We may never know why Brigadier Thomas Tinsley took his own life.
Tinsley, the commander of the Air Force's 3rd Wing at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, shot himself in the basement of his home on the night of 27 July. Despite a quick response from the commander of the base hospital and other personnel, Tinlsey could not be saved and was pronounced dead a short time later.
While the USAF originally refused to rule General Tinsley's death a suicide, the service has now reached that conclusion. After a three-month inquiry, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations has ruled that Tinsley killed himself. As Air Force Times reports:
A three-month Air Force Office of Special Investigations inquiry, which concluded in early November, determined that Tinsley intentionally shot himself once in the chest with a large-caliber handgun, but investigators were unable to turn up a motive.
Investigators found no suicide note, history of mental illness or evidence of financial or criminal trouble that might lead someone to take his own life.
“Often with a suicide, you have a pretty good idea” of motive, said an Air Force official familiar with the case. “This investigation did not yield that. ... There wasn’t anything definite that provided the ‘why.’ ”
Investigators determined the cause of death was one gunshot wound to the chest with Tinsley’s personal weapon — a Smith & Wesson Model 500 .50-caliber revolver, which the manufacturer touts as the world’s most powerful revolver. The five-chamber weapon, found with Tinsley’s body, contained one spent shell casing and four empty chambers.
At the time of his death, Tinsley was considered one of the rising stars in the Air Force. His assignment as 3rd Wing commander followed multiple below-the-zone promotions, and a 22-month stint as executive officer to General Michael Moseley, the Air Force Chief of Staff.
There had been speculation that the general's death might be linked to the various scandals that en snarled Moseley, and ultimately resulted in his dismissal as Chief of Staff. Tinsley served as Moseley's executive officer from August 2005 until July 2007, a period that included the "Thundervision" controversy.
During that episode, Air Force Major General Stephen Goldfein, then commander of the Air Warfare Center at Nellis AFB, Nevada, steered a $50-million audiovisual contract to a firm with personal ties to Moseley. The chief of staff spent time at the CEO's home in Pennsylvania while the contract was under review. Air Force officials later rescinded the contract, and Goldfein received administrative punishment for his actions.
While Congressional leaders have questioned Moseley's role in the matter, he has never been charged with wrong-doing. Additionally, there is no indication that investigators spoke with General Tinsley regarding the contract. Moseley's actions in the Thundervision episode are now the target of a second DoD investigation, launched at the request of Senators Carl Levin and John McCain.
Without a suicide note--or more definitive proof--we may never know why General Tinsley took his own life. But there is one previously-unreported sidelight that underscores the Air Force's reaction to the incident, particularly at the flag rank.
At the time of Tinsley's death, a number of senior officers were gathered at Langley AFB, Virginia for the annual Combat Air Forces-Mobility Air Forces (CAF-MAF) Conference. Despite the importance of that meeting, the Commander of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), General Howie Chandler, immediately departed for Elmendorf.
Perhaps it was just an act of kindness for a bereaved family. After all, the 3rd Wing falls under Chandler's command. But it is a sad fact that Air Force members commit suicide on a regular basis, and there is no personal intervention by four-star generals. Obviously, the fact that Tinsley was also a flag officer changes the circumstances (to some degree), along with the fact that Tinsley led a PACAF wing.
Still, it's reasonable to ask why Chandler didn't dispatch his Vice-Commander, or simply stop at Elmendorf after the two-day conference ended? Those questions have not been answered, and likely never will. General Chandler's rush to Alaska is just one more intriguing element of a case that is still shrouded in mystery.