Air Force: Firing For Effect?

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Kale Mosley

Then-U.S. Air Force Major Kale Mosley at the helm of a KC-135 tanker

Major Kale Mosley was getting ready to board his KC-135 refueling tanker for Iraq last June when a commander pulled him aside. He was being fired as of Nov. 30, contrary to a long-standing Pentagon policy that lets officers stay in until retirement – and its pension — once they’ve entered their 15th year of service. “Now,” the commander may as well have ordered Mosley, “go fight your nation’s war before we kick you out for good.”

The Air Force has elected to deal with the looming budget cuts facing all the services by moving the goal posts for 157 of its officers who entered their 15th year of service in 2011: traditionally, the services let officers who don’t get promoted in their final six years of duty finish their 20-year Air Force careers as majors. Last year, the service changed that six-year protection to five.

Is this right? Is it fair? Or is it just legal?

The Air Force acknowledges that “normally” officers with less than six years remaining until they are eligible to retire at 20 years are allowed to remain in the service. But currently, under pressure to “meet authorized end-strength levels at a time of record high retention rates,” Air Force Secretary Michael Donley elected to limit such protection only to those within five years of retirement. The Air Force says Pentagon regulations allow him to do this “when the needs of the service dictate it.”

These are the kinds of decisions that are going to become more common as the military pares backs in ranks amid budget cuts and the winding down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The bloody and vibrant red, white and blue of patriotism in 9/11’s wake can fade to wan pastels when budgets tighten and the public has grown tired of a decade of conflict. And – as anyone who has worn the uniform can attest – there are always little-known loopholes that turn long-believed fact into government-certified fiction when push comes to shove.

The Air Force insists it warned Mosley and officers like him that the service might force them out before they earned the retirement benefits that come with 20 years of service, if they didn’t win promotion to lieutenant colonel. “The Air Force appreciates and values the service and sacrifice of every airman,” adds Lieut. Colonel John L. Dorrian, an Air Force spokesman. “We are committed to easing separation transitions as much as possible.”

But troops like Mosley – due to custom, wishful thinking or informal guidance from superiors – always believed that once they made it to 14 years – within six of retirement – they would be able to stay in until hitting the 20-year mark, when they’d become eligible for a pension. “The Air Force had me playing by a set of rules for my entire career,” he says, “and all of a sudden, because money seemed to get a little tight, they changed the rules.”

These officers came of age during the military’s post-9/11 role, and valiantly stepped forward: Mosley flew nearly 4,000 hours and 269 combat missions in support of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. He and the others caught in this Air Force change of heart feel betrayed by the service many have served for close to 20 years (if they, like Mosley, attended the Air Force Academy).

Mosley’s attorney is Kyndra Miller Rotunda, who is also representing, pro bono, another dozen officers in the same fix as executive director of Chapman University’s AMVETS Legal Clinic in Orange, Calif. “We’re asking the Air Force to simply follow its rules,” she says – either put the 157 back on active duty until they’ve got their 20 years, or grant them early retirement, as she says was done during a 1990s build down. “People come in and stay in for that retirement, and our clients have done 95% of the work – they’ve done everything they were ever asked of them — and now the service is deciding not to hold up their end of the deal.” She doesn’t have an estimate of how much these options would cost the service. “But it’s nothing,” she says, “compared to the cost of a bomber.”

Rotunda argues that the fate of Mosley & Co. contrasts markedly with this recent answer that nervous troops asking about their future heard at an out-of-the-way U.S. military base in the Horn of Africa:

We are not going to break faith with the men and women who’ve served this country…you deployed time and time again and I’m going to make sure that we stand by the promises that have been made to all of you…we will grandfather all of those who are in the service now, that you receive the benefits that have been promised to you.

That’s what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at Djibouti’s Camp Lemonier on Dec. 13, two weeks after Mosley and his fellow Air Force officers were forced out without the pensions and other benefits they feel they had earned.

But the Air Force says not only did the service not violate any promises to the 157, it told the defense secretary’s office a year ago (Robert Gates was then in the job) that the service might have to take such action. “The service secretaries already had the authority to adjust criteria” – cutting the grace period from six to five years – “as long as the secretary of defense was notified prior to implementation,” Air Force spokesman Dorrian says.

Meanwhile, good soldier that he was, Mosley flew out of McConnell Air Force Base last June and headed to Iraq and Qatar for two months of refueling fighters waging war in Afghanistan, and protecting troops on the ground in Iraq. “I was filling out my resume in-between missions,” he says. He fretted not only about the next six-hour flight into harm’s way, but his future, and that of his pregnant wife and baby daughter back home in Kansas.

Now that he’s the father of two girls – “I had a baby daughter born three days after I hit the unemployment line” – he’s seeking work as a civilian pilot back home in Kansas. When asked, he ponders what he’ll tell his kids if they ask Dad 15 years from now about joining the military.

“Up until this summer, nothing could have made me prouder,” Mosley says. “But as far as making the military a career, I absolutely am done recommending to anyone that they make the military a career. They have not, in my case at least, kept their promises.”