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Relieved of command

Leader tried to reach out; investigation cites favoritism

May. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Lt. Col. Craig Perry and his wife, Caroline, attended the Military Training Instructor Association honors banquet in October.
Lt. Col. Craig Perry and his wife, Caroline, attended the Military Training Instructor Association honors banquet in October. (Courtesy photo)
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Lt. Col. Craig Perry and his wife, Caroline, involved themselves in the personal lives of airmen and families at their new command, a leadership approach encouraged from the top down to help identify those in need.

A month after Perry took the helm of a support squadron sustaining basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in July, Caroline revived the languishing Key Spouse Program to reach out to families in her husband’s unit. She delivered baby gifts to first-time parents, cooked lunches for flight members and welcomed an airman alone during the holidays into their home.

But what the Perrys considered acts of kindness expected of commanders, investigators called favoritism and fraternization.

A January command-directed investigation report obtained by Air Force Times concluded Perry engaged in unprofessional relationships with enlisted members in his organization. He was relieved of command of the 737th Training Support Squadron on March 27 and issued a letter of reprimand.

Col. Mark Camerer, commander of the 37th Training Wing, said in an email statement he lost confidence in Perry’s ability to lead the squadron.

Once a standout officer on track for promotion to colonel, Perry has little hope of salvaging his career.

Whether he is being treated fairly is a matter of debate.

Perry may not have intentionally had unprofessional relationships or shown favoritism, the report said. Some applauded Perry’s fairness and others recalled favoritism.

“If you’re going to be relieved for things like favoritism, it should be a clear-cut case. They do not sound like clear-cut cases to me,” a retired officer told Air Force Times.

First-time commander

Perry briefly taught high school math in his native San Antonio after graduating from Brown University at the top of his class. He was commissioned in the Air Force in 1994, following in the footsteps of his grandfathers, who were combat pilots.

He spent much of his nearly two-decade career overseas as an intelligence officer, earning a master’s degree in Russia through the Olmsted Scholar Program. He was looking forward to commanding an operational unit in his career field last summer when he was handpicked to help lead one of nine basic military training squadrons in the wake of a sexual misconduct scandal that made headlines around the country.

“When he heard he was being put in charge of a BMT squadron instead, he was a little concerned, since he wasn’t all that familiar with enlisted basic training,” Caroline said in an email. “But he knew Air Force leadership wouldn’t have selected him for this opportunity if they didn’t think he was up to the challenge — and besides, he was excited to tackle this critical mission.”

The new assignment also returned the Perrys to their hometown where they would be close to family and friends, she said.

When no one from the squadron or the 737th Training Group reached out with a welcome during Perry’s first month on the job, Caroline said she made it her mission to resuscitate the Air Force-sanctioned Key Spouse Program within the unit. The program provides an extra layer of support for airmen and encourages interaction among families — two of Perry’s top priorities when he took command of the squadron.

Caroline became a Key Spouse mentor, recruiting two other spouses for outreach. Perry “made every effort to reach out to all the sections in the squadron, and I helped in every way I possibly could,” Caroline said.

Perry showed “every single person ... the same attention as anyone else,” a master sergeant would later write in a character reference. “Most commanders are too ‘busy’ to make their way to each shop every single week ... but he makes it a point to go to all of his areas at least once a week. Lt. Col. Perry is a people person; he does things to make his subordinates’ morale as high as possible.”

When a member of the unit “had a medical condition that was life changing ... [Perry] personally sent her flowers, in hopes to make the day a little less devastating for her and her family,” the master sergeant wrote.

Air Force leadership for years has encouraged commanders to know their airmen, to learn their stories and stay involved in their lives.

That guidance became a new Air Force instruction in May. Called “Commander’s Responsibilities” it requires commanders to be aware of issues that could affect the climate and morale of their units — both on- and off-duty.

“Commanders have the unique authority and responsibility to engage in the lives of their subordinates, where appropriate, to improve quality of life, promote unit morale, and ensure all members are treated with dignity and respect,” the instruction states.

In a May 21 news release, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh called the most important job as commanders “is to take care of the sons and daughters our nation has entrusted to us.”

Caroline said the Perrys sent welcome letters to incoming airmen and their families, kept track of birthdays and deployments and visited ill squadron members in the hospital.

When the couple learned a military training instructor was alone on Christmas, they invited him to their home. And when one airman was hospitalized, Caroline had his visiting mother over for dinner.

The efforts were recognized in November when BMT commander Col. Deborah Liddick selected Caroline’s Key Spouse team to brief the head of Air Education and Training Command during a visit. Under Caroline’s mentorship, the wife of an airman in Perry’s unit was named Key Spouse of the Year for the 37th Training Wing.

In December, Perry learned he was being removed from command pending the outcome of a command-directed investigation. He was moved across base and barred from contacting anyone in his squadron.

'Perception of favoritism'

At least one person complained Perry’s interaction with some of his subordinates undermined the chain of command, according to the investigation report.

Another said the squadron commander seemed to favor “Blue Ropes,” a cadre of top performing military training instructors. One witness stated Perry spent “extensive amounts of time” with his superintendent, that their relationship went “beyond a normal working relationship” and that the Perrys had socialized with the superintendent and her family outside of work.

Others told investigators Perry seemed to favor three people whose names were redacted from the report.

One airman complained that the Perrys had hosted a surprise party at their home for a chief master sergeant headed for Korea without inviting the entire squadron.

The gathering, the guest of honor would later write on Perry’s behalf, “was Lt. Col. Perry and his wife reaching out to my family and making sure they understood that they were going to make an investment in my family while I was gone and thank me for a job well done. ... no inappropriate or unprofessional conduct was going on. It was simply a going-away dinner personalized by Mrs. Perry.”

When the complaints reached Liddick, she cautioned Perry against any future functions that didn’t include the entire squadron, the report said.

Perry appeared to take the counseling to heart. “He has fully complied with her guidance in this matter,” the report said. “No other incidents of this behavior were noted.”

Perry’s “ actions may not have resulted in any real benefits of favoritism,” the report said. “But both his subordinates and 737 [Training Group] leadership believe there is favoritism or the perception of favoritism being shown by Lt. Col. Perry.”

He should be held “administratively accountable” and commit himself to correcting the problem, the investigator wrote.

Perry’s superintendent was moved to another squadron, although there is no indication in the report that Perry was counseled for the alleged favoritism he showed her and her family.

Amid accusations of unfair treatment, Perry was also at odds with his own bosses, the investigation found.

Liddick and Perry disagreed over who should be the new commandant of the MTI school, according to the report.

Some witnesses interviewed said Perry commented in staff meetings about Liddick’s over-involvement in squadron business. Others said they hadn’t heard Perry say anything untoward.

Perry denied making the remarks but said “if he had occasionally expressed confusion over appropriate roles and responsibilities, he certainly meant no disrespect,” the investigator said.

The comments he was accused of making “were not that severe,” nor were there any “tangible reported results in the breakdown of the [chain] of command,” the report said. Still, Perry’s remarks “had the effect of undermining her [Liddick’s]authority and were prejudicial to good order and discipline.”

The report also said Perry may have been playing favorites when he removed a letter of reprimand from the file of his superintendent who had failed to forward reports of MTI misconduct to her former commander.

Perry and several other squadron members interviewed as part of the investigation said they’d received conflicting guidance on how to handle negative information in personnel files.

Parry believed he was allowed to pull the LOR at the time because its contents had already been documented in the superintendent’s enlisted performance report and was unrelated to maltraining, maltreatment or sexual misconduct, he told the investigator.

The report indicates squadron commanders had been authorized to remove the documents from the files of subordinates, even though it violated 2nd Air Force policy. At least three other squadron commanders said they’d pulled similar paperwork from files.

“It is clear that there was confusing and/or conflicting guidance among the 737th Training Wing squadron commanders about whether or not derogatory information could be removed,” the investigator found. Whether at the command level or wing level, the Air Force needed to clear it up.

Perry, the report said, had “showed either a lack of judgment or a lack of experience.”

The investigator recommended counseling and remedial training.

Normal interactions?

Two squadron commanders who wrote letters on Perry’s behalf said his performance was no different from his peers.

In an interview with Air Force Times, a retired lieutenant colonel who does not know the Perrys said their outreach efforts do not seem unusual.

“As a commander, I would always reserve the right to invite my superintendent over to my home or my chief master sergeant,” said retired Lt. Col. Tony Carr, a former squadron and deputy group commander.

“I’ve had troops to my house when they were alone. It’s an Air Force tradition that has deep roots. Having someone over to your home as a leader is a good thing to do, especially around the holidays,” Carr said.

The case against Perry does not sound like a clear-cut case of favoritism, he said. “I’m speaking in generalities without knowing the details of the case. But it would surprise and alarm me if the Air Force would relieve someone from command for what is considered normal social interactions or taking care of people the way we encourage commanders to do.”

More and more, the Air Force has encouraged what he described as the “helicopter parenting model” in leaders’ interactions with their troops, the retired commander said. “I think we’ve been pushing too far. If we’re doing that — and we are — we shouldn’t turn around and hold any commander to a weird standard. That should not and would not be the normal basis for someone being relieved. It’s alarming if that happens.”

Collen McGee, a spokeswoman for basic military training, said the Air Force could not comment on the Perry case because of privacy rules.

While the new Air Force instruction charges commanders to take care of their people, McGee said, “they are not supposed to provide an atmosphere where there is any preferential treatment. It’s supposed to be equal and unilateral across the unit. There cannot be an appearance of a better relationship with one than another. This is a business. Commanders have to ensure they are taking care of business equally.”

Reassigned

Perry learned in May he is being reassigned to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana less than a year after he and his wife bought a home in San Antonio. He was also issued a career-ending referral officer performance report, and his LOR was filed in his officer selection record for his upcoming promotion board. Camerer also recommended his permanent removal from the senior development in residence program, for which Perry was previously selected.

Caroline said she is hopeful command leadership will take another look at Perry’s case.

“It feels like our entire world has fallen apart these last five months,” Caroline said. “I think the hardest part is just not understanding what happened.”

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