others, to allow them to learn from his mistakes rather than make their own. This is leadership.

But there’s a problem.

According to the standard Hastings himself established — a standard since reinforced and pounded home by service’s highest ranking officer — the existence of this video makes Hastings subject to disciplinary action. 

Taken out of context, Hastings’ discussion of chugging peppermint schnapps, doing gainers and back-flips into a hot tub, and blacking out for nine hours could supply reasonable suspicion supporting an accusation that he abuses alcohol, drinks with subordinates, or shows up to work under the influence. Under the Air Force’s conception of probable cause, this video would easily justify a warrant to search Hastings’ home, computer, and phone for evidence of the photo he discusses in the clip.

Any unfavorable information discovered during the ensuing search, even if unconnected to the original accusation, could be assessed against CSAF’s standard:

“24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on and off-duty, Airmen have signed up to live up to Air Force Standards and Core Values.”

And just like that, Hastings could be reprimanded, grounded, and processed for involuntary discharge, even if he supplied an alternative explanation for whatever was found in his home and even if his explanation was just as reasonable as the suspicions of his superiors.

As it turns out, the video clip shown here was part of a much longer presentation. During his talk, Hastings built context for these comments, so the audience knew he was talking about his experiences as an 18-year-old young man and what he learned from them. In context, the facts that seemed somewhat inflammatory and perhaps damning are exposed as totally reasonable.

This is what makes the plight of the “Molly Three” so exasperating. In his rush to discipline these officers, Hastings willfully de-contextualized their text messages. Rather than accepting their reasonable explanations that they were discussing pop culture references, and instead of lending appropriate weight to the absence of any other evidence supporting his suspicions, he chose to consider their words in isolation.

He then leapt to the conclusion that because they seemed to be discussing drug use, they were guilty of drug use. He reprimanded them for drug use despite drug tests and character testimonials exculpating them. He further concluded that their words violated Air Force standards, despite the fact they were private words with zero connection to the officers’ military duties. He based his suspension of their aeronautical orders on this supposed violation of standards. Everything he did is consistent with the Welsh Doctrine, and yet deeply offensive to the ideas of justice and fairness.

The fact that Gen. Welsh has ordered a fresh review of the Laughlin mess is a good thing. But the fact he’s since propounded a philosophy that promises to quickly alienate airmen from their commanders’ legal authority and make a sad joke out of the very concept of “good order and discipline” is nothing short of distressing. The service culture CSAF is constructing and reinforcing through his decisions, actions, inactions, pronouncements, and his notable silence is one that cannot possibly sustain the weight of its predictable absurdities. 

Col. Hastings public statements about blackout binge drinking, when given proper context and explained, provide no grounds for official action. This seems self-evident. But it’s also the case with the private text messages exchanged by his former subordinates, and yet the Air Force has drawn and thus far stuck with the opposite conclusion.

A formal investigation is not needed for CSAF to conclude, based on what has already been made public and shared with him in private, that any punishment based solely on the officers’ private text messages should be immediately suspended. Each day that ticks by with the involved pilots still grounded and unable to do their jobs raises suspicion that the Air Force is still hoping to avoid doing the right thing. And with each day, that pathological objective is exposed as more and more ruinous to the future of a once great institution whose leaders have lost perspective. 

Thinking about how this video clip could be misapplied, it becomes clear the Welsh Doctrine is not just a threat to the ability to lead and mentor effectively, but a threat to the fundamental character and humanity of Air Force squadrons. And as they go, so goes the Air Force.

It’s also an institutional engine for dishonesty. Insisting that people never betray a glimpse of authenticity or openly profess to their worst moments — for fear of being punished for violating a vague and universal standard — will drive honest communication further underground. If the objective is to mortally wound the service’s core value of integrity, Miley-Gate has the Air Force on course, on glidepath.

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