At one point or another, even sound organizations suffer breaches of integrity. Often, such breaches foreshadow serious failures.
The U.S. military is no exception, as evidenced by reports regarding the Air Force’s handling of a candidate currently in its special operations training pipeline. The service will have to take quick corrective action to regain the trust of its members and the public.
Special operations forces — think Green Berets and Navy Seals — execute critical missions that demand the highest levels of individual performance and perseverance. The failure of any member can put rest of the team and its mission at immediate risk.
Combat controllers and pararescuemen are special operations forces within the Air Force’s Special Tactics program. The training that ensures every graduate has the physical and mental toughness required to overcome even the most arduous circumstances was designed in the 1940s and has enjoyed more than 75 years of refinement.
While physical strength and endurance are imperatives, the special operations community values a bulletproof mind even more. In that world, there is no place for those who quit. Candidates who give up are dropped from the program.
Air Force Special Tactics, the service’s most decorated community since the Vietnam War, is highly regarded both within and outside the Air Force. High standards are what led to that record and, as you might imagine, the expectations for perseverance are even higher for those charged with leading special tactics teams.
With that, it is hard to imagine why the Air Force not only lowered its physical standards, but asked an officer who quit the program to return to training — and then openly denied it had changed its standards with either move.
When questioned about the matter, Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, emphatically stated: “We do make changes to how we train airmen in order to improve the effectiveness of our training, but we do not lower our standards — Period.” But Slife then muddied the issue by stating there was a difference between norms and standards before insisting that nothing had changed for a female candidate currently in the training who, on completion, will be the first to complete the special tactics program.
Why do we suspect the standards were lowered? Because the candidate said so herself in a report she wrote after her self-initiated elimination at Combat Control School in North Carolina.
“I believe the change in standards invalidated me with a majority of my team,” she wrote in an after-action report in April 2021. “One cadre member had a conversation with a student and said that the cadre ‘rioted’ when they found out the PT test was changing back to lesser standards.”
Several years earlier, during a selection phase in Florida, she was struggling during a rigorous pool session and pulled herself out of the pool, which is classified as “quitting by action” within the program. After conversations with a lead instructor — a field grade officer — she was asked if she intended to quit, indicated she did not and got back into the pool.
Later, during a land navigation event at Combat Control School, the candidate formally quit, filling out the necessary paperwork.
She quit twice, and both times the Air Force encouraged her to return to the program.
Clearly, the Air Force reduced its standards for special tactics training. Worse, it is attempting to mislead the public about it.
This is not only bad in itself; it augurs ill for the future. Most organizational failures begin this way, with seemingly small lapses in standards or rules of conduct. Left unchecked, these cracks lead to larger and larger fissures. Over time, lost integrity snowballs into tragic mission failures or the permanent loss of reputations for stalwart organizations. Just ask Enron, Arthur Andersen or the Arch Diocese of Baltimore.
If the Air Force allows this compromised candidate to continue in special tactics training and ultimately receive the coveted scarlet beret, it will dilute the capabilities and morale of that entire community. It will also further erode the service’s already faltering standards, proving once again that advancement, recognition and even selection for command are now based on identity, rather than merit.
This need not happen. The Air Force has confronted similar challenges and managed to regain its footing. Throughout the mid-1990s, the Air Force suffered several highly publicized scandals and fatal accidents that were caused by what then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ron Fogelman called a “climate of ethical corrosion.” Senior leaders who should have intervened but failed to prevent those tragedies were often given medals, choice assignments and even promoted.
To his great credit, Gen. Fogelman moved decisively to put the Air Force back on track. Along with changes to officer and commander evaluation systems, he established “Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do” as the guiding principles for the Air Force.
Those same principles still exist on paper today. This case flouts every one of them. The question now is: Who will step up this time to put the Air Force back on track before these sliding standards of ethics and performance cost more American lives?
JV Venable, a 25-year veteran of the Air Force, is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.
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