Michelle Zook served five years in the U.S. Air Force as an Air Battle Manager, attaining the rank of captain.
Below is her op-ed, “Major Crises? Huge Shifts in Military Culture Raise Concerns,” in Clash Daily, June 25, 2014:
As potential foreign policy crises plays out in headline after headline in the United States, there’s an even bigger crisis brewing within the nation’s military. Veterans and military personnel are losing faith in the VA, in military leadership, and in civilian leadership. The military as a whole is experiencing a vast cultural shift—some of it brought on by the ops tempo of the last decade—and many service members feel their pay and benefits are constantly under siege by a Congress (and leadership) constantly eyeing ways to balance the budget without angering more important constituencies or giving up pet projects.
Nowhere has this cultural shift been more apparent—or more troubling—than within an Air Force already experiencing increased scrutiny over sexual harassment and personnel issues. Each military branch possesses its own unique culture, brought about through history and a specific mission set. The Air Force relies more than the others on recruiting high quality personnel and then retaining as many of them as possible throughout a twenty-year career. Its mission inherently demands highly-skilled technicians in sometimes difficult to train career fields, where it would be a poor investment to train someone and then lose them a year (or even five years) later.
Because of this, commanders and senior enlisted made it a point to mentor and foster leadership at all levels, and maintain an open relationship throughout the squadron. No one had to tell them to care for their airmen—and, by extension, their airmen’s families—it just happened, because they knew retaining good people made for a better Air Force. It used to not be out of character for a commander to let their airmen know if they were making a decision that would have a fundamental impact on their lives, whether personally, or just a cursory heads up via executive officer or section commander. Commanders wanted personnel to feel invested and involved within the squadron, not just a necessary means to an end, and to this end, they worked to make sure it happened (I will caveat my criticism here by saying that not all commanders have stopped doing this; this is just to say that many have stopped encouraging it or doing so).
Depending on what career field and who you talk to, you’ll get a different answer on when this cultural shift occurred, when the Air Force decided to wake up one morning and that things were going to fundamentally change. Some will, of course, say it happened in 2001, after 9/11. Others will say it took until Air Force personnel began heavily deploying on ILO (in lieu of) taskings, supporting the Army, and many career fields completely went off track of their AEF [Air and Space Expeditionary Force] bands, while others still seem to operate in a pre-9/11 environment. Some will say it happened when the sexual harassment/assault scandals began seeing the light of day after the USAFA sexual assault allegations in 2003. Others will say 2008. Then, of course, there are the Lackland issues of more recent memory.
Regardless, a shift did happen. In the last year, incident after incident has been compiled—and not all of it is (as some would assume) gratuitous whining. The Air Force has taken a black eye with the FY2014 RIF [Reduction in Force] programs—and as members’ separation dates continue to arbitrarily change due to AFPC’s [Air Force Personnel Center] failure to manage the program appropriately despite [USAF Chief of Staff] Gen. [Mark] Welsh’s stated intent, the hits will keep coming. The release of AFI [Air Force Instruction] 1-2 has caused much eye-rolling, but it has also forced many to wonder what is fundamentally wrong with our Air Force if we have to put down on paper what should be common sense.
The issues at Lackland—whether the aftermath of the sexual assault scandals there or the curious case of former squadron commander Lt. Col. Craig Perry—have further done their damage. There are so many rumors of collective punishments for individual actions that noted Air Force blogger John Q. Public has put out a call for more info so it can be determined if these are isolated incidents or if a pattern is developing (whether or not this is common practice in other branches isn’t the question—this is atypical of Air Force culture, which is why this is noteworthy).
There are many who will say that this is the military, and this is military culture, so what difference does it make? After all, it’s a volunteer military, and if you don’t like it, then you just leave, right? Ignoring the common misconception that once you’re in the military you can just leave (active duty service commitment, anyone?), there’s a bigger problem with this, and that is as we continue to drawdown and lose valuable personnel, we are losing valuable mentors and experience along the way without bothering to ask why.
Secondly, by dismissing it, we fail to see it as a learning point or explore why, precisely, the culture is changing so drastically. It is the utmost in intellectual laziness to shortcut to a blame Obama theme; many of those who have created this environment accessed in the Reagan/Bush 41 years and came up through the ranks during Clinton and Bush 43. That means they were fostered and mentored by those who came through the ranks in the 1970s and 1980s, indicating that this has either been a systemic, underlying problem all along, or that something else has caused a fundamental breakdown in leadership in the last decade. If our Air Force can be so sorely tested to this point by Afghanistan and Iraq, to the point that a toxic environment has possibly been created, what would happen in a protracted war with a major superpower?
Military culture is important to all Americans, regardless of whether or not they have served, because a toxic environment and distrust in leadership creates an inherent weakness in American force projection. It weakens American foreign policy. At a time when Russia is potentially resurging and the Middle East is about to go up in flames, can America really afford to risk that?
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