Don't Hang With Enlisted? The 'Fraternization' Line

don't hang with enlisted
A Basic Leader Course instructor supervises PT at Camp Zama, Japan. (Noriko Kudo/DVIDS)

The word on the street at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, home of the Air Force's basic training school, is that if you're an officer, hanging out with or paying special attention to enlisted folk is going to get you canned.

Lt. Col. Craig Perry, the commander of Lackland's 737th Training Support Squadron, was fired from his job, given a career-ending review and PCSed to a new location due to "lost confidence," according to this Air Force Times article.

Why? Largely because, an investigation found, "Perry engaged in unprofessional relationships with enlisted members in his organization."


And what was this "unprofessional relationship," you ask? Spending time outside work with his superintendent  -- his enlisted counterpart -- and her family. He was reaching out to hurting enlisted members of his squadron and doing stuff that generally makes him and his wife sound like the dream command team.

Because here's the deal:

Sometimes commanders -- and their wives -- don't want anything to do with the little people (both O and E) under them. We all have met one of those at some point. And it is never fun.

But sometimes you come upon a commander and spouse that actually care, that take the time to build the relationships the Air Force and other services have labeled as key to a good command climate and the opposite of toxic leadership.

When we've made so much progress as a force in keeping up the O/E barriers necessary (and some are for professional reasons) while tearing down the ones that just cause animosity (like those between spouses), do we really need a message like the one given by this firing to muddle things up again?

Do we really need to hear that "fraternization" is bad and that we shouldn't be friends?

The Air Force Times article plainly paints why Perry's firing for, in part, fraternization is anything but clear-cut. According to sources the Air Force Times talked to the couple did virtually nothing out of line with larger Air Force policies.

The wife revived an ailing Key Spouse program. The couple reached out to hurting squadron members. They took the time to support. Two of Perry's top priorities were "an extra layer of support for airmen and encourages interaction among families."

To me that sounds like a dream unit. Isn't the primary complaint about FRGs and other support programs that "no one ever contacted me?"

And character references in the investigation -- and the investigation itself  -- showed that the interactions called into question were an attempt to make sure members of the unit felt supported. Still, thanks to a handful of statements from others in the squadron, it found he crossed the line. From the story:

"At least one person complained Perry’s interaction with some of his subordinates undermined the chain of command, according to the investigation report.

Another said the squadron commander seemed to favor 'Blue Ropes,' a cadre of top performing military training instructors. One witness stated Perry spent “extensive amounts of time” with his superintendent, that their relationship went 'beyond a normal working relationship' and that the Perrys had socialized with the superintendent and her family outside of work.

In an interview with Air Force Times, a retired lieutenant colonel who does not know the Perrys said their outreach efforts do not seem unusual.

Now, it's clear from the Air Force Times story and other posts like this one that some pieces to this puzzle are missing. A few folks in the unit felt left out and complained. The investigation suggested "counseling and remedial training" as punishment. And yet, instead of that relatively light consequence, Perry was instead booted from command, moved across base, ordered to have no interaction with the squadron, given a career ending evaluation and PCSed to another duty station.

That's like burning down the house because you saw a garden spider.

Yes, there is a line where fraternization between the commander and, particularly, lower enlisted service members should be kept to a minimum. For example, getting drunk together on a Saturday night is probably going to hurt how seriously the commander is taken on Monday morning.

And then there is interaction that helps -- interaction that is vital, that makes troops better at their jobs and keeps families happy because they feel cared for and noticed.

That's the stuff we want to keep around. And that's what is hurt when stories like this one scare you into questioning what you can and cannot do.

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