It was the shot heard 'round the Air Force.
On Nov. 7, Wright-Patterson Air Force base posted a commentary from 88th Communications Group commander Col. Donald Grannan entitled, "How did we lose this young Airman?" In the short space of a dozen paragraphs, Grannan related the story of a bright, talented, and driven airman he knew who, nevertheless, chose not to reenlist because "in her words, the Air Force had made it clear it didn't want her." and He pointed the finger at failures in the service's leadership culture.
The anonymous airman — who was not in Grannan's chain of command — deployed twice, was a distinguished graduate of Airman Leadership School, aced her Enlisted Performance Reports, and earned staff sergeant her first time testing, Grannan said. But she also encountered a lack of support and encouragement from her superiors. Grannan said.
Grannan said the departing airman's superiors decided not to give her a decoration because she once failed the run portion of a physical fitness test, which she immediately re-took and passed.
"This young, healthy airman, who weighs a buck-twenty-five, did not have a fitness or standards problem," Grannan wrote. "She had a leadership problem. No one in her squadron leadership knew about or was present to witness her exceptional duty performance, her distinguished graduate accomplishment, her two deployments or early promotion. But they sure knew about the one time she stumbled."
Grannan clearly touched a nerve. Over the weekend, his commentary went viral. As of Nov. 13, it had been liked on Facebook at least 22,000 times, shared thousands more times, and been hotly debated over thousands of online comments. Some current and former airmen think Grannan has hit on serious problems with the Air Force's leadership that they see every day.
"Good on the Colonel," retired Master Sgt. Kirk Mooneyham wrote on the Air Force's Facebook page. "It's a message that the top level leadership really needs to hear, and take to heart. The Colonel hit the proverbial nail on the head with a giant sledgehammer."
Others said in comments they thought there was another side to the story that's not being told, or that young airmen should not expect to be coddled.
"Ya because it's all rainbows [and] roses in the real world," a commenter named Kelly Sanderson wrote on the Air Force's Facebook page. "I enlisted [on] the premise of what I could do for my country not what my country could do for me. It's shameful how recognition has become so important to those that 'volunteer' to serve."
In a Nov. 12 interview with Air Force Times, Grannan said he is shocked, but pleased, to see the debate his article sparked.
"I was absolutely floored," Grannan said. "I had no idea that issue was so prevalent and so passionate. I think that validates that we do have an issue here we need to look at."
Grannan said that when his turn to write a commander's commentary for Wright-Patterson's base newspaper came around, he wanted to write about leadership in a way airmen could relate to.
Grannan said he sees "a leadership gap" in the Air Force. He doesn't think the Air Force's leadership is failing out of maliciousness. But leaders at all levels are overworked and "task-saturated," he said, and are being forced to delegate more and more duties. below them.
Delegation makes sense for some tasks and authorities, Grannan said. But when it comes to things that have a real effect on airmen's careers, lives and well-being, leaders shouldn't delegate and should make an effort to see what's really going on with those airmen.
"A lot of leaders at all levels are not engaged, and that makes it hard to make a whole person assessment," Grannan said. "It's hard to talk about a person when you're not engaged. As commanders and leaders, we owe them to be engaged and not delegate involvement."
Without that kind of engagement, he said, it's hard for supervisors to tell the difference between an airman who made and then learned from a mistake — such as the anonymous airman who failed a PT test — and a slacker who refuses to improve.
"This is nothing cosmic," Grannan said. "It's something every leader is taught at some point. We just have to make sure we're living up to it, and not missing out on opportunities because we have a responsibility to our airmen."
When asked whether he can be sure the problems he's highlighting aren't happening under his command, nose, Grannan said, "That's a fair question."
"I like to think we're training supervisors and leaders well, and they're training their people well," Grannan said. "Every time an issue comes up, that's a teaching moment for subordinate leaders. We train leaders to be engaged."
For example, Grannan said, if there's a radio or phone outage at Wright-Patterson, he tries to go out and observe how his airmen are fixing the problem. Or if his airmen are setting up a network for a big event, he'll take a look and speak with his subordinate leaders to see how things are going.
"I want to walk around, [and have them] show me what's been done, and who's on shift, so I can say, 'Yes, they're great guys, I know they're on it,'" Grannan said.
But the trick to such "management by walking around," as Grannan called it, is to make sure leaders don't cross the line into micromanaging.
Grannan said his wing commander was supportive of his commentary.
"He appreciated that I tried to take a slightly different approach, and continually challenges wing leadership to take a look inward and see how we can make a difference," Grannan said in a follow-up email.
While the anonymous airman in the commentary wasn't in Grannan's chain of command, he doesn't entirely absolve himself of his responsibility for losing her. He described a minor traffic accident in which an incident at the airman's first duty station where a senior noncommissioned officer's car hit hers from behind. in a minor traffic accident. The SNCO berated and intimidated the airman instead of admitting fault. When the airman asked her first sergeant for help, he didn't intervene — but neither did Grannan, though he was aware of what was going on.
"I could have interjected as well, but I mistakenly believed it wasn't my place," Grannan wrote. "It was. An airman needed help, and no one gave it."
Grannan said he doesn't necessarily have the solution to the Air Force's problems. He said he wanted to start a conversation — and that certainly has begun.
He declined to identify or talk more about the airman in the article.
"It could be anyone at any base," Grannan said. "There are similar issues happening a lot."
But as the Air Force continues to shrink, these issues will become even more important, Grannan said. A smaller Air Force can't afford to lose "superstars" like the airman he highlighted.
"These people are volunteers, and we need to remember that," Grannan said. "Less than one percent have raised their hand, and they deserve our absolute best leadership and oversight."
Read Grannan's commentary: How did we lose this young Airman?