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Year in review: Air Force Times' top stories from 2013

Dec. 31, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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What did we miss?

It’s been an eventful year. So much so, we’re bound to have forgotten something. Send any missed Air Force milestones or news stories to
airlet@airforcetimes.com
.

Leadership changes

In one of its last acts in December, the Senate confirmed Deborah Lee James as the new Air Force secretary. Nominated in August to replace Michael Donley, who retired in June, James was in limbo after Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., placed a hold on her confirmation for more than two months — due to published reports that the Air Force wants to phase out the A-10 aircraft to save money. This marks a return to government life for James, who served as assistant defense secretary for reserve affairs from 1993 to 1998. She comes to the Air Force from Science Applications International Corp., where she was president of the technology and engineering sector.

While James’ confirmation was on hold, Eric Fanning became acting secretary just two months after assuming his new job as undersecretary of the Air Force. Fanning, who is openly gay, was appointed to the job right before the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act and opened the door for same-sex benefits for service members.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody stepped into the job Feb. 1, and in his first year has taken on the waist measurement component of the physical fitness test, special duties, reforming how enlisted airmen are evaluated and promoted, and exploring whether to require promotion boards for technical sergeants to advance to master sergeant. After Cody initiated a review into the waist measurement component, the Air Force announced in August that airmen who fail the tape test can undergo body mass and body fat testing if they score well enough on the rest of the physical training test.

Then in November, Cody announced that special duties will no longer be voluntary. Instead, staff sergeants and technical sergeants will be nominated and selected to fill those assignments. Next year, the Air Force expects to announce changes to the enlisted evaluation system, including a possible new enlisted performance report.

Gen. Robin Rand took the helm of Air Education and Training Command in October, replacing Gen. Edward Rice, who retired after 35 years of military service. Rice directed an investigation into the sexual misconduct scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where dozens of basic training instructors were charged with offenses ranging from rape to inappropriate relationships with technical trainees. The investigation, and pressure from lawmakers and victim advocacy groups, led to widespread changes to basic military training.

Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein in December moved up from vice commander to acting commander to permanent commander of 20th Air Force after his predecessor, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, was relieved of command for what an inspector general report detailed as drunkenness and other inappropriate behavior during an official trip to Moscow.

Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson became the Air Force Academy’s first female superintendent in August. Johnson, herself an academy graduate, was quickly called on to manage a number of controversies, among them: She is leading an investigation into the Office of Special Investigation’s use of cadets as informants; and her board decided to make the “so help me God” clause of the cadet honor oath optional but still faces criticism that the clause should be removed in the name of religious freedom.

Sequestration's pall

Air Force pilots spent 16 percent less time in the cockpit in fiscal 2013 than they did two years earlier. While the drawdown in Afghanistan explains some of the decline to 1.6 million hours, the budget cuts known as sequestration are likely another cause. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 7 that sequestration forced the service to stand down 31 squadrons, including 13 combat squadrons. Seven more squadrons slashed their flying hours considerably, Welsh said, to the point where pilots could only maintain proficiency in basic tasks such as takeoffs and landings.

Even before sequestration, the Air Force was marching toward a smaller force. The service started 2013 with a mandate to reduce its end strength by 3,340 active-duty airmen by Sept. 30 — from 332,800 airmen to 329,460.

PT tape test fallout

The controversial PT tape test got its most prominent victim in 2013, a wing commander.

Col. Tim Bush, who served as commander of the 319th Air Base Wing at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., was relieved of command in March for failing his physical fitness test. He told his airmen at a commander’s call that he failed the waist circumference portion of the test, which he said was a “fair and just” decision.

“As a wing commander, I have a duty and responsibility to adhere to and enforce all Air Force standards, and in this particular case, I did not meet an Air Force standard,” Bush said. “When you don’t meet the standards as the commander, you can’t be the commander.”

This summer, after Bush was relieved, the Air Force decided to put less emphasis on the tape test. New PT guidelines state that a failed tape test is no longer an automatic failure, instead airmen will be faced with a body mass index measurement as well.

The prospect of failure causes some airmen to take extreme measures. In February, Staff Sgt. Alison Mona, who had already failed two PT tests, faced another. She said she was recently pregnant and felt out of shape, and allegedly had her roommate stab her in the stomach with a steak knife. Her plan was to tell authorities she was attacked so she would not have to take the PT test.

Mona, a content management technician with the 61st Communications Squadron at Los Angeles Air Force Base was sentenced in June to 90 days in jail and busted three ranks to an E-2 after she pleaded guilty to filing a false police report and making two false official statements.

She was discharged from the Air Force on Sept. 26. Under the Privacy Act, the Air Force could not say whether the discharge was honorable, general or dishonorable.

New physical training rules took effect in October, addressing many airmen’s concerns with the tape test and adding the BMI measurement.

Under the new Air Force instruction, airmen who fail the tape test but score 75 out of 80 on the rest of the index will undergo a BMI screen. If they fail that, they will have their body fat calculated. The maximum BMI for all airmen is 25, regardless of gender or age.

The body fat limits are 18 percent for men and 26 percent for women.

Also, under the new AFI, airmen will have up to 42 days after a permanent change of station to take the PT test.

Airmen also have new procedures to appeal their PT score, by notifying their Unit Fitness Program manager to collect information and take the appeal up the chain of command.

The PT test includes a new walk test, which has been increased slightly from one mile to two kilometers and is adjusted for altitude.

Generals overturn convictions

Third Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin set off a conflagration among victim advocacy groups and lawmakers in February when he overturned the sexual assault conviction of a lieutenant colonel and fellow fighter pilot.

Three months earlier, a jury of officers had convicted Aviano Air Base, Italy, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson of sexually assaulting a sleeping house guest and sentenced him to two years in prison and a dismissal — the officer equivalent of a dishonorable discharge. As convening authority with the final say in the case, Franklin reversed the jury’s verdict. Wilkerson was released from prison and returned to duty. He was later forced to retire.

Caught up in the controversy was Lt. Gen. Susan Helms. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., blocked her nomination to vice commander of Space Command because Helms had overturned the sexual assault conviction of a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in February 2012. Helms has since announced her retirement.

MTIs charged, convicted

Twenty-two former military training instructors went on trial on charges ranging from unprofessional relationships with technical training students to rape. All but one ended in a conviction; Tech. Sgt. Marc Gayden was acquitted of rape, forcible sodomy and having an unprofessional relationship with a recruit and returned to his job training MTIs.

Most of the convicted airmen were sentenced to days or weeks behind bars at most. Former Staff Sgt. Eddy Soto, convicted of rape, was sentenced to four years in prison; Senior Airman Christopher Oliver got two years of confinement for having sex with three basic trainees and an improper relationship with a fourth, as well as wrongful sexual contact and consensual sodomy.

Since the basic training scandal emerged in summer 2011, 26 ex-MTIs have been convicted at courts-martial and four were punished administratively. The number of victims and alleged victims stands at 68, all but four of whom are women.

The dozens of changes made to basic over the last year seem to be working. There have been no new reports of sexual misconduct against an MTI since the summer of 2012.

Women in combat

Pentagon leaders announced in June that they would lift the ban on women in combat by 2015, opening hundreds of thousands of military jobs to women once gender-neutral standards are completed.

The move would open the remaining seven Air Force Specialty Codes — combat control officer, combat rescue/special tactics officer, special operations officer, enlisted combat controller, enlisted tactical air command and control, enlisted pararescue and enlisted special operations weather — still closed to women. The positions, however, fall under U.S. Special Operations Command, which has expressed concern about the change.

According to the Air Force’s timeline, the service would begin recruiting women for the seven career fields in 2015. Training would not be completed until 2018.■

Staff writers George Altman, Kristin Davis, Brian Everstine, Patricia Kime, Stephen Losey, Oriana Pawlyk, Jeff Schogol and Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.

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