I recently had a conversation with a senior DOD civilian. He's retired Air Force (a former Chief Master Sergeant) who is absolutely hard-wired into the defense establishment and its leadership, from the E-Ring to the combatant commands. During our talk, I broached the subject of how the Air Force is regarded at the highest levels of leadership, namely the SecDef's office.
His reply was short and direct: "In his (Rumsfeld's) eyes, we're lower than whale s***.
As evidence of that assessment, he offered the list the scandals that have plagued the Air Force in recent years, beginning with the prosecution (and imprisonment) of the service's senior civilian contracting officer, Darlene Druyun, who provided preferential treatment to Boeing in bidding competition for a new tanker contract. Then, there was the rape scandal and religion controversy at the U.S. Air Force Academy. While the religion issue has been clearly overblown, the rape scandal was genuine, prompting the punishment of several cadets, and major reforms at the institution.
If that weren't bad enough, the contracting and academy scandals were quickly followed by more controversies involving high-ranking officers. Major General Thomas Fiscus, the service's top Judge Advocate General (JAG) was reduced in rank to Colonel (and forced to retire) in January 2005, after an investigation found him involved in several affairs and improper conduct around more than a dozen women. A few months later, Brigadier General Richard Hassan (who ran the Air Force Senior Leadership Management Office in Washington), suddenly stepped down, amid allegations he carried out a foot fetish with female subordinates. Hassan also retired as a Colonel, after receiving non-judicial punishment.
But the problems don't stop there. A retired Air Force four-star general, Hal Hornburg, is under investigation by the FBI for his role in the awarding of a contract for a video screen for the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team. A firm in which Hornburg is a partner won the contract barely six months after he retired from service. While on active duty, General Hornburg led the Air Force command which includes the Thunderbirds. The contract was later cancelled, after competitors claimed that Hornburg's firm received preferential treatment.
And, just over the weekend, there was word of a new scandal involving Air Force personnel. A Chief Master Sergeant assigned to the Inspector General (IG) team at Air Force Space Command has been reduced in grade after engaging in sex with a woman assigned to a security forces unit he was inspecting at Patrick AFB, FL. Chief Master Sergeant Troy Parker was reduced to E-8, sentenced to 45 days at hard labor, reprimanded and fined $3,000 for having several trysts with a female reserve staff sergeant assiged to Patrick's 45th Security Forces Squadron. As a chief--and an IG inspector to boot--Parker was supposed to set and enforce standards in the units he inspected.
But the Patrick controversy doesn't end there. The security forces unit's top enlisted member, Senior Master Sergeant Michael Sydney, is accused of arranging the trysts between the female member and the inspector. According to a charge sheet obtained by Florida Today, Sydney threatened to extend the woman's reserve tour unless she performed sexual favors on Parker and one of the squadron's officers, Captain Philip Sting. Captain Sting is now facing charges on indecency and obstruction of justice; he reportedly told the reservist to lie about what happened in her conversations with investigators. In addition to solicitation charges, Sergeant Sydney is also accused of having sex with female subordinates, and using a government computer to store pornography.
Is there a common threat linking all these events, or is the Air Force simply having a run of bad luck? Afterall, the military reflects the society it serves, and if sexual misconduct and financial hijinks are rampant in the public sector, then (the theory goes), you'll see some of the same activity in the armed forces.
But that "explanation" is a bit too pat and easy. Call me old-fashioned, but I always thought the military should hold itself to higher standards than the civilian sector. Indeed, the Air Force once advertised its "core values" as "Integrity First," "Service Before Self," and "Excellence in All We Do." It's hard to find any semblance of those values in the escapades I've just described.
And that brings me back to the search for a common thread that links these various scandals. I think the underlying cause can be summed by two explanations: (1) A lack of leadership, beginning at the very top, and (2) a pervasive double standard of accountability and punishment for senior personnel and "everyone else."
For more than 20 years, the Air Force has been run by fighter pilots. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, since fighter aircraft represent much of the service's combat capabilities. And, in fairness, the majority of fighter pilot generals are hard-working, honorable men, and more than a few are outstanding leaders in their own right. But a small minority within this group carry a sense of entitlement and a belief that the rules apply to "the other guys." Over my 20-plus year career, I saw more than a few fighter jocks-turned-flag officers get by with misdeeds that would have destroyed the careers of mere mortals. Regrettably, that sense of entitlement seems to have spread to other senior officials, as evidenced by the Druyun, Fiscus and Hassan scandals.
And, that same aura of invincibility now seems to be entering the senior enlisted ranks as well. As a Chief Master Sergeant, Parker knew better, but that didn't stop him. Ditto for Senior Master Sergeant Sydney, the alleged "pimp" in this case. The senior NCO reportedly arranged for the female reservist to perform oral sex on Capt Sting while Sydney watched. Amazingly (or, perhaps not-so-amazingly) the 45th Security Forces Squadron earned the highest possible rating--"Outstanding"--during their recent IG inspection. In the ethical climate of today's Air Force, apparently the only thing that matters is results; how you get them is another matter (just don't get caught).
The Air Force is probably hoping that Sydney and Sting cop their own plea deals, avoiding the embarassment of a public courts-martial. Such a proceeding will doubtlessly raise questions about why Sydney and Sting are being hammered, while deviants like Fiscus and Hassan got off relatively scot-free. The Air Force claims that Fiscus "lost" more than $500,000 in retired pay by stepping down as a Colonel, rather than a two-star general. What the service won't say is that Fiscus will only lose that much money if he lives to be 100. Meanwhile, he still has a law license and a long list of contacts that will give him a six-figure job with a legal firm or a defense contractor. I'll go out on a limb and predict that Hassan won't wind up in the food stamp line, either.
More disturbingly, the Air Force seems to be ignoring the root causes behind these scandals. Historians note that the service has never court-martialed a general officer in its 60 year-history. Well, maybe it's time to start. No wonder Secretary Rumsfeld holds the Air Force in such low regard. And that opinion won't change until the Air Force finds a few leaders willing to set the correct, unswerving example--and hold everyone to the same high standards of accountability.