Brig. Gen. Brenda Cartier, now the director of operations at Air Force Special Operations Command headquarters at Hurlburt Field, Florida, received a letter of counseling after an inspector general investigation found she failed to treat subordinates with dignity and respect in her previous position, and falsely claimed flight hours on an MC-130J in 2017.
The March 2019 report, which the Air Force provided at Air Force Times’ request, also found that Cartier received $250 in flying incentive pay as a result of the flight hours she improperly claimed in July 2017. The IG report reviewed allegations about Cartier’s actions while she was a colonel, in command of Air Education and Training Command’s 58th Special Operations Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Cartier’s promotion to brigadier general took effect in August 2018, but an official ceremony marking her promotion is scheduled for June 14, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in an email. She was first nominated to receive her star in November 2017, and is AFSOC’s first female air commando one-star.
“After reviewing the report of investigation and considering the details of Brigadier General Cartier’s career, the Secretary of the Air Force [Heather Wilson] determined her promotion to the rank of brigadier general was in the best interest of the Air Force,” Stefanek said.
Stefanek said Cartier declined to comment further.
The IG concluded Cartier knowingly made a false official statement, with an intent to deceive. Although Cartier told investigators she didn’t care about the $250 flight pay, the report noted that her falsely claimed flight hours resulted in a material gain for that month.
The IG began investigating Cartier in August 2018, after members of the 58th filed complaints that she had created a toxic command climate and falsely claimed flight hours for pay, among other allegations, the report said.
As wing commander of the 58th from June 2016 to July 2018, Cartier was responsible for 2,600 airmen who train 20,000 students each year to be special operations, combat search and rescue, nuclear support, and distinguished visitor aircrews, as well as survival specialists and combat rescue officers, the report said.
Cartier, who held a basic qualification as a combat systems officer on the MC-130J, had to record at least four hours of “primary time” as a CSO each month to receive $250 in monthly “conditional” flight pay, the report said. On July 25, 2017, Cartier and a few other commanders traveled on an MC-130J from Kirtland to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas. Cartier showed up that day in her airman battle uniform — not the flight suit one would normally wear when planning to perform aircrew duties, which added to the crew’s doubt that she intended to perform aircrew duties.
She also did not attend the pre-flight brief with the rest of the aircrew, the report said, and sat in the passenger, or auxiliary, CSO seat, to the right of the primary CSO. She did not tell the crew before or during the flight that she intended to earn primary flight hours. An instructor CSO who was also on board was supervising the other CSO, but not Cartier.
“I just assumed that she was going to be a passenger,” one witness, whose name was redacted from the report, told investigators.
Cartier told investigators that she was on the headset during the flight to listen to flight communications, and described her CSO activities as to “monitor take-off and landing … watch the instruments, watch the fuels, just keep an eye on what the pilots are doing.”
One unidentified witness said that at the end of the 4.2-hour flight, Cartier said “I’m logging four hours of primary time,” which left 0.2 hours for the other CSO. Air Force regulations allow two CSOs on a flight to split primary flight hours between them, but do not allow CSOs to claim the same hours.
Cartier denied asking the crew to mark her down for four hours, and the IG said the evidence could not establish that she did so.
“I don’t fly for pay, and I don’t fly for hours,” Cartier told investigators. “I didn’t need time or want time. I just wanted experience with my crew.”
But, the IG concluded that she did ask for “some hours" — and that she did not perform CSO duties during the flight. As a result, the IG said, Cartier was not entitled to log any time or receive the pay she that she did as a result of those hours.
After Cartier’s November 30, 2018, interview, she asked the Host Aviation Resource Management, or HARM, Office to adjust her record to split the 4.2 hours to reflect she earned 2.1 primary hours, and 2.1 other hours.
“Col. Cartier should have reasonably known she did not perform four primary hours on the 25 Jul 17 mission,” the report said. “Col. Cartier had multiple means to confirm her flight hours. … At a minimum, Col. Cartier should have informed the HARM Office of the discrepancy during her 31 Oct 17 record review.”
Personal attacks or constructive criticism?
The report also found that Cartier sometimes failed to treat her subordinates with dignity and respect, and sometimes referred to them profanely and demeaningly.
The IG said that airmen under Cartier’s command painted very different pictures of what working for her was like.
Some described Cartier as a “friendly and cordial” leader who “cared about airmen,” “took care of us … listened, understood,” and was a “decent and kind” commander. Three witnesses called her a mentor.
But others described her as a “toxic” leader, who could be “mean and demeaning,” “short with people,” and who played favorites.
“I don’t think she realizes how toxic or how abrasive she can be, despite I have given her feedback,” said one former squadron commander, whose name was also redacted. When that officer left Cartier’s command, the report said, her subordinates gave her a farewell gift of a “flak vest” that was inscribed, “Thank you for always donning your flak jacket and fighting for us.”
The report concluded Cartier repeatedly referred to one officer — who at the time was going through the end of a marriage — as a “f---ing idiot” in private conversations with his subordinates.
“Although Col. Cartier used the profane and disparaging language in the privacy of her office, the repeated references were disrespectful to [redacted] and inappropriate to share with those subordinate to him,” the report said. “Col. Cartier’s disparagement became both pervasive and personal.”
Cartier denied using that language to describe the officer.
“Wow, no,” Cartier told investigators. “I mean that’s not terminology I would use.”
Witnesses also testified that in public meetings, Cartier treated that officer poorly. If the officer spoke up, witnesses said, Cartier would discredit him by saying, “I didn’t ask you,” or “We don’t really need to know the answer to that.”
“It was pretty consistent, to the point where [redacted] stopped going to the meetings,” a witness said.
Investigators also found that on another occasion, Cartier publicly chastised an airman for giving a bad briefing, and said something along the lines of “next time bring me a human that can answer my questions."
Cartier acknowledged to investigators that she was displeased with the quality of the briefing and that she would publicly call out a subordinate for subpar work, but said it would be unlikely for her to say “send a human.” Cartier said she was more likely to say “send somebody who can brief.”
Regardless of how she may have phrased it, the IG found that Cartier made a public, derogatory statement in the wing conference room in front of 12 squadron commanders, directors of operations and assistant directors of operations.
“Whether Col. Cartier said send ‘a human’ or send ‘someone,’ the statement had a lasting, negative effect on [redacted] and others present at the meeting, with witnesses recalling this instance as an example of Col. Cartier failing to treat a subordinate with dignity or respect,” the report said.
Investigators concluded the two incidents showed that Cartier failed to treat subordinates with dignity and respect, in violation of Air Force regulations governing commanders’ responsibilities.
“These two instances represented personal attacks, rather than constructive criticism, of her subordinates,” the report said.
Cartier issued a response to investigators, in which she said being a wing commander was one of the greatest honors and responsibilities in her Air Force career, and expressing regret that some airmen under her command did not feel welcomed.
“I feel bad about the times that I made people not feel included because that’s not how I want to lead,” Cartier wrote in her response, part of which was quoted in the report.
“I’m sorry … that people felt that way, I have more work to do. … [I]t’s been my goal and my … deep honor to be able to serve the airmen I have and make them feel like they are a part of the Air Force and [that] when they walk down the hall and they look at the leadership pictures, they see their Air Force reflecting back on them.”
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.