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JRTC chief of staff fired over ‘bullying'

Feb. 17, 2013 - 10:14AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 17, 2013 - 10:14AM  |  
Col. Marc D. Axelberg (saluting), JRTC's former chief of staff, was fired for telling another officer to shove a document up a third officer's "fourth point of contact," a euphemism for buttocks.
Col. Marc D. Axelberg (saluting), JRTC's former chief of staff, was fired for telling another officer to shove a document up a third officer's "fourth point of contact," a euphemism for buttocks. (Fort Polk Guardian)
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A senior officer at the Joint Readiness Training Center was fired last month after investigators found he berated a foreign exchange officer and was a toxic, bullying leader toward subordinates.

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A senior officer at the Joint Readiness Training Center was fired last month after investigators found he berated a foreign exchange officer and was a toxic, bullying leader toward subordinates.

Col. Marc D. Axelberg, JRTC's former chief of staff, during a meeting in October, according to an investigator's report, told another officer to shove a document up a third officer's "fourth point of contact," a euphemism for buttocks. The investigator deemed this "inappropriate and unprofessional."

The third officer was a Canadian exchange officer, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

A follow-on command climate survey of Fort Polk, La., headquarters staff found Axelberg maintained a hostile work environment, belittling workers, cursing regularly and — in at least one instance — used racially inappropriate remarks.

"Nearly all of the staff and colleagues I interviewed have lost faith and confidence in his leadership," an investigating officer said in his Jan. 17 report. The name and identifying information for the investigator and witnesses were redacted from the two reports Army Times obtained by an open-records request.

JRTC commander Brig. Gen. William Hickman removed Axelberg as chief of staff Jan. 25.

Axelberg, 48, served on two Iraq deployments, as well as in other roles at JRTC previously.

"Based on the investigation, [Hickman] determined there were issues with … Axelberg's leadership approach, and [Hickman] determined that a change was necessary," according to an emailed statement from the post.

Based on the investigator's recommendation, Axelberg received a potentially career-ending general officer memorandum of reprimand. After the first investigation, Axelberg had been issued a letter of admonishment.

Hickman named Col. Thomas Glenn Moore, who was on the JRTC staff, as the new chief of staff shortly after he formally removed Axelberg.

Axelberg's removal is the first such case to become public since the Army announced plans in 2011 to flush toxic leaders from its ranks.

Army Times reached Axelberg's wife, and she said her husband declined to comment for this article. She told Army Times nearly a dozen supporters wrote statements for the command defending Axelberg against the charges and had no further comment.

According to Fort Polk's statement, Hickman had weighed Axelberg's rebuttal, in which Axelberg acknowledged he had used inappropriate language and the perception that he was a bully, but characterized himself as an effective leader.

"The allegations ... are a series of independent actions put together that paint a terrible picture," Axelberg said in his sworn statement.

He said the witnesses in the investigation were unfairly holding him to a "zero-defect" standard.

"I believe that I am very direct and expect others around me to be the same," his statement reads. "I have consistently treated everyone with dignity, respect and candor, though I admit this discussion has shown me some individual in-stances where I have failed at this."

Not everyone found problems with Axelberg, and several said they believed he had toned down his aggressive leadership style. Some said they were unaware of problems, and one headquarters staffer said Axelberg "has a sense of humor and I enjoy his company."

However, the investigator said he interviewed Axelberg for six hours, but the colonel seemed not to understand the gravity of the situation nor accept responsibility for his "bullying" behavior.

"He expected members of his staff to come forward and explain to him that he was wrong," the investigator said. "Since nobody came forward, then they ‘deserved' to be bullied by him."

‘Above-the-law attitude'

The former JRTC commander, Brig Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, directed the first investigation after the Canadian operations officer for the 162nd Infantry Brigade, a training unit, complained that Axelberg's "fourth point of contact" comment was the latest in string of disparaging remarks.

"Not only was this inappropriate conduct, directing another field grade officer to commit a felonious offence of buggery and harassment, it was threatening a field grade officer with violence," the Canadian officer said in a sworn statement.

The second investigation, initiated by Hickman in November, found that Axelberg was so caustic that staff and other installation commands would avoid or circumvent him.

"Multiple witnesses stated that they have never worked for a worse [chief of staff] or Colonel," the investigator writes.

Several witnesses characterized Axelberg as a bully who would berate and humiliate employees in public, often using vulgar language, according to the report.

"The chief was allowed to do whatever he wanted to whoever he wanted and conducted himself as a ‘Schoolyard Bully,'" a colonel at JRTC headquarters said in his sworn statement. "I feel that in today's Army everyone should be treated with respect and dignity and that nobody deserves to be treated otherwise."

In October, Axelberg allegedly unleashed a verbal tirade on a protocol office employee over a missing report that later turned up on Axelberg's desk, saying, "You are the f---ing reason I don't have this packet."

Axelberg also allegedly yelled at the woman for not setting up seats for an important meeting, saying "leave it to Protocol to f--- this up again."

At a meeting with a chaplain to prepare a holiday tree lighting ceremony, Axelberg, who is Jewish, allegedly asked if there would be a similar Jewish ceremony and whether the installation had a "f---ing rabbi."

He then turned to an African-American major and allegedly asked, "What is that ---ing holiday blacks celebrate?"

Axelberg allegedly had exclusive use of a government truck in the training area, though the truck was meant for the entire command team. This created the perception among his staff that he was a rule-breaker, according to the report.

Axelberg did not violate any rules, the report stated. However, the truck was, "a symbolic and daily reminder for the staff of a corrupt, above-the-law attitude."

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