The Air Force's removal of a squadron commander for showing favoritism to subordinates in his unit has some in the service wondering about the boundaries of what constitutes improper fraternization and favoritism in military units.
Lt. Col. Craig Perry, former commander of the 737th Training Support Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, was formally removed from command in March for making derogatory statements about his immediate commander, deciding not to investigate alleged misconduct against one of his favored subordinates, and removing a letter of reprimand from the same subordinate's personnel file, according to Air Force officials.
"His actions communicated a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of unprofessional relationships, the way unprofessional relationships can create perceptions of favoritism, and the impact his actions had on good order and discipline in his squadron and within the group," said Rose Richeson, an Air Force spokeswoman.
Perry was removed from command in December 2013. He received a letter of reprimand on March 10 and then relieved from command on March 27 after the wing commander upheld the letter of reprimand in March following an investigation.
Perry, however, said the allegations and the results of the formal months-long Air Force investigation are inaccurate – and that he was unfairly removed from command. In particular, Perry told Military.com that his commanding officer authorized him to remove the letter of reprimand in question.
He also disputes the Air Force's official accounting of his firing. He said his original letter of reprimand did not cite his decision not to investigate alleged misconduct against one of his favored subordinates.
In addition, Perry said the claim that he chose not to investigate a favored subordinate accused of wrongdoing is also inaccurate. He said that he was familiar with the case in question and that there had been no wrongdoing.
"I chose not to investigate because I was already familiar with what happened, and knew no misconduct had occurred," he said.
Overall, Perry said he was shocked to learn of the accusations against him.
"It came as quite a shock when my boss called me into her office the day after Christmas, and told me I was being removed from command because I was under investigation. I had no idea what the allegations were, and my boss claimed she didn't know either. She had her deputy escort me out of the building to an office on a remote part of the base, and it was several weeks before anyone told me what the allegations were," Perry said.
Perry, who is still assigned to JBSA-Lackland, said he was being unfairly punished for being involved in the lives of subordinates in his command.
Perry and his wife Caroline had been involved in helping the members of the squadron and their families, leading them to wonder if Air Force investigators were drawing too tight a boundary around how involved commanders can be when it comes to helping airmen.
Perry says he and his wife were unfairly singled out by the Air Force chain of command.
"One of the hardest things about this ordeal was the way my wife, Caroline, and I were abandoned by my chain of command. My commander, the first sergeant, nobody ever checked on us to see how we were doing. Worse, my boss bullied any of my fellow squadron commanders who reached out to me, and the wing commander made it clear to them that he didn't appreciate the letters of support they wrote in my defense," he said.
Air Force officials, however, said it was the removal of the letter of reprimand, favoritism and the appearance of favoritism – not fraternization – that resulted in Perry's removal from command.
Air Force officials praised the Perry family for their work with subordinates.
"To be clear, Lt. Col. Perry and his wife Caroline's concerted efforts to care for Air Force families were unrelated to the reasons he was relieved from command. Commanders have the unique authority and responsibility to engage in the lives of their subordinates and be aware of on- and off-duty factors affecting their climate and morale. By all accounts, the Perrys were successful in engaging in the lives of their subordinates," Richeson said.
In particular, the Air Force praised the Perrys for their creation of a special program to help families in the unit called the Key Spouse Program.
"As a couple, they demonstrated their commitment to their squadron families in a number of different acts. All were good examples of the types of behavior we admire in our commanders and in all Air Force members," Richeson added.
Col. Sean McKenna, director of Air Education and Training Command, Public Affairs, Joint Base San Antonio, Randolph, said the Air Force stands by its investigation.
"This is in no way associated with a commander taking care of his people. We in the Air Force encourage communication with subordinates. The specific allegations were not fraternization but more favoritism. The reports that he was relieved from command because he engaged in the lives of his subordinates are incorrect," McKenna told Military.com.
Subsequent reviews of the investigation have upheld the initial findings, Air Force officials maintained.
"All of the allegations were thoroughly reviewed and investigated at multiple levels and the reviews determined the investigations and follow on actions were appropriate," Richeson added.
However, Perry maintains that JBSA-Lackland wound up establishing an overly prosecutorial atmosphere in the wake of the Air Force Basic Military Training sexual assault scandal investigation in 2011. The scandal involved as many as 43 female trainees who were sexually assaulted by their military training instructors. Perry said the fall out prompted the Air Force to scrutinize and intensely crack down on superior-subordinate relations at the base.
While he applauds and strongly supports the efforts to combat sexual misconduct, Perry wonders if the Air Force is over-correcting or going too far with the prosecution of instructors in a way that damages service members by going after extremely minor violations.
"The Lackland staff judge advocate set up a ‘prosecution task force' to go after all the MTIs (military training instructors) who had committed crimes, but that pool had pretty much dried up by the time I assumed command last July. But rather than stand down, they just kept going after MTIs for increasingly minor policy violations. It created an atmosphere of fear and isolation which persists to this day," Perry said.
-- Kris Osborn can be reached at email@example.com