We've been following the strange case of Major Jill Metzger, the Air Force personnel officer who went missing in Kyrgyzstan last year, touching off an international incident. As you'll recall, Metzger disappeared during a trip to a shopping mall near Bishek, Kyrgyzstan last September 5th, then resurfaced three days later, claiming that she had been abducted. Metzger was on a temporary duty assignment at Manas AB (near Bishek) at the time of the incident.
As we noted last week, there are serious questions about the alleged "kidnapping" of Major Metzger. Kyrgyz authorities told Newsday that surveillance video from the mall does not support the Air Force officer's claims, and suggested that she may have orchestrated her own disappearance. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) and federal law enforcement officials have also been investigating, and at least one U.S. official expressed similar doubts, telling Fox News that her story "doesn't add up." Final reports on the episode are pending.
But the latest--and perhaps strangest--twist in this affair concerns Metzger's status in the U.S. Air Force. Last week, the website militarycorruption.com reported (in a copyright article) that Major Metzger would be medically retired in early July, as a result of the trauma she suffered in Kyrgyzstan. The story changed again a couple of days later, when Metzger's mother told the Associated Press that her daughter was being granted an 18-month "leave of absence" to spend time with her Air Force husband, whom she married just before that deployment to Kyrgyzstan. Trouble is, there are (apparently) no provisions for a "leave of absence" under Air Force personnel regulations.
The latest update on Major Metzger's status can be found in the current issue of Air Force Times. In an interview with the publication, Metzger's mother reported that her daughter will be going on 18 months' of medical leave in early July, to spend time with her husband and "just be a human being again." The leave period will also give her time to decide whether to continue her Air Force career, according to Mrs. Metzger.
The reported change in duty status is significant, since medical leave would allow Metzger to draw full pay and benefits over the next 18 months. Medical leave is normally granted for recovery from serious illnesses and other conditions, and must be approved by medical authorities.
Sources we spoke with said that 18 months of medical leave is virtually unheard of, particularly in cases where the military member did not suffer serious physical injuries. By comparison, returning POWs from North Vietnam received an average of six months of medical leave, after enduring psychological and physical torture that was (arguably) far worse that Metzger endured during her three days of alleged captivity.
But there may be another explanation for Metzger's changing duty status. As an Air Force administrative officer told militarycorruption.com, Major Metzger can't be retired if she's the subject of an on-going investigation. Placing her on medical leave would allow the inquiries to continue, while removing her from active duty, and satisfying her "humanitarian" concerns.
A spokesman at Moody AFB, where Major Metzger is stationed, refused to comment on the reported medical leave, citing Privacy Act restrictions. Previously, Moody public affairs officers noted that Metzger was being "reintegrated" to her military duties. But our sources at the base reported that the Major seemed to be manning a desk, and little else:
"To be honest, we hardly ever see her. She is never at our PT formations in the morning and she does not attend any of the staff meetings. Everything is low-key around here and I don't hear anything at all. There was a 1st Lt running the Manpower shop, but he has PCSed. There is a MSgt running the shop...again, she is there but not playing an active role at all. I do see her from time to time with her running gear on, so she is still staying in shape."
In her conversation with Air Force Times, Mrs. Metzger expressed frustration at the service's inability to station her daughter and son-in-law together. Major Metzger is married to Air Force Captain Joshua Mayo, who is now stationed at Tyndall AFB, Florida, 193 miles away. Mrs. Metzger told the Times that her family is pleased with the Air Force's decision to grant medical leave, and allow the couple to be together.
Major Metzger hasn't spoken with the media since her return from Kyrgyzstan, and most of the information regarding her duty status has come from her mother. Since Mrs. Metzger (apparently) never served in the military, there is the possibility that she confused terminology in stating that her daughter had been given a leave of absence, rather than medical leave. However, her husband is a retired Air Force Colonel; we can only assume that he's familiar with categories of military duty, and could have helped her explain their daughter's status.
On the other hand, three conflicting stories about Major Metzger's duty status--in a two-week period--suggest that her disposition has been a "work in progress" for Air Force leadership. And unfortunately, that only makes the situation worse. At a time when hundreds of wounded Iraq and Afghan veterans are fighting for disability benefits, word that Metzger would receive a pension produced outrage in the ranks, and a change in her duty status from "retiring" to "leave of absence." Now, claims that she will receive an exceptionally generous medical leave--for a three-day hostage "ordeal" that has never been proved--will spark similar outcries.
We've long been a critic of Congressional micro-management of military affairs. But in this case, we'll make an exception. There's something fishy about the Metzger case, and too many unanswered questions. Both the Senate and House Armed Services committee have the right to ask the Air Force about Major Metzger's condition, and how she received such a generous medical leave.
Until the Air Force and Justice Departments release their final reports, we won't know what happened in Kyrgyzstan last year. If those events triggered a legitimate condition (say, PTSD) that prevents Major Metzger from performing her duties, then she should be referred to a suitable military or civilian treatment facility, and a medical evaluation board to determine her future status. But if she's able to work--as her return and "re-integration at Moody seem to suggest--then Major Metzger should remain in uniform, and fulfill her Air Force commitments.
ADDENDUM: Mrs. Metzger's claims about the "separation" of her daughter and son-in-law strike us as a bit bogus. We've known plenty of geographically-separated couples in the Air Force (and other services). As we learned on Day One of basic training (and later, at OTS), there is no guarantee that married military personnel will always be stationed together. At the time of their marriage, Captain Mayo was reportedly stationed in Colorado; he has since re-located to Florida. Based on our experience, it appears as though the Air Force made an effort to get them closer geographically, despite the demands of an on-going war, and limited funds for permanent-change-of station (PCS) moves.