During his two years as a leader in Air Combat Command, Brig. Gen. Carl Buhler repeatedly demeaned and micromanaged his staff and erupted at them when he felt they fell short, an inspector general investigation found.
He also traveled excessively ― once spending an entire month away from the office ― while matters requiring his attention and approval piled up in his absence, the IG said.
And not even an attempted intervention from another one-star general could push Buhler to address the morale problems threatening to sink his command, the IG found.
Buhler was removed from his position as ACC’s director of engineering, logistics and force protection on Nov. 27, 2016, after the IG report found he, “through neglect, was derelict in his duty to establish and maintain a healthy command climate.”
The investigation also found he misused his subordinates’ official time, abused his authority to reassign staff duties, and violated official travel rules and regulations.
The September IG report, a partially redacted version of which was provided to Air Force Times by Air Combat Command, details the problems that led to Buhler’s removal.
As ACC’s A4, Buhler oversaw nearly 300 personnel across 12 divisions, and was responsible for the budget, policy and oversight of ACC’s maintenance, munitions, supply, transportation, civil engineering and force protection.
Buhler said it was an honor to serve alongside his fellow airmen and civilian Air Force employees during his 28-year career, according to a statement provided to Air Force Times by his lawyer, Larry Youngner.
“My goal has always been on increasing readiness and developing leaders and teams, by focusing on people, processes and resources,” Buhler said in the statement. “As the Air Force engages across the globe and the demands on the Air Force increase, the need to increase readiness and lethality grows each and every day. I look forward to continuing to help ensure our Air Force is ready to face these demands if we are called upon to deploy and fight.”
Youngner said that during his time at ACC, Buhler improved mission readiness while taking care of the maintainers and logisticians required to keep the command’s aircraft operational.
He worked at “a Herculean pace” to serve as the president of a high-profile accident investigation board, searching for the cause of a maintenance problem that led to $4 million in damage to an Air Force One aircraft, Youngner said.
Under his watch, ACC flew 7,900 more flight hours during the first two-thirds of fiscal 2017 over the same period one year earlier. And he created a program that dramatically increased the flow of spare parts to wings, Youngner said.
“Brig. Gen. Buhler was actually doing real, tangible things to increase readiness,” Youngner said. “He made real, tangible, positive differences across ACC and the Combat Air Forces.”
ACC spokeswoman Maj. Stacie Shafran said that appropriate administrative action has been taken against Buhler, and no additional disciplinary actions or legal proceedings are under consideration.
Stallions or mules
Multiple witnesses testified that while Buhler was “brilliant” and a “very hard worker“ who “loves the maintenance community,” they said he often treated them disrespectfully.
Witnesses told the IG he would become angry with them when something happened outside of their control, and assumed or implied they were incompetent and didn’t know how to do their jobs.
“I’ve never seen a general officer treat his staff as bad as he does,” one unnamed witness told the IG. “And it’s not just the front office, he treats his colonels just as bad.”
Buhler told the investigator that he had to make “significant changes and improvements” to “whip the unit into shape,” which may have led to the unhappiness of some of his airmen.
“You’ve got to understand the state of the organization when we got there and what they weren’t doing,” Buhler said in the report. “It’s unfortunate that the organization was in the state that it was when I got here, and it required so much work and so much effort on many people’s parts, but I think the Air Force is better off for it now.”
Buhler also told the investigator that he grew up in the “debrief culture” of the maintenance and operations community, and spoke directly and succinctly to airmen when he felt they had fallen short.
“If you call it chewing out two or three times, I call it feedback and living in a debrief culture,” Buhler said in the report.
But nearly every staff member who spoke to the IG described an organization with extremely low morale. They also felt that Buhler “was a poor leader and/or that they would not voluntarily work for him again,” the report said.
Buhler also regularly told staffers that he didn’t want “mules,” who ― as he told the investigator ― worked themselves until “they break their back or their heart explodes.” Instead, he wanted “stallions,” who would be able to multitask and delegate duties to efficiently handle workloads.
“He’ll compare everybody to a stallion and a mule,” one witness said. “’I hired a stallion, but I got a mule.’”
“We are all the mules, and he rides us hard until he’s done with us and then he moves us on,” another staffer said.
Several witnesses also said Buhler regularly made excessive demands on their off-duty time. One airman said Buhler once demanded he immediately respond to an email as the airman and his family were about to attend church, and he berated the airman when he said he would respond after church was over.
“You’re on weekend duty,” the witness said Buhler responded. “I saw your name on the calendar. Did you think that was just a joke?”
Multiple witnesses said Buhler would become visibly upset with his staff ― he would begin speaking rapidly and raise his voice, his face would turn red, and veins would start to pop out of his neck, they said.
“There’s times where he seems just like his anger is just barely in check,” one witness said.
The report said that when Buhler talked with the investigator about one unidentified staffer he felt was particularly disloyal and partly responsible for the IG investigation, he “became visibly angry and agitated; his voice became louder and more intense, he spoke faster, his face reddened, and his posture became more tense.”
The IG also found Buhler traveled extensively during his time at ACC, going on more than 50 trips between Sept. 2015 ― when he arrived at ACC ― and March 2017.
During one eight-month span between August 2016 and March 2017, the report said, Buhler was in the office less than 40 days, and spent only one complete work week in the office. Buhler was also TDY for all of September 2016 for an accident investigation board.
Youngner said that was the month Buhler was heading the board investigating $4 million in damage caused to an Air Force One aircraft by faulty maintenance. Buhler also served as an instructor at the first Advanced Sortie Production Course that month, among other requirements, Youngner said.
But most witnesses told the investigator that they felt Buhler chose to travel more than was necessary.
Some also told the investigator Buhler’s heavy travel schedule meant he wasn’t on top of day-to-day issues, finishing performance reports, or making decisions, which created a work backlog and made it hard for staff to determine his priorities and check in with him.
Staffers also felt micromanaged by Buhler. He added several new processes to the front office staff that were intended to save time and increase productivity, the report said. But the staff who had to carry out those new processes felt they actually made things worse and resulted in inefficiency, frustration, lower productivity and “constant chaos.”
“I can tell you the administrivia and other things generated probably tenfold since Gen. Buhler’s been in,” one witness said. “It’s like he’s adding more monkeys to his back when he already can’t do with what he’s got.”
He rarely took time to recognize the work of personnel in A4, the report said, and morale events such as birthday celebrations and Christmas parties withered, which worsened the loss of cohesion.
Things got so bad that Brig. Gen. Maureen Banavige, the mobilization assistant to ACC’s A4, tried to talk to him “as a wingman” about the morale problems in a December 2016 phone call.
“It didn’t go great,” Banavige said in the report. “I think General Buhler’s [more] concerned about who had ... come to talk to me about it. ... In the end, maybe he thought that people were complaining and being too soft and not willing to work hard.”
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.