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Dismissed majors say warning wasn't enough

Jul. 15, 2011 - 02:34PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 15, 2011 - 02:34PM  |  
Maj. Brian Bause, a rated air traffic controller, is one of 157 majors who must leave the Air Force by Nov. 30 because they were passed over for promotion twice.
Maj. Brian Bause, a rated air traffic controller, is one of 157 majors who must leave the Air Force by Nov. 30 because they were passed over for promotion twice. (Courtesy of Maj. Brian Baude)
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Majors dismissed

Call it betrayal. Or a broken promise. Maj. Brian Baude says the Air Force he's served as an air traffic control officer for 15 years, through domestic and overseas tours and multiple deployments, cast him adrift without warning.

The Air Force says he was given a fair shake.

He begs to differ. Baude is among 157 majors who will be dismissed from the Air Force this fall after an officer continuation board determined their service was no longer needed. Not since the early 1990s has the Air Force dismissed majors this way, and the news is rattling officers all across the service who have grown used to expecting that making major is as good as locking in a 20-year retirement.

Baude got the news in a letter from his commander. His last day is Nov. 30.

It wasn't that Baude didn't understand the system. He knew not being selected for promotion could spell the end of his career. The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, or DOPMA, allows the Air Force to release officers in his situation. Having already been passed over once, he had carefully read every official message about the drawdown he could get his hands on, and had been doing so for more than a year.

But while separation was a theoretical possibility, Baude simply didn't think it was realistic. Every major he knew who had been passed over twice had been allowed to stay for 20 and earn a retirement. And the Air Force hadn't specifically sounded the alarm about majors — not the way it had about lieutenant colonels and colonels.

All of the 157 majors earned their commissions in 1996. They come from all across the service — airborn warning and control systems crew members and navigators, air traffic controllers, personnel and medical services officers and more. Some had just 14 years of service under their belts; others had 17 years, and were just shy of "sanctuary" at 18 years, at which point they can't be separated short of retirement without specific cause.

Officers interviewed by Air Force Times all said they have deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan and said that while they may not have perfect records, they aren't bad apples. As Baude put it, "None of us had criminal records."

In early June, the records of 6,438 majors — 3,033 in or above zone — went before the promotions board for majors and lieutenant colonels; 1,054 majors in or above zone were selected for promotion. The records of the 245 majors twice passed over then went before a selective continuation board; 157 got the boot, 88 — many of them pilots — get to retire.

The selective continuation board based its decisions on the needs of the Air Force and whether an officer was qualified to hold a critical skill job, according to personnel officials who spoke on background.

Many of the majors told Air Force Times they don't understand why they didn't get promoted and are even more confused about why they don't get to stay, despite being passed over twice. They talked about their experience, their skills and their dedication.

Baude, an Air Force Academy graduate, holds himself up as an example. He has a laundry list of accomplishments from his 15 years as an officer.

"I've had 10 assignments, five overseas short tours, four deployments and, thanks to all that, two ex-wives," he said.

Fair warning

The Air Force doesn't think any of the majors should have been surprised they were cut.

First, they each received a letter after they were passed over the first time that clearly states continuation is not a right, according personnel officials.

"If the Air Force offers you selective continuation," the letter reads, "mandatory separation will not be required; however, it is important to note that there is no guarantee a selective continuation board will be authorized."

Then, in February, Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz sent an email to every airman laying out the Air Force's force-shaping measures. The message points out the "over strength situation is such that offers of selective continuation for twice deferred officers may be limited" but promising more information would be communicated at the base level and through the support centers.

"If I was supposed to infer from a blurb that I was in trouble, I didn't," said a C-130 navigator, adding he received no further instructions.

Besides the letter and the email, the Air Force put out the message about selective continuation other ways, according to personnel officials. One was webinars on force management policy. The navigator knew about the webinars but couldn't attend because of other duties, he said.

"Nowhere in anything did they put forth anything about majors, unless you inferred that from (Schwartz's email)," said the navigator, who asked not to be named because he might want to transfer to a reserve component.

Baude took Schwartz's email to heart and called the Air Force Personnel Center to find out if he could retire even if he didn't make lieutenant colonel. The answer, he said, was a clear yes. Captains, he was told, would be the ones not selected for continuation.

Several majors told Air Force Times they had been told the same thing, by both AFPC and their commanders.

"In my 18-year affiliation with the Air Force — including ROTC — I didn't know of anyone who wasn't selected for continuation — unless they had a quality indicator such as an Article 15 or [drunken driving] charge," said an AWACS crew member, who also requested anonymity. "That was the standing context; that was my entire experience; that was the expectation."

A Defense Department directive states O-4s passed over twice for promotion with at least 14 years of service "shall normally be selected for continuation," and Air Force majors have been allowed to retire — until this year. The last time the service summarily dismissed officers with 15 years was about 20 years ago, as part of the post-Cold War drawdown, according to several separated majors who had researched the date.

In the early 1990s, the Temporary Early Retirement Authority allowed for retirement at 15 to 20 years at a reduced rate.

When the Air Force opts to not let a major retire, it must explain its decision in writing to the defense secretary.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley informed Defense Secretary Robert Gates in December that the Air Force would be denying continuation to some officers within the policy's stated six-year window.

Hard times

When the majors clean out their desks in about five months, they'll each receive about $125,000 in involuntary separation pay.

The sum, before taxes, is just about a year's salary for a separated AWACS crew chief, who has a wife, three children and a mortgage. He declined to be identified.

"Our finances were set toward me finishing," he said. "I have a couple of trucks that are fairly new — one of those is up for sale. I got a camper and that's up for sale. I don't know how I'm going to make ends meet. Everything I'm seeing online is a $30,000 to $40,000 job and we were making close to $100,000 before."

If he could stay until 2017, when he would have had 20 years in, he would receive $3,863 a month, or nearly $46,400 a year, as well as health insurance for his family. Over his lifetime, if he lived another 30 years, the 37-year-old major would have received $1,354,138 under the High-3 retirement plan. The amount is adjusted for a 2 inflation rate and a 2 percent annual pay raise.

"If they are going to take us to 15 years, why don't they offer us an early retirement at a lower rate than you'd get at 20?" he said. "At least let us keep our [military identification cards] and keep our benefits. ... I've never paid for a prescription, I've never paid for a pair of glasses, I've never paid for any of these things."

Gates agrees the military needs to overhaul its retirement system. In testimony before Congress shortly before he retired June 30, Gates said the military should offer early benefits for the many service members who don't make it to 20 years. He supported a plan for those who put in at least five years.

"About 70 to 80 percent of our force does not stay in the service long enough to retire, but they leave with nothing," Gates said. "That doesn't make any sense."

High anxiety

The majors headed for civilian life aren't the only ones nervous about what lies ahead. Majors passed over once are worried, too. Their retirement seems to be on the line now — and they could be right.

"I was just passed over on the Lt. Col. board," one major wrote below the Air Force's online announcement of selections to lieutenant colonel and major. "Now I'm worried about continuation. ... I feared that my carefully laid retirement job plan is in jeopardy."

Maj. Gen. Sharon Dunbar, the Air Force's top force management officer, isn't ruling out the possibility of cutting more twice-deferred majors in the future to bring down end strength. Congress has mandated a force of 332,800 by the end of fiscal 2012; the service has cut 3,000 enlisted airmen since April 2010 and estimates it will have cut 2,300 officers — through voluntary and involuntary programs — by the end of next year.

"Our flexibility in selectively continuing officers will likely remain limited until we reach our funded end strength level," Dunbar said in a statement.

Like this year, according to Dunbar, the call to deny selective continuation next year lies with Donley and "decisions regarding the fiscal 2012 Force Management Program have not yet been made."

Dunbar stressed that the Air Force understands the impact on the majors and their families, which is why it is offering career counseling workshops and encouraging the officers to transfer to a reserve component so they can earn retirement pay and benefits.

"Many of the officers have also already been contacted by the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve," she said. "In addition, well-established comprehensive Transition Assistance Planning classes are also geared to posture Airmen for success during and after transition from active duty."

A Medical Service Corps officer on the way out thinks the Air Force isn't treating its airmen right and needs to do better.

"There is a person attached to whatever actions that you put out there," said the major, who wants to transfer to the Guard or the Reserve. "Human beings deserve to be treated better."

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