IG: Air Force General Harassed Subordinate, Failed to Report Suicide Attempts

Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets IV
Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets IV

An Air Force brigadier general recently forced to retire without a promotion told his subordinates not to report suicide attempts, made inappropriate comments about women during a sporting event, and pressured a female airman under his command into uncomfortable conversation about her past, according to a recently released report from the Air Force Inspector General's office.

Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets IV, then-commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, also created a negative work environment, accepted inappropriate gifts and used a government vehicle for personal reasons, said the redacted IG report, completed in May and provided to media by the service on Monday.

Last month, the Air Force said that Tibbets, the grandson of then-Col. Paul Tibbets Jr., who during World War II dropped the uranium bomb known as "Little Boy" over Hiroshima, Japan, would not receive his second star and that he would officially retire Dec. 1. He began terminal leave Oct. 19.

Tibbets commanded the 509th Bomb Wing, a B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber unit, between June 2015 and July 2017, according to his official biography. He then became the deputy Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, and was later named the deputy commander of Air Forces Strategic-Air out of U.S. Strategic Command, the biography says.

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A Strange Relationship

Twenty-four individuals, including Tibbets, were interviewed for the investigation, the report shows. According to the IG, Tibbets was found to have had "a relationship that was beyond what was customary of a 1-star General and a 1-stripe Airman."

The female junior airman, unidentified in the report, received non-judicial punishment in October 2016 under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for an "unprofessional relationship which resulted in demotion," the report said. Whether she was already in the 509th when she met Tibbets was not disclosed.

Tibbets had taken a particular interest in the airman, the report shows. According to her testimony, Tibbets continued to ask her why she lost a stripe and why she wasn't up for promotion.

"I just said to him that I was not comfortable talking about it because I did not want him to think of me any differently because what I lost my stripe for was really embarrassing," she said in her testimony to officials.

Despite her reluctance, Tibbets again brought up the matter about a week later during a spouse club event at the Royal Oaks Golf Course. Earlier that week, the female airman had heard from peers that Tibbets had been asking about her and how she had lost her rank.

The airmen said she wanted to come clean to Tibbets, mostly so he would stop pursuing the issue.

"I knew that he could find out why anyway [if he] really wanted to so I'd rather have him hear it from me and be open and honest about it, but I really just wanted him to stop asking me," she said, according to the IG investigation.

At a farewell party following their conversation, Tibbets stated publicly, while the airman was present, "Isn't she such a beautiful young lady?"

He added, "If only she didn't sleep with married men."

The airman said all she felt was shock in response to his remark.

Tibbets told officials he had mentored the airman in the time that he knew her but was not sure why she would tell investigators this particular incident.

"I thought we had a good professional relationship," Tibbets said. "I appreciated that she shared some of the challenges she's had with me, and I wanted her to continue to do well, but I don't know why she would say that."

On other occasions, Tibbets "would sometimes put his arm around her and state he loved her," the report said. Witnesses described the interactions as odd, including the comments Tibbets made about the airman's prior relationship.

One witness stated: "It was surprising to me having known General Tibbets for so long that he would make a comment like that in front of an Airman and in front of his wife."

The female airman's morale had soured following the comments, leading to her withdrawing socially and underperforming in her duties, other witnesses said.

"She was trying [to] kind of go back on the uptick and then this happened and it definitely just was like a cliff with almost just a straight drop," another witness said.

For his part, Tibbets tended to get bolder after drinking, witnesses said.

"Brig Gen Tibbets was 'a little bit more loose with what he says' when he has had one or two drinks," one witness told investigators in reference to a Kansas City Chiefs football game some service members attended on Nov. 6, 2016.

"One lady [said] he had talked about her 'rack' and how large it was," a witness said. "And then he had talked about how hot the [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] were, and [REDACTED] and I were kind of like, hmm ... 'Sir let's go ahead and move over here' and try to get him out of the situation."

Failure to Report Suicide Attempts

The IG found that Tibbets violated Article 92, or "Failure to Obey Order or Regulation," between June 2015 and July 2017 when he failed to report attempted suicides of Whiteman personnel.

A medical professional told the IG that on at least three occasions, the general "told me not to do the medical reporting."

Whiteman reported it had "no suicide attempts" for all of 2017.

AFGSC requires leadership to report attempted suicides, even if they don't always result in hospitalization. But Tibbets viewed the data reporting requirements differently, another witness said.

"We would get informed that somebody would drink an excess amount of alcohol and take a couple Tylenol, thinking that that would kill themselves, you know," the witness said. "Is that really an [Air Force Operational Reporting (OPREP) System] report, you know, no. Is it somebody that's seeking attention? Is that the intent of the OPREP report? And to General Tibbets, you know, no, it's not."

Medical personnel who were interviewed said they didn't agree with Tibbets on his method -- or lack thereof -- of reporting suicide attempts. Tibbets, it seemed, saw them instead as a cry for help.

On Feb. 1, 2017, Tibbets used this language in an email exchange to describe a suicide attempt that had landed an airman in the hospital.

"Based on this Airman's pattern of behavior, we think this is a 'cry for help' (wanting attention)," Tibbets said. "As mentioned above, this individual had a similar overdoes (sic) event two months ago, which was eventually determined to be an unintentional overdose."

The incident ultimately went unreported.

Tibbets was found derelict in his duty for not reporting the attempts, the investigation noted. The document did not say if leaders planned to re-investigate how many suicide attempts went unreported during Tibbets' tenure.

A Culture of Bullying

While it is unclear how some officials were involved the case, two individuals whose biographies were listed in the report were pertinent to the investigation at the time: the commander of the 509th Medical Group at Whiteman and the commander of the 509th Mission Support Group.

Air Force Global Strike Command received the first anonymous complaint against Tibbets, which alleged he was micromanaging his subordinates.

"Favoritism and bullying has led to a hostile work environment," said the complaint, lodged April 2017.

Days later, multiple IG complaints were filed by personnel in the 509th Medical Group.

Between April and May 2017, in just a few weeks' time, the command also sent out a climate survey to gauge how airmen viewed the current workplace.

Of the 141 responses, "22 were extremely negative, 62 were negative, 36 were neutral, and 21 were positive," the investigation said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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