Aiming High in the Air Force: 2005, Part One: I’d Like a Mulligan

The events of the last two months clearly illustrated to me that my supervisor and superintendent were, most assuredly, not on my side. In fact, they were actively trying to find an excuse–any excuse–to build a case to force me out of the military.

Airman Harlan, 2005

I couldn’t figure out why. The most plausible explanation, according to another senior sergeant that I worked with, seemed to be that they felt threatened by how much more I knew about our job than they did: my supervisor wasn’t even from our career field and had never been trained for our primary job, and my superintendent had been in a headquarters position for several years, and the job had changed significantly in that time. Whether this was true or not, I’ll probably never know.

What I did know was that they were obviously out to end my military career. They’d flat-out said as much to my face. I kept my head down, and tried not to do anything that would draw negative attention to myself; I would ride this out, and eventually, things would get better. My supervisor was removed from the flight following complaints by myself and others in the flight to the Inspector General‘s office, and I was then placed under the supervision of one of my peers, who had recently been promoted to Staff Sergeant.

On Friday, March 18, 2005, we had an F-16 crash just short of the runway. As though trying to respond to an incident like that wasn’t bad enough, exactly one week later, on Friday, March 25, 2005, an F-15 crashed up in the moutains, about 50 miles North of the base. It was as though the universe had noticed that we’d had fewer crashes than usual the previous year and was trying to catch up on the quota. Naturally, the base’s public affairs office was in fine form; one of their Master Sergeants was quoted in the Air Force Times as saying that “It is the second crash within a week, but we have a tremendous safety record out here at Nellis.” The quote was so ridiculous, even if it was true, that I clipped it out and framed it, then put it up on my desk. (The online edition, apparently, had a longer edit of the quote, which added the clarification “with the amount of sorties we fly each year” to the end…)

Meanwhile, I kept volunteering with the local Boy Scout troop as an Assistant Scoutmaster, I kept attending classes in the evening at the local community college and on base, and I even joined the Las Vegas Astronomical Society, but otherwise, I went to work, quietly did my job, and went home.

That could only last so long. In April, I was asked at the end of the day on Friday to fill a last-minute vacancy for M-16 qualification training on Monday morning. Unfortunately, over the course of the weekend, I completely forgot. I went to PT at the base running track as normal on Monday morning, and my superintendent said nothing. My car had long since given up the ghost and was unable to even start, so I was riding my bicycle everywhere; since it was five miles from the enlisted dorms on main base to my office in Area II, it obviously took me a little longer than anyone else to get to work. In fact, pretty much everyone passed me on their way to the office after PT, as I biked my way over to shower and change in the warehouse’s bathroom.

After I’d sat at my desk and prepared myself for the day’s tasks, I realized that I was supposed to have gone to the weapons qualification training, which had started more than an hour earlier while I was still running around the track for the morning’s PT. My heart sank. I went to my superintendent’s office. There was no getting around it; one way or another, she’d find out, and I figured it was best to get the news from me, as early as possible.

“I screwed up,” I told her. “I was supposed to be at M-16 this morning, and I forgot and just went to work as normal.” She reacted as though it wasn’t a problem. I figured it wasn’t, either, because every week I saw the list of names from the Combat Arms flight for everyone on base that missed the training. Every week, it was a fairly hefty list.

Knowing that she was just waiting for me to slip up, however, I fully expected the call to appear in my superintendent’s office that afternoon. I expected that I would be presented with another Letter of Reprimand, and this time, I knew I deserved one. Instead, I was informed that I would be receiving an Article 15 punishment.

An Article 15–also known as “Captain’s Mast” in naval services–gets its name from the provision of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that allows a unit commander to conduct nonjudicial punishment. Effectively, the commander acts as sole arbiter in cases that don’t normally rise to a level requiring a full court martial trial, but are still considered serious breaches of military discipline and regulations.

I prepared a statement in my defense, and presented it to my commander. He, apparently, was unmoved. Taking the advice and counsel of my superintendent, who was responsible for elevating the case to an Article 15 to begin with, my colonel ordered that, effective immediately, I was reduced in rank by one grade, from Airman First Class (E-3) to Airman (E-2). My first sergeant also let me know that he believed I was a worthless piece of crap that didn’t belong in “his” Air Force, and that I should pack my bags and prepare to be forcibly separated from the military.

Dorm Room

After going back to my room to change out of my dress uniform, I took one of my BDU shirts to the tailor shop to have my old, two-stripe A1C insignia replaced with my new, single-stripe Airman insignia. It was humiliating; I should have been adding a stripe, not losing one over something so petty as a missed appointment, especially when I knew of hundreds of other people on base who’d missed the same appointment, and I was certain no one else on base lost a stripe over it.

When I went back to work, my colleagues reacted in shock and disbelief, then anger at my demotion. The Master Sergeant who had offered his theory on why he felt I was being singled out, and was the only senior NCO to stand up for me, recommended that I file a complaint with the base Inspector General’s office. As I began to draft my complaint, I discovered that another member of my squadron also missed M-16 training a few days later, with no apparent repercussions. What’s worse, another Airman in my squadron missed his flight to training being conducted in Florida–what the military calls “missed movement”–because he’d gone out drinking the night before and passed out in his room when he was supposed to have been leaving for the airport, yet he only received a Letter of Reprimand. Clearly, I was being singled out, and was being punished far in excess of my peers.

From that point on, I kept my head down even further and tried not to draw any attention to myself. Obviously, everything I did was being recorded and micro-analyzed for any possible use against me, and my superintendent was just waiting for me to make another mistake. Likewise, I started paying closer attention to her. I continued my off-duty activities, but otherwise I didn’t do anything that might make me stand out.

My first sergeant, along with my now-former supervisor and superintendent, had apparently filed paperwork with the base Judge Advocate General (JAG) office to forcibly separate me from the Air Force, but it was almost immediately rejected by JAG, since there wasn’t a case to be made beyond a missed appointment and failure to pass my PT tests. I wouldn’t be surprised if the JAG officer reviewing the file laughed in their faces.

A few weeks after my demotion, my former supervisor, obviously trying to bolster the case to get me booted from the military, gave me one of the lowest possible scores on my annual Enlisted Performance Report (EPR). I was stunned that he was the one writing my EPR, since he hadn’t been my supervisor for nearly three months. Apparently, however, my superintendent had conveniently never filed the paperwork officially transferring me to my new supervisor’s command. What was more ridiculous was that the bullets section, which synopsized my performance with actual facts, rather than just a number, in no way supported such a low score… unless you actually believe that someone who was “consistently given outstanding feedback by students,” or who had volunteered to work on weekends to give first aid classes to people deploying for Hurricane Katrina relief missions, and posted an improvement of nearly 25 points on his PT test, was someone who “brought discredit upon the Air Force.”

More egregiously, I also discovered–when I confirmed that he was still technically my supervisor, at least on paper–that my former supervisor, almost immediately after having been removed from the flight in the wake of the IG investigation, filed paperwork to deny my eligibility for reenlistment, on the grounds of my poor PT performance–the same performance listed as a significant improvement in my EPR, which he’d also written. This paperwork, besides being filed three years before I would have been up for reenlistment anyhow, had the side effect of rendering me ineligible for promotion or transfer–effectively killing my career.

I added this to my mounting complaint with the Inspector General’s office, as I felt this was clearly retaliation for the previous IG complaint that removed him from the flight, and was in flagrant violation of regulations that prohibited retaliation against individuals who sought aid from the IG. My former supervisor didn’t have a leg to stand on, and the denial of reenlistment paperwork he’d filed was removed about a month later.

The IG declined to overturn my demotion, despite the mounting evidence that my former supervisor and my superintendent were clearly out to sabotage my career. Though my former supervisor had been removed from the flight, and the paperwork had been expunged from my record, they wouldn’t go any further. My commander, they said, was operating under the best information he had available at the time, and they didn’t want to overturn that decision. Even if that was their job.

That was the final straw for me. After the Master Sergeant who had stood up for me was pressured into retirement, I no longer had any friends in the senior NCO cadre of my flight. I filed for a transfer. Anywhere had to be better than where I was. I checked with the personnel office to learn which bases had openings coming up. Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, had one, and I requested it as my #1 choice on my updated “dream sheet.” My brother had recently completed a 15-month tour there, and had enjoyed it; hopefully, it would be the change that I needed.

Boy Scout Troop 117

The highlight of the year for me, then, was when I got to take the Boy Scout troop to summer camp in late July. By this time, three months had passed since my demotion, and I had apparently impressed my commander with my military bearing and professionalism during and after the Article 15 proceedings. He’d apparently kept an eye on me, independent of my superintendent, after becoming aware of my IG complaint, though he never reversed his decision to demote me. With his permission, I was able to take a week off from work without using my leave time, in order to accompany the boys to camp.

The Boulder Dam Area Council–which renamed itself to the Las Vegas Area Council later that year–held the summer camp that we attended at the Spencer W. Kimball Scout Reservation, past Red Rock Canyon. The camp was built on the face of Mt. Potosi; at the base was a swimming pool, administration buildings, and a trading post. Our campsite was nearly a half mile further up the mountainside, and it was a fairly intense workout just going to and from camp each day. During that week, I helped the scouts in my troop learn many valuable skills, not the least of which were early lessons in leadership. They also learned survival skills, marksmanship and gun safety, astronomy, knot tying, and more. One day, they even learned how to hand-churn ice cream, which they ate as the dessert with their dinner that evening. The week passed all too quickly, and before we knew it, it was time to go back home.

The year was only halfway through, and so much had happened, despite my efforts to keep my head down and stay out of trouble. Surely, I’d hoped, the rest of the year would be better.

Well… yes and no.

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