Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh is reviewing the case of three instructor pilots at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, who were issued career-ending letters of reprimand and stripped of their wings for sending text messages the Air Force deemed unprofessional.
In fact, the text messages included song lyrics, movie lines and other cultural references that were "painfully misunderstood by investigators," wrote Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.
During an unrelated investigation into whether a pilot was having an inappropriate relationship with a student, investigators found text messages that led them to suspect four other pilots had used drugs. One pilot was exonerated at an Article 15 hearing. The others were punished for failing to maintain professional standards – not for using drugs.
The two lawmakers wrote a Sept. 15 letter to Welsh arguing that the three pilots' punishment is excessive because investigators did not find any evidence that the pilots had used drugs and the pilots passed drug tests.
Welsh met with both lawmakers in Hunter's office on Oct. 5 and vowed to review the facts of the case, said Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Hunter.
"The best advocate for these pilots – within the Air Force organization – is Gen. Welsh, because he, too, will take one look at this entire case, as Representatives Hunter and Kinzinger have, and be able to inject the objectivity and common sense that's been missing for so long," Kasper told Air Force Times.
The meeting between Welsh, Hunter and Kinzinger was first reported by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Tony Carr on his military blog John Q. Public.
Welsh vowed to come back to Capitol Hill to brief both lawmakers within four and six weeks, Kasper said.
"There's no question how serious Gen. Welsh is taking this," Kasper said, noting that it is rare for a service chief to meet members of Congress over a personnel issue. "He committed to going back and taking a good, long look at this and responding to the concerns presented by both Congressman Hunter and Congressman Kinzinger."
Both Hunter and Kinzinger left the meeting confident that Welsh will "do the right thing" because all the evidence shows the pilots were joking over text messages – not engaging in criminal or illegal activities, Kasper said.
"Among Hunter and Kinzinger, there's a deep sense of respect and appreciation for Gen. Welsh," Kasper said. "He's a no-nonsense type of guy."
Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Karns declined to say who is conducting the review and if the letters of reprimand against the three pilots might be rescinded and their flight status restored based on the review findings.
"A meeting did take place between Congressional representatives and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force," Karns said in an email. "I'm not at liberty to discuss the particulars however, as always, we remain committed to addressing Congressional concerns. This matter has the attention of Air Force senior leadership and is being looked into further."