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Military Maintenance Units Can't Afford One Day to Combat White Supremacy

 

Photo courtesy of Sarah Sicard
Photo courtesy of Sarah Sicard



Note: Readers should fully read this article, as the narration and explanation will expand through the course of the article. Insinuations at the start are not necessarily conclusions at the end. Public Affairs responses are compiled at the end of the article.

On January 6, 2021 there was a riot at the United States Capitol in Washington D.C.. That riot coincided with Presidential electoral votes being counted and debated by both chambers of Congress. It is estimated 20% of the participants of the riot were veterans, active duty, national guard, or reservists. That number stands in stark contrast to veteran makeup among the general population which sits at only 7% of the total U.S. population.

Photo courtesy of dod.mil
On January 22, 2021 retired Army Four-Star General Lloyd Austin was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a 93-2 vote making him the first Black Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) in U.S. history.

On February 5, 2021 SECDEF Austin issued a memorandum directing "commanding officers and supervisors at all levels to select a date within the next 60 days to conduct a one-day 'stand-down' on [Extremism and White Supremacy] with their personnel." The new SECDEF went on to say that commanding officers and supervisors "should use this opportunity to listen as well to the concerns, experiences, and possible solutions that the men and women of the workforce may proffer in these stand-down sessions." While writing this article, I sought clarification of what a "one-day stand-down" meant, by contacting Department of Defense (DOD) Public Affairs. The DOD Public Affairs officer, Lieutenant Colonel Orland, stated that the one-day stand-down is "meant to be a full duty day in lieu of work." In a follow-up I asked "So the letter says direct, but you say meant to be. Has this one day stand-down been directed?" to which he replied "Yes, it's directed."

The purpose of a military stand-down is multifaceted. 

The first purpose is to set aside time to distribute material and foster discussions in order to advance the Armed Services' and Department's understanding of a topic. The Air Force has done it in the past with suicides, and the Army held them recently in the wake of the Vanessa Guillen tragedy.

The second purpose is to signal to all military members and DOD employees that our mission cannot continue until this issue has been addressed. That we, as a community of millions, will forgo our mission for one day to prove an organizational commitment to the topic.

On March 12, 2021 I received information from a source that Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, North Carolina held their one-day stand-down training that very same day. However, that same source told me that "maintainers" had to go to work after the completion of the one-day stand-down. The source also stated every one else in attendance other than the maintainers had been sent home.

It is really important to note that if the training ended early, there is no possible way maintenance leaders at Seymour Johnson decided in that moment to bring maintainers in to work. I am absolutely confident that maintenance leaders went into the stand-down day knowing it wouldn't be a full day and had already received approval to have their maintainers work. Any other ad-hoc decision scenario defies my twenty years of maintenance experience.

On that same day I made a post on the 20 Years Done Facebook Page tagging the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) and Air Combat Command (the command with authority over Seymour Johnson) asking if they were aware that aircraft maintainers were sent to work after the completion of the Extremism Training. Twenty-two hours later in response to a CMSAF Facebook post about Daylight Savings Time, I presented the issue of the half-day Extremism Training and half-day working for maintainers at Seymour Johnson in a comment. While I have not received a response from the CMSAF at the time of this writing, the comments section provided ample insight.

One commentator stated the Extremism Training "[is] not an entire day" and challenged me to name "any base that used an entire day." I found this confidence in the half-day model with the anecdotal testimony implying everyone was using a half day to be disconcerting.

Another commentator stationed at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany supported the notion that it was half day training saying "the stand-down day is not to stand-down for an entire day at all. It is up to each individual unit to determine what works best for them and to still meet the intent of the topic." The commentator later qualified his subject-matter expertise by stating he was a "First Sergeant" and his unit's "Point of Contact" for the Extremism Training adding that his unit's training "is this week."



In a twist of irony, this same Extremism Training Point of Contact and unit First Sergeant has a Facebook profile picture with him standing at the gates of Auschwitz with a giant smile on his face. First, Auschwitz is not a place where you take smiling tourist photos. Ever. And what is worse, you would have to be completely oblivious to the impropriety of such a smiling picture to post it as your outward facing profile picture. This is the person that thinks Extremism Training in the military doesn't require a full day stand-down.

Another anonymous maintenance technician stated that he had advocated for a full day for this stand-down but it was "shut down due to sustaining flying operations." This leader went on to say that he was directed to "incorporate [Extremism Training] into daily operations while still attempting to make it as effective as possible." 

How does standing down half a day differ from a full day?

Well first, as the letter stated, part of the one-day stand-down would be devoted to "listen[ing] as well to the concerns, experiences, and possible solutions that the men and women of the workforce may proffer." How is this possible if the stand-down is scheduled to be cut short in order to work jets? Further, how is it possible if that decision was made before a single training discussion was had? These units budgeted the training to be less than a full-day which at it's outset stifles time for discussion. 

Additionally, when there is a historic basis for full-day stand-downs (e.g. suicides, sexual assault), compared to extremism and white supremacy met with only an abridged half-day stand-down, the logical conclusion is those commands authorizing a half-day stand-down deem the topic less important than the ones afforded a full-day stand-down.

Second, when an aircraft maintainer knows that there is work to be accomplished after the training, and they will not be able to go home until that work is done, it shifts their motivation to completing the training as quickly as possible in order to "get to the real work so I can go home." By creating this half-day dynamic, these commands undermined the training message and disincentivized trainers and participants alike from allocating the proper attention and time to the training. 

So what are the issues here?

The first and most obvious, is that at least one Caucasian commander has defied a direct order from a Black Secretary of Defense on a topic that is unambiguous, and is specifically about insubordination and competing loyalties along racial lines. I could probably wrap up this article right there. But I won't.

On this topic in particular, now is not the time for military members potentially afflicted by implicit biases to disregard the training requirement. Disregarding this training undermines the authority of the SECDEF. Doesn't it make sense that those with implicit bias would think the training is pointless? Of all people, those that seek to avoid the training are most likely the ones that need it the most.

Second, even if racial biases are not at play here, the very perception that Caucasian commander(s) are ignoring an explicit order from the highest-ranking member in DOD undermines public faith that this problem can be addressed. Now, unfortunately, SECDEF Austin is in a position where he will be forced to discipline insubordinate commanders or relent on the definition of a "one-day stand-down" to save face and preserve his authority. That the SECDEF would even have to consider kowtowing to subordinate commanders should be a serious cause for concern.

Third, what of the minorities and People of Color (POC) in these maintenance units? What of the brand-new Airman that sees his leadership disregard training that is explicit in it's intent, and directly impacts POC in the unit? What kind of message does that send?

It sends the message that "your issue is not an issue we are willing to devote resources to, even when ordered to do so." If the SECDEF cannot force these units to address extremism and white supremacy what chance does a young E-2 have? Or an E-9 for that matter?

What of the maintenance supervisors that are also POC? Imagine having to send young airmen out to the flight line after cutting short training that was created to allow POC to express their views and offer their solutions about racial problems, both in society at large and potentially in their own unit. How would that feel?

Finally, this brings me to what I believe is the actual reason for the curtailed stand-downs. The first issue above is likely not the primary, predominant or even intentional motivations for these units to cut short the trainings. The second and third issues I made above very likely are unavoidable outcomes when this training is cut short and some of that damage is already done.

So what could possibly be so important that these commanders rationalized creative definitions of "one-day stand-down" within their units?

Sortie production.

If you're a new reader, you may not be familiar with aircraft maintenance culture in the Air Force.

It is anemic. It is starving. It is impoverished. It is in survival mode.

In 2021, in order for units to achieve sortie production goals they employ quasi-ethical norms and cost-saving measures just to give the appearance of keeping their heads above water. These take the form of selective enforcement of maintenance standards, allowing whole operational checks to be disregarded but documented as if completed, or in most instances, certain steps of operational checks to be disregarded for the sake of efficiency and expedience. All manner of tasks are afflicted by this non-compliance culture.

In my latest podcast episode, I walk through how the Air Force likely burden-shifted 23 million man hours per year to aircraft maintainers, essentially cheating them out of their time off. This was another effect and adaptation to the severe resource restriction that aircraft maintenance units face.

In 2018 when SECDEF Mattis demanded five fighter airframes reach an 80% readiness threshold within a year; I detailed the present health of the maintenance community and predicted there would be a stark increase in suicides among aircraft maintainers. Nine months later Air Force leadership declared there was a suicide crisis that as of this date has been unresolved and masked by attention to COVID. I still continue to fight for transparency of suicide metrics by Air Force job code.

I also have written about how sequestration force reduction measures crippled the maintenance community, compounding the prior decades mismanagement of experience and personnel.

So, the reality is these commanders and maintenance leaders are likely not closet White Supremacists working in the shadows against the SECDEF's directive. Rather, they are living paycheck-to-proverbial-paycheck trying to meet the demands of a country that is ignorant or indifferent to what goes on in the military and a Congress that ignored frank and pragmatic predictions in 2013 from senior military leaders that accurately predicted the hollow Armed Forces we now see in 2021.

The short term fix, clearly, is for senior military leaders to adhere to the SECDEFs mandate and hold actual, one-day stand-downs. This allows units the proper platform to engage in a discussion to solve  issues related to Extremism. However, that only addresses the immediate issue. It will take real courage from military and civilian leaders alike to pull away the curtain hiding the mess that has been aircraft maintenance for the last 10 years.

Please leave comments below and join the 20 Years Done Facebook Page. If you'd like to hear more about maintenance culture and my own journey through the military, I recommend you listen and subscribe to the 20 Years Done Podcast. Available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Soundcloud.

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Air Force Public Affairs Statement:

Leaders are able to tailor their discussions and execution of the Extremism Stand-Down Day as they see fit to meet the unique needs of their Airmen and Guardians and their local environment.  All commanders must address the three core areas identified by the Secretary of Defense, “Why We Serve: Our Oath of Office,” and “Impermissible Behaviors & Reporting Procedures” in order meet the requirements established by the SECDEF for this stand-down.  





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