Deadly Osprey Crash, Police Shooting: General Reflects on Time as Head of Air Force Special Operations

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind delivers a speech
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind delivers a speech during the Air Force Special Operations Command change of command ceremony at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 2, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ty Pilgrim)

Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind's tenure as the head of Air Force Special Operations Command was eventful.

As soon as he took the helm in December 2022, the longtime special operations pilot had to tackle ongoing maintenance issues facing the service's CV-22 Osprey aircraft, including groundings, flight restrictions and, ultimately, the tragic death of eight of his airmen in November when their tiltrotor aircraft crashed in Japan due to an unknown mechanical failure.

Just two months before he was set to leave his command, one of his commandos -- 23-year-old Senior Airman Roger Fortson -- was suddenly killed by a Florida sheriff's deputy while he was FaceTiming his girlfriend at his apartment, prompting public outcry about another police brutality incident.

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Bauernfeind, a self-described introvert, admitted in a nearly hourlong exclusive interview with that addressing those crises wasn't easy but taught him how to respond to those tragedies as humanly as possible.

He relinquished his role as the Air Force Special Operations commander Tuesday and is heading to his next position as the superintendent of the Air Force Academy in Colorado. It's a vastly different assignment, but one that he feels prepared for, not only because he's a 1991 graduate of that military service academy, but also due to the hard truths he learned, and shared with others, amid those tragedies.

    "There's just a whole myriad of crises that life sends your way, and the golden rule I have is, and I tell them, you've got exactly five seconds to go outside and scream at the sky," Bauernfeind said. "Then, after that, you got to start leading."

    'A Global Impact'

    Bauernfeind was eating breakfast with his family May 4 when he was notified that Fortson had died at the hospital after being shot multiple times by a sheriff's deputy in the doorway of his apartment near Hurlburt Field, a base in the Florida panhandle.

    "Every loss hurts," Bauernfeind said. "But we knew that this one was going to have a global impact."

    The next day, just ahead of a large conference in Tampa, Bauernfeind quickly gathered his team and spoke about how he would respond to the force. While a lot was still unknown about the situation at that time, he wanted to make one thing clear: Fortson's family needed them.

    "There's going to be a lot of questions, but priority one is to the family," the former AFSOC commander said. "We'll handle the other questions later, but let's make sure the family's taken care of."

    Bauernfeind sent an email, obtained by, to the whole force May 9, in which he broke from the traditional mode of silence often exhibited by top-ranking officers with off-base tragedies among the rank and file.

    "We will all see this event through varying lenses, informed by our own journeys, and our own perspectives," Bauernfeind wrote. "We must acknowledge and respect these varying perspectives so we can move forward as a team."

    In that message, he told airmen to avoid saying or assuming that Fortson "did something wrong" or that "law enforcement did something wrong." He added that "the investigation will lay out the facts" and service members should avoid "failing to acknowledge we have grieving teammates with differing journeys and perspectives."

    In another move not often seen among the top brass, Bauernfeind's commandos, alongside other airmen, showed up at Fortson's funeral in dress blues, and the Air Force Special Operations commander addressed the family and crowd during a speech.

    In late May, Air Force Special Operations Command held a town hall with Okaloosa County Sheriff Eric Aden -- the boss of the deputy responsible for Fortson's death -- at Hurlburt Field with Air Force and community leaders to speak to airmen about the shooting. The Air Force said it gave them an opportunity to openly convey "feelings of frustration and sadness," and Bauernfeind said it was important.

    "It's important to have those conversations so we can wrap our arms around them and move ourselves forward from that conversation," Bauernfeind said. "The world is not perfect, and we've got to all continue moving forward so we can get the best of our people."

    Meka Fortson, the mother of Roger Fortson, told that the "united front" of the special operations leadership and airmen has been pivotal in applying pressure to investigators and showcasing her son's achievements. While she wants to see more be done in the wake of her son's death, that support from airmen has been crucial.

    Just one day after the town hall, it was announced that Deputy Eddie Duran, an Army veteran who had been with the department since 2019, was fired from the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office. An Administrative Internal Affairs investigation showed his "use of deadly force was not objectively reasonable and therefore violated agency policy."

    'Proud of Their Weapon System'

    Bauernfeind's predecessor -- then-Lt. Gen. Jim Slife -- had to grapple with the woes of the Osprey, namely hard clutch engagements, a mechanical issue that left an Air Force CV-22 stranded at a nature preserve in Norway for more than a month and also was cited as the cause of an Osprey crash in 2022 that left five Marines dead in the California desert.

    Tragedy struck the Air Force in November, when a CV-22 Osprey crashed off the coast of Japan, killing all eight airmen aboard -- the deadliest crash for that aircraft in the service's history.

    That loss of life led Pentagon officials to temporarily ground all the aircraft used by the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. While investigations into that November crash are still ongoing, officials have said that it was caused by a new issue never seen before, further complicating the already controversial relationship the military has with the Osprey.

    Despite those ongoing issues, the Pentagon lifted the grounding several months after the crash, and Bauernfeind continues to showcase trust in the CV-22.

    Recently, as the Air Force has moved toward returning to flight, Bauernfeind told he got aboard one of the Ospreys himself to fly and watch the crews recertify their skills firsthand.

    "To see the professionalism of our maintainers and our operators, as they are regaining their skills back, I was impressed," he said. "They are laser focused, proud of their capabilities, proud of their weapon system."

    While the services don't have plans to purchase new Ospreys, it's unclear what will replace the tilt-rotor aircraft for the Air Force's special operations missions in the future. But, for now, the CV-22 is staying, and pilots and maintainers are learning how to avoid the mechanical pitfalls.

    "The requirements for the capability that the CV-22 provides are still there; we still must provide that requirement," Bauernfeind said. "The question becomes, how do we cover that requirement? And right now, the platform that we have is the CV-22 Osprey, and I have the full faith and confidence in our operators and our crews and the weapon system to achieve that capability."

    Finding the remains of the eight CV-22 Osprey crew members off the coast of Japan was a monumental task, and ultimately all, excluding those of Maj. Eric "Doc" Spendlove, were recovered.

    What followed were funeral services and ceremonies across the country for the eight crew members, and Bauernfeind attended several of them.

    "Just the outpouring of support was heartwarming," Bauernfeind told, getting choked up as he spoke. "At times, you know, we think that the military is kind of being less appreciated. And you see that from California to Minnesota, New York to Florida, Ohio to Massachusetts that, no, America still appreciates their military. Especially the service and the sacrifice."

    Looking to the Future

    In the wake of the U.S. military's withdrawal from Afghanistan, an area where U.S. special forces had been utilized heavily for two decades, Bauernfeind said the work hasn't slowed for AFSOC.

    In addition to still being "heavily involved in making sure that those violent extremist organizations are contained and not a threat to our homeland," Bauernfeind said AFSOC is also reorienting to the Air Force and Department of Defense's pivot to what it calls "great power competition" -- lingo that means increased spending and strategy focused on adversaries, namely China.

    "I'm exceptionally proud of what our air commanders did over almost two decades in Afghanistan," Bauernfeind said. "And, you know, I think they did a Herculean effort to support national and political objectives as it moves forward. As we transition to other parts of the world, we will keep sustaining and supporting our allies."

    In many ways, Bauernfeind will be adapting too. In May, President Joe Biden's administration nominated him to become the next superintendent of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was confirmed by the Senate on June 18.

    Lt. Gen. Michael Conley, who previously served as the director of operations for Headquarters AFSOC, assumed command of Air Force Special Operations Command in a ceremony Tuesday.

    "I am honored and humbled for this opportunity," Conley said in a press release. "I am committed to making this command the best it can be in ensuring we are ready to go whenever you need us to."

    At the ceremony, Bauernfeind was given a final salute and also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his tenure. While he refuses to say that his time at AFSOC was his most difficult, he points out that he's learned a lot about people and even more about himself.

    "This is my eighth command," he said. "Just like every other human being out there, I'm fallible and every single morning I wake up, knowing that I have great teammates that hopefully will make me better. And I'm a learning machine. I have learned from every single one of my assignments because I've had phenomenal teammates, mentors to make me better as a human."

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