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I was once accused of cheating because I was an asshole Part II

So over the weekend I told my wife and my brother about the exercise. My brother found it exceptionally amusing that the military believes it can teach leadership. You see, my brother believes leadership is a trait or characteristic. It’s compassion, empathy, or altruism. How do you teach these concepts? It’s more accurate to say that PME teaches management or at best the appearance of leadership; the appearance of concern for your people.

The following Monday my regular instructor, TSgt Badger, had returned to the classroom. The Airman that videoed the exercise had brought in a digital copy on his netbook and a DVD copy for me. As TSgt Badger was preparing the classroom (cleaning the board, etc.) the Airman, we’ll call him Allen, turned the netbook towards him and asked TSgt Badger if he would like to see the exercise from Friday.

TSgt Badger turned, looked at the video queued up on the screen, and replied in the negative stating he “had heard all about the exercise on Friday.”

At the end of the day I received the DVD from Allen and went back to my billeting room to email it to my brother. The idea of course was the share how ridiculous the exercises were, and how ineffective they were at creating ‘leaders’.

However, the file was in an abnormally large format and couldn’t be sent via email. So I proceeded to create a YouTube channel and upload the file there. I sent the link to my brother, my wife and a few other civilian friends.

The next day I told a few classmates about the video. My intention was that since they had been there in person, if they told someone about the exercise they could share the link with their friends.

The day was pretty normal until lunch… then shit went sideways fast.

While sitting in the classroom waiting for lunch to end TSgt Badger and MSgt Baker came to the room and asked Allen to come out to the hallway; a pretty innocuous interaction so I barely noticed it. A few seconds later he returned and TSgt Badger asked me to come to the hallway.

I left the room and shut the door behind me. TSgt Badger and MSgt Baker were a bit huddled, talking. I walked up and MSgt Baker said “Did you put that video on YouTube?” I replied in the affirmative, oblivious to any of the implications or the shitstorm that was brewing.

That’s when I noticed the body language. It’s the quiet, hushed tones and the close proximity communication; the eyes scanning the hallway for eavesdroppers. I began to get a bit anxious. Then MSgt Baker asked “Did you think that was a good fucking idea??!”

I didn’t really know how to respond to that question. I neither considered it a good idea or a bad idea. At the time I uploaded it I didn’t see a problem with it. I responded with an “I don’t know..”

TSgt Bader and MSgt Baker asked me if I could get rid of the video. I responded that I could delete it from YouTube. They told me to get on my phone and do it. My phone at the time (this was early 2010 after all) was barely internet capable. I told them I would need to go back to my billeting room to access my computer to remove it. They told me to hurry and also told me to bring back the original DVD.

I initially thought that A) It wasn’t that big of a deal and B) that the three of us (myself, Badger and Baker) were in trouble together and trying to fix the situation. In hindsight, both of those assumptions were true, however the following days taught me to always account for na├»ve assumptions.

I ran back to my billeting room and removed the video from my YouTube channel and brought the disc back with me. Upon my return I was escorted to MSgt Misely’s office. She was the interim First Sergeant for NCO Academy. Badger, Misely and Baker were talking about what to do as I dropped off the disc. I figured the crisis was averted and went back to the classroom.

I told my classmates what was going on, I was nervous but not really afraid because after all, it was a pretty harmless misunderstanding. MSgt Misely came to the classroom a few minutes later and asked me to come with her. As I was walking out I heard one of the Security Forces members in the class say “Lawyer up!” and I laughed at the obvious over-exaggeration of the statement. Certainly there wouldn’t be any need for a lawyer, this was a small misunderstanding.

So I sat down at MSgt Misely’s desk and she presented me with an 1168. An 1168 is an Air Force form for taking statements from witnesses, complainants or suspects. Mine was pre-filled in as suspect. It stated I was suspected of test compromise. 

So MSgt Misely began asking me the questions at the bottom for suspects. I have the right to remain silent. I have the right to a lawyer. I have a right to free counsel, or pay for my own. I initialed each stating I understood the statements.

Then at the bottom there are three choices. A) I elect to not make a statement at this time. B) I wish to speak to an attorney before making a statement or C) I am willing to make a statement at this time, but I can stop at any time if I so choose.

I briefly thought about that fleeting statement as I left the classroom: lawyer up! But I thought, surely this isn’t so grave as to need a lawyer, after all it was just a funny video. So I opted not to get legal counsel and made my statement.

In the course of writing my statement I excluded a lot of information that would make TSgt Badger and MSgt Baker look bad. I did this thinking, if I take care of them, they will in-turn take care of me. My statement mainly consisted of an apology and that I had no malicious intent.

After completing the statement, swearing an oath and initialing seemingly random parts of the form I returned to my classroom. Naturally, my classmates were curious and concerned. I explained to them what I was suspected of and the nature of my statement. The ones in the class more familiar with military law than myself seemed much more concerned than I was.

The following day I decided I wanted to go to the Area Defense Counsel to seek some legal advice and protections. I spoke with TSgt Badger to let him know my intent and that I might need time away from class for the appointment. He stated that was my right and he would support me.

I spoke to Allen and told him the same thing. Allen was a bit apprehensive about going to ADC because of the stigma that only the guilty seek legal protections. Nevertheless he ended up requesting ADC advice as well.

I met with the ADC and explained what happened and what the video was. He seemed confused. From my explanation of the video he didn’t understand how it was a test or controlled material. I explained to him that the scenario packet had a controlled material statement on the front. Once he wrapped his mind around the situation he seemed confident that not much would come of it. He stated that he had represented Airmen that legitimately “copied answers during a testing session” and they still managed to graduate from NCO Academy. That was reassuring, as I was really only concerned with finishing. I didn’t mind a few lumps along the way; after all I did make fun of their syllabus. The ADC advised me not to speak to anyone about it, not even my chain of command back home. At least not until there was something to report.

Coincidentally, while I was at this appointment, MSgt Misely brought blank printer paper to my classmates and told them to write down what happened. The more legal savvy flatly refused and requested a formal 1168 if they were to make a statement. Misely told them it wasn’t a formal statement, the academy just wanted to know what happened.

Two days later Allen and I were summoned to the Director of Education’s office, SMSgt Wellbaum. The Director of Education was filling in for the Commandant who had recently PCS’d. SMSgt Wellbaum had a pretty weak personality. He was passive and indirect, the antithesis of a flightline leader. I couldn’t tell if he was short, or his passive personality made him appear that way. His hair was in a perpetual state of bed-head and his uniform disheveled; quite surprising for a ‘leader’ in PME.

I entered the room and was directed to stand at attention. This wasn’t my first letter of reprimand so I knew the song and dance of the process. He read the letter, detailing how I had shown exceptionally poor judgement and character. I signed the letter confirming receipt and I was dismissed. I was allowed 3 duty days to rebut the letter and I had every intention of doing so.

My first pass at the rebuttal was condescending, arrogant and critical of the school. Before turning it in I ran it by my attorney. I was quite fond of the colorful verbiage and tone. As he read it, his brow began to furrow, increasing in intensity as his eyes moved down the page. When he was done the first question he asked was if I had turned it in already. I answered no, and my lawyer gave a sigh of relief. I asked what the problem with the letter was. He said it would likely get me in more trouble because the contempt for the Academy was quite evident in my tone and delivery. My lawyer recommended I get my chain of command back at Luke up to speed on what had happened.

I took his advice and returned home to work on my second attempt. This letter was much more apologetic and spoke about how the processes at the Vosler NCO Academy could be improved to prevent these types of incidents in the future.

I called my First Sergeant at Luke to let him know what was going on. I told him I was issued an LOR but I couldn’t say for what. I could hear him scoff at the notion and he stated “PME gives LORs for everything. It stays there so I’m not concerned about it. Keep your nose clean and finish out.”

I submitted my rebuttal the next day. I recommitted to ‘laying low’ for the rest of my time in NCOA. A few days later I had to do the summative group interpersonal exercise and I kept it low key, hitting all the points I needed to hit and received an excellent rating. I continued expending very little academic energy towards the course as it didn’t seem to require very much.; another example of military box checking, or ‘No-NCO-left-behind’. It’s a well-known secret that military PME is set up to pass and only through extreme incompetence do students get released for academic reasons.

I didn’t know at the time but the investigation into the video was still on-going. My classmates were being interviewed based on the contents of their ‘blank-paper-that’s-not-a-statement-but-it-really-is-a-statement’.

The day before graduation, after all course work was completed my classmates and I had to clean the entire building in preparation for the next class. It was February in Colorado so it was cold and snowy. I walked around the outside of the building picking up cigarette butts even though I didn’t smoke. I was feeling relieved. Even though I had made it more difficult than it needed to be, I had finished.

The class retired to the main auditorium for our end of day briefing and to discuss what to expect at graduation the following day. However, before the briefing started Allen and I were asked to step out for a moment.

We were escorted again to SMSgt Wellbaum’s office. I went in first, with Allen outside waiting in the hallway. When I entered I saw MSgt Baker standing at attention behind Wellbaum and looking forward in my general direction. TSgt Badger was standing behind me, and also at attention.

I squared up on the desk and stood at attention. At this point I really didn’t know what it could be about. And then Wellbaum began reading the letter on his desk. “You are hereby disciplinarily released from Vosler NCO Academy… …for violating standards of academic integrity”

The letter went on to detail the violation and the appeal process if I believed the decision had been made in error. When I left the room I gave Allen a look so that he at least would be more prepared than myself when he entered. My eyes communicated ‘you’re about to get fucked’.

I immediately proceeded to MSgt Misely’s office to discuss the appeal process. I asked questions about the nuances of appeals; the success rate of appeals and what types of circumstances would better support an appeal. She stone walled me. Gave ‘I don’t knows’ or ‘I’m not sures’ at every question I asked.

Then it hit me. She’s not my First Sergeant, she is theirs; the instructors. She had no interest or motivation in helping me formulate an appeal strategy that may bring embarrassment to the academy. So I left her office and went back to my room.

I called the ADC and explained I had received a disciplinary release. He was perplexed. He had seen much more egregious violations at this academy in the past that still resulted in the student’s graduation. I thanked him for his help and began packing my bags.

I sent a message to my commander who had arrived earlier that day to attend my graduation. Luckily he had other members graduating so his trip wasn’t ruined by my release. I had dinner with him and explained what had happened (everything you the reader know up to this point).

He couldn’t understand why I was kicked out even though I had already been served an LOR for the violation. Nor could he understand why I was removed even though I had completed all course requirements. He reached out to the group commander at the time, Colonel Parkhurst, as well as the Command Chief. Each of them contacted SMSgt Wellbaum over the next 24 hours to ask him to reconsider the release. Wellbaum refused to even entertain the idea. The release had already been processed and no amount of explanation would change his mind.

I left the following day as my class mates were getting ready for their graduation. It was also my 12 year anniversary in the Air Force. However, I was just getting warmed up and I knew I had a fight ahead of me.

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