Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Changing of the Guard (San Antonio Edition)

Fresh from his "triumph" at Lackland AFB, Colonel Eric Axelbank is headed for bigger and better things at the Pentagon.

For just over a year, Axelbank served as Commander of Lackland's 37th Training Wing, the unit that provides basic military training to all new Air Force enlisted recruits. Axelbank's tenure coincided with the eruption of the worst sex scandal in the history of the unit, and perhaps the service as a whole. At least 17 military training instructors (MTIs) have been accused of sexual misconduct with recruits in their charge. Two have already been court-martialed and more will face justice in the coming months.

While factors that led to the scandal preceded Colonel Axelbank, he was charged with the initial response and by most indications, botched it. As the number of accused MTIs continued to grow, his response was slow. The first officer in the basic training chain-of-command wasn't relieved until this summer. Nine of the accused MTIs worked for Lt Col Michael Paquette, the former commander of the 331st Training Squadron at Lackland. Amazingly, Paquette's reassignment was described as "administrative" in nature, rather than punitive.

A few weeks later, Paquette's immediate supervisor, was relieved as Commander of the 737th Training Group, which supervised the 331st. About the same time, the Air Force announced that Axelbank would relinquish command of the 37th Wing to Colonel Mark Camerer, former head of the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover AFB, Delaware. The handover took place yesterday, in a ceremony that was (uncharacteristically) closed to the media. A spokesman for the USAF's Air Education and Training Command said he "didn't know" why the media was excluded. And presumably, he said it with a straight face.

Obviously, the command media flack knows darn well why the ceremony was off-limits to the press. They didn't want reporters button-holing Alexbank (or other senior officers) about the ever-widening sex scandal and the service's slow response. Axelbank cancelled a press interview scheduled for 15 August, after reviewing questions that reporters planned to ask.

As a reformed journalist, I can't imagine anyone submitting questions to an interview subject in advance. Maybe the media operates a little differently in San Antonio, or perhaps Colonel Axelbank backed out after a prep session with his public affairs staff, realizing that "real" reporters would ask much tougher questions. Whatever the case, it was clear the Air Force wanted Axelbank out of San Antonio without facing the media, and they apparently achieved that goal.

But perhaps the Pentagon press corps will follow up with a few basic questions: first, why was Axelbank allowed the PCS to Washington and not move to an administrative billet in San Antonio, as Paquette and Palmer did? Is Axelbank facing any disciplinary action for his failures as a commander? And just for kicks and grins, they might ask if the Colonel's former boss, Major General Leonard Patrick, was serious when he described Axelbank as a "great wingman."

They might also ask about the results of a study, conducted by a female two-star, into problems at Lackland that caused the scandal. The inquiry, led by Major General Margaret Woodward, has been completed but details have not been released. Many believe the study will highlight a long pattern of misconduct by MTIs with female airmen in basic training or technical school. A recent article by the San Antonio Express-News revealed that two dozen training instructors faced charges over the past decade for illicit conduct with trainees.

Colonel Axelbank didn't create the problems at Lackland, but his tepid response allowed the scandal to fester. And for that effort, the "great wingman" is being sent to the Pentagon? Apparently, the Air Force is trying to hide him in the bureaucracy, or he's someone's fair-haired boy, and they want him out of San Antonio before his career is completely destroyed. As we've noted in the past, the USAF has managed some rather amazing resurrections, rehabilitating officers who presided over other scandals. Given the mess at Lackland, we'd say that Axelbank's career is over, but you never know. And that's part of the larger problem that still faces the Air Force.


Clayton said...

If memory serves me correctly, this is not the first time that Randolf AFB has had a sexual abuse scandal involving instructors/leadership on the base. I believe a similar scandal broke approximately 10 - 15 years ago, infamously involving at least one female instructor and several male cadets.

George Smiley said...

I don't recall the scandal at "Randolph" AFB...that installation, located just north of San Antonio, is an instructor pilot training base and home to the Headquarters of Air Education and Training Command. AETC is the parent command for Lackland, and the current commander of AETC, General Edgar Rice, should be fired for his "response" to the Lackland scandal. However, there are reports that Rice is a personal favorite of Barry O, who may move him "up the food chain" during a second term.