Thursday, August 02, 2012

Back on Track?

Texas Senator John Cornyn has removed the hold he placed on the nomination of General Mark A. Welsh III to be the next Air Force Chief of Staff. Cornyn's move cleared the way for the full Senate to confirm Welsh, a vote that occurred late last night.

The brief delay was clearly a warning shot for the USAF, amid growing concerns over the service's handling of a sex scandal at Lackland AFB, Texas. So far, at least fifteen current and former military training instructors (MTIs) have been accused--or are under investigation--for inappropriate sexual conduct involving trainees in their charge. Lackland, the so-called "Gateway to the Air Force," provides basic training for all new airmen.

Cornyn lifted the hold Thursday morning, after a private meeting with General Welsh. In a statement, the Senator said it was "clear that General Welsh shares my grave concern over the situation at Lackland. Gen. Welsh demonstrated a genuine resolve to improving Air Force-wide policies to prevent a recurrence of the grossly unacceptable conduct that took place at Lackland,” he continued.

According to the Senator, the incoming Chief of Staff has agreed to direct a review of three elements related to the scandal:

- Current Air Force policy and training relating to sexual assault prevention

- Fraternization and inappropriate relationships, including social networking among airmen (and)

- The organization of Basic Military Training units at Lackland, focusing on the ratio of officers to enlisted personnel.

Actually, there should be a fourth requirement on Cornyn's list, namely, why the Air Force's response to this scandal has been so slow and ineffectual.

Consider this disturbing timeline; the problems at Lackland first surfaced more than a year ago, and the number of victims has grown to almost 40. Meanwhile, more than a dozen MTIs have been implicated in the scandal, and one has been court-martialed and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

To be fair, all of those accused of wrong-doing deserve their day in court. But we'll go out on a limb and predict that when all is said and done, a number of MTIs will be serving time at Leavenworth. It is also worth noting that all but one of the MTIs caught in the sexual assault scandal were assigned to the 331st Training Squadron, yet the commander of that unit, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Paquette, was not removed until a few weeks ago (emphasis ours).

But the trail of potential culpability doesn't end there. The 737th Training Group commander, Colonel Glenn Palmer, and his boss, the 37th Training Wing Commander (Colonel Eric Axelbank) waited almost a year before "losing confidence" in Paquette's ability to lead. It's worth noting that both Colonels arrived at Lackland as the scandal was unfolding.

Why did it take them so long to decide they had a serious problem on their hands and Paquette had to go? We understand that investigations take time, but waiting a year to fire an incompetent commander is inexcusable. And did we mention that Paquette's removal was described as "administrative" in nature, and not punitive.

Meanwhile, the Commander of Air Education and Training Command, General Edgar Rice, Jr., has requested an outside investigation to look into the scandal. Major General Margaret Woodward was appointed to lead the probe, which will focus on any "systemic issues" that might be associated with sexual misconduct among Lackland MTIs. General Rice requested the outside inquiry in late June, almost a year after the scandal broke. So far, there's no word on what General Woodward has discovered, or any recommendations she has offered.

Now, at the urging of Senator Cornyn, General Welsh will launch a second inquiry into the scandal. If this sounds a little familiar, it should. When confronted with serious accusations of wrong-doing, bureaucratic organizations (including the military) tend to go into a defensive crouch. Conducting multiple investigations creates the appearance of action, even if the final reports--and any corrective actions--may be months, even years down the road.

Clearly, the scandal at Lackland is far from over, and Senator Cornyn's brief hold on the Welsh nomination was a no-confidence vote in how the service is handling the problem. And despite today's reprieve, it's very apparent that Congressional patience is wearing thin.

So, what should General Welsh do? As the next Chief of Staff, he has a plate that's already full. From getting the F-35 and the KC-30 into service, to securing funding for the next-generation bomber--and steering the service through massive budget cuts--there 's no shortage of items on his agenda. But fixing the problems at Lackland should be priority #1. Basic military training is where all enlisted airmen begin their career. Every year, thousands of American families entrust their sons and daughters to the MTIs at Lackland; the service cannot tolerate conditions that allowed sexual predators to prey upon recruits.

That's why leadership changes at Lackland--and at the MAJCOM level--are imperative. General Rice, along with Colonel Axelbank and Colonel Palmer--have had months to deal with this festering scandal. So far, they've done nothing to restore confidence in the integrity and safety of Air Force basic training. Simply stated, they've had their chance; now it's time for someone else to fix the problems.

It will be interesting to see how General Welsh addresses the scandal at Lackland. having served under Welsh when he was a Colonel, I can tell you that he is a leader who puts the welfare of his troops above everything else. It's difficult to imagine Mark Welsh allowing this deplorable situation to slither along, as it has under the current Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz. In fact, General Schwartz has been largely silent on the issue, seemingly biding his time until retirement.

Fortunately, Welsh's ascendancy won't be delayed. Senate confirmation of General Welsh as CSAF sets the stage for a change-of-command ceremony at the Pentagon next Friday. For a military service that has suffered under poor leadership for more than a decade, Welsh's arrival can't come soon enough. And the cesspool at Lackland represents his first major test--one he can't afford to fail.

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