A report on the commander-directed investigation, provided by Malmstrom at Air Force Times' request, substantiated allegations that Lt. Col. Raymond Fortner wrongfully failed to maintain a healthy command climate at the 741st Missile Security Forces Squadron, and also failed to “abstain from psychologically abusing airmen under his command.”
In a Wednesday interview with Air Force Times, Fortner acknowledged that he had made mistakes as a leader and, in at least one key incident highlighted in the report, inappropriately lost his temper after he was denied a rifle for an exercise. But Fortner said the portrait of his command painted by the report is incomplete and in some cases, inaccurate.
“The report does not contain a complete picture, and offers a skewed and one-sided view,” Fortner said.
Fortner was relieved Nov. 14 by Col. Aaron Guill, commander of the 341st Security Forces Group, “due to a loss of trust and confidence after a series of events demonstrated that Fortner established and maintained an unhealthy command climate,” Malmstrom said in a release at the time. In a follow-up email, a spokesman for the 341st Missile Wing said Fortner’s leaders and subordinates lost trust and confidence “in his ability to accomplish the mission while treating people with dignity and respect.”
The Nov. 7 report on the investigation, which was launched after the 341st’s inspector general received complaints about Fortner, concluded he “displayed psychologically abusive behavior” on multiple occasions to several people under his command — during staff meetings, in common areas, and in one-on-one situations.
One unidentified witness said “the attitude and persona [Fortner] has is that of a bully." Other witnesses cited Fortner’s habit of joking or teasing his personnel, and one said his jokes “could be perceived as belittling them or abusive.”
Another witness said “Lt. Col. Fortner tries to use humor, but it does not come off that way,” and that an unnamed airman “is the butt end of jokes sometimes.”
The report highlights one incident in which Fortner made a joking, derogatory sexual innuendo about an airman while discussing a mistake the airman had made. After his joke got a laugh, the report said, he repeated it while smiling at the airman.
Another unidentified airman said he was often the focus of Fortner’s “belittling and insulting.” That airman, who is bald and white, said Fortner often referred to him as “Powder,” comparing him to the pale, hairless character from that movie.
In the interview, Fortner said that the comment about his humor not coming off correctly “is probably the most accurate statement in the CDI, and is a point of feedback I will try to take to heart.”
“My intent was always to put airmen forward in a positive light, and challenge and develop them, and I am truly sorry to anyone who felt I came off that way,” Fortner said. “There’s also a number of folks who did not feel that way. The ones who did not feel that way got where I was coming from, and I did a poor job with others.”
“Reading this, I feel I did a very poor job of communicating effectively with others,” Fortner continued. “Those comments in no way reflect my intent, and I am truly sorry if anyone took it that way.”
Not all witnesses felt Fortner was belittling or abusive, and some said they felt he cared about his airmen and did not recall him speaking in extreme or harsh manners.
Another said when Fortner made small jokes about subordinates that could be taken the wrong way, he typically had a history with them.
But other witnesses felt otherwise. One said his demeanor to other squadron commanders “is generally dismissive, derogatory, and generally unprofessional.” Another said he once told another commander, “Shut the f--- up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Fortner’s behavior was so commonplace that one witness struggled to remember details about one specific incident during which he allegedly yelled at and condescended to another squadron commander over a late changeover in the field.
“It was such the norm that he talked down and belittled others or bullied them to get what he wanted that I cannot recall other specifics or who was present,” the witness said about the changeover explosion.
One unidentified witness said things got so bad people became afraid to speak up in staff meetings for fear of becoming the target of Fortner’s ridicule. The report said the fear of ridicule escaled "to the level of psychological abuse from bullying.”
Fortner acknowledged that he made mistakes in command, but denied he was an abusive leader. He said a squadron-wide climate survey conducted in January drew “an overwhelmingly positive response,” and that some airmen in the squadron appreciated what was accomplished there.
“I am not saying I did nothing wrong,” Fortner said. “I did. Reading this [report] ... clearly I was not coming across well to everyone, and I regret it. But to say I was willingly beating up on people, is absolutely faulty.”
The report found that Fortner was accomplishing the security forces mission, and worked to improve his squadron. And after the tragic suicide of an airmen in his command, the report said his actions “show a commander working to keep the mission going.”
But the report said that despite the squadron’s success under Fortner’s command, “he is failing to lead his people to accomplish the mission.”
“Leadership is an art," the report said. "It is completely possible for a commander to have mission success due to great subordinates, but still fail to lead people to accomplish the mission.”
Anger over a rifle
The report said Fortner lost his temper — to the point where his hands and lower lip was shaking — during an incident in April, when he was denied access to a rifle to take part in a shoot, move and communicate exercise. This incident caused at least two witnesses to question whether Fortner should be allowed to handle firearms, the report said.
The report said he was denied access to the rifle due to issues with the arming roster, at which point he went to the front office and yelled at an unidentified person in front of junior officers and enlisted personnel.
“I remember there being a lot of shouting as I was sitting at my desk only a few feet away,” one unidentified witness said. "When I came out of my office to see what was going on, Lt. Col. Fortner had become so angry by the situation that the muscles on his face, specifically his lower lip, where visibly shaking along with his hands.
Another witness said Fortner threatened to tell Guill the office was refusing to fix the problem. The witness said he tried to defuse the situation by telling Fortner they would reschedule him, but that did not ease the situation.
“I was not afraid of him, but it was scary how upset he was,” the witness said. “If a member of my unit reacted in this manner, I would have recommended them to be DNAd (Do Not Arm), would have administered disciplinary action, and recommended them for anger management or counseling.”
Another corroborating witness said Fortner “was completely unprofessional" and stormed back and forth between the witness’s office and Guill’s.
“His actions caused me to question his suitability to bear arms first, but also his ability to command his squadron,” the other witness said. “He seemed to completely lose his bearing. Had he been any other rank, he would have been DNA’d and disciplined.”
In the interview, Fortner disputed the way that incident was portrayed in the report. He acknowledged losing his temper, but said it came after a series of events, not right immediately after being denied the rifle.
“Did I lose my temper? I absolutely did, and I should not have,” Fortner said. “I apologize for that. But that’s a one-sided part of the event, and it starts in the middle, and leaves out everything that led up to it.”
Fortner said he should not have been denied access to his rifle in the first place, and instead of trying to pressure the junior enlisted who he said made an error, he checked with another lieutenant colonel. He said that other lieutenant colonel confirmed that Fortner should have received a rifle, at which point he went to the major who was commanding the squadron that distributed the rifles.
When he first went to the major, Fortner said “I wasn’t upset or shaking in any way.” But he felt the major shrugged off his concerns and failed to correct the mistake. At that point, he became angry.
Fortner said that because he was denied a weapon and not able to take part in that exercise, it caused him to lose his qualification on his weapon.
“For the guy in charge of securing nuclear weapons to be unqualified is not a situation you want to be involved in,” Fortner said.
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.