The Air Force on Tuesday announced it will change course and allow more than 9,000 airmen to re-enlist or extend their service even though they did not finish their professional military education distance learning in time.
Any re-enlistments must be approved by the airman's squadron commander.
However, airmen who didn't complete their online enlisted PME course by the Jan. 1 deadline will still be ineligible for promotion, the Air Force said.
The Air Force told some 61,000 airmen in June 2015 that they had one year to enroll in and finish the distance learning courses for the noncommissioned officer and senior NCO academies, known as Course 15 and Course 14, Version 6, respectively. If they didn't finish those courses by the deadline, the Air Force said, airmen could be ineligible for re-enlistment or promotion, potentially killing their career.
Problems with the course materials, notification and testing caused the Air Force to push the deadline back to the beginning of 2017.
In February, the Air Force told Air Force Times that roughly 9,300 airmen had missed the deadline and were ineligible for promotion or re-enlistment, though it could not say how many were already planning to leave the Air Force.
A public affairs guidance memo detailing the changes was first posted online Tuesday morning by former airman Steven Mayne on his unofficial Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page. In that memo -- which the Air Force confirmed was genuine -- the Air Force said 172 airmen will have been discharged between Jan. 1 and March 15 because they didn't finish their PME requirements.
In the Tuesday release, Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said that as of Wednesday the automatic re-enlistment and extension ineligibility statuses for affected airmen will be removed. It will now be up to squadron commanders to decide whether to allow those airmen to re-enlist or extend.
"We continually review and evolve personnel policies to ensure it provides equity for airmen, aligns with our Air Force strategy, and supports our airmen's ability to execute the mission," Grosso said. "While originally intended to drive increased development and professionalism, the previous EPME approach created a higher standard, particularly when compared to recent changes to our officer PME model. Additionally, as we grow the force the policy added unnecessary challenges and distractions to our airmen. We certainly heard and listened to airmen on this matter."
The Air Force said surveys and field interviews conducted as part of Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein's effort to revitalize squadrons alerted top leaders to problems with the strict PME re-enlistment restrictions.
"As we work to revitalize our squadrons, it remains important that commanders and supervisors who are closest to an airman have a say in whether or not an airman should be allowed to re-enlist," Grosso said. "It has been a squadron commander's decision, and this policy adjustment restores that authority, placing the retention decision back in the hands of the local commander."
Grosso said the promotion ineligibility was purposefully left in place, since PME is necessary to develop enlisted leaders.
Those who successfully re-enlist, however, can eventually qualify for promotion if they complete the required courses.
But Mayne, who has previously criticized the EPME rule on his Facebook page, blasted the change as "a slap in the face to every enlisted man and woman serving today."
"The Air Force is not sorry for what they did, they just need warm bodies," Mayne said. "If it's not important enough to stop extensions and re-enlistments or to even require a mandatory referral EPR, why on earth would it render someone ineligible for promotion?"
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.