- Tim Newcomb
When the National Guard Bureau released the damning results of its investigation into the Vermont Natural Guard two weeks ago, news coverage focused on how poorly the Vermont unit had handled allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and how a "good old boy" network allowed those problems to flourish.
Unfortunately, that's only part of the story.
The outside investigators found broader problems in 2020 as they reviewed internal documents, conducted interviews with dozens of officials and surveyed 1,650 Guard members. Their report paints a picture of an organization in disarray.
That's concerning because the Vermont National Guard does more than fly the controversial F-35 fighter jets. Guard members have provided crucial pandemic-related help with food distribution, construction of hospital overflows and contact tracing. The Guard played a pivotal role after Tropical Storm Irene. Its internal health matters for Vermont.
According to the report, morale overall had plummeted, and resentments and divisions festered within the Air Guard's F-35 program. Most of the Air Guard personnel didn't trust their leaders, some didn't feel part of the team, and an "us vs. them" mentality divided those working directly on the F-35 mission, including the top gun fighter pilots, and the rest of the Air Guard.
The report by the National Guard's Office of Complex Investigations found that the Army side of the Vermont Guard had its own set of problems. Members felt uncertain about the Guard's changing military role and had basic questions about who reports to whom. That created friction.
Adj. Gen. Greg Knight and Wing Commander Col. David Shevchik, leader of the Air Guard, downplayed the report of divisions and morale problems as old news, noting that the interviews with Guard members are more than a year old. A more recent survey of Air Guard personnel, they said, showed a major improvement. Knight promised to release those survey results in the near future.
Knight took over as adjutant general in 2019, shortly after VTDigger.org published the seven-part series "The Flying Fraternity," which described a culture that allowed Guard members to mistreat women — including fellow members — abuse alcohol and violate the rules, sometimes with impunity. Knight, a Guard veteran who served in the Iraq war, soon requested the federal investigation.
"I knew I had issues," he told me in an interview last week from North Macedonia, where Vermont has a partnership with that country's national guard. "I wanted to get it out in the open and make the organization better. I think any commander takes command with that intent, but I can't fix the things that I can't see."
A review of the F-35 program, Knight said, was not part of his request, but when investigators found problems there, he told them to include those concerns in their report. Bring it on, he said.
And they did.
In the investigators' survey, Air Guard members in particular raised issues that they said led them to mistrust their leaders: inconsistent discipline, favoritism, poor sharing of information. In addition, many Guard members felt they weren't part of a team and were just the support crew for the F-35 program.
The report found that "past commander transgressions" had damaged morale and led to a distrust of leaders. While the Guard report did not name names, the Digger series highlighted a case widely known within the Air Guard: the 2015 demotion of wing commander colonel Thomas Jackman. He flew an F-16 to Washington, D.C., for a work trip that doubled as a romantic rendezvous with a female Army colonel who worked at the Pentagon. Jackman reportedly flew the plane in a snowstorm that shut down the airport where he initially planned to land. Digger reported that Guard leaders gave Jackman a heads-up about his impending punishment and allowed him to resign and avoid the loss of retirement pay and benefits.
That move caused some Guard members to believe Jackman had received favorable treatment.
The investigators' report said morale worsened as the Air Guard brought on the new F-35 fighter jets. The first two of the planes arrived in Burlington in 2019, and some Guard members believed that leaders gave priority to the F-35 program at the expense of the rest of the organization. They worried that the outfit would "lose its National Guard identity" as the home for the citizen-soldier with such a focus on the F-35 program.
As the fleet expanded toward its full complement of 20 jets, tension increased between those working on the F-35s and the rest of the 158th Fighter Wing.
On top of that, air personnel reported that they didn't feel comfortable going to their superiors with their concerns, because they didn't believe complaints would be properly reported up the chain of command.
"As a result, morale within the Wing has continued to plummet further," the report concluded. "This further adds to credibility and trust issues with leadership that continue to be prevalent among Airmen. Despite recent changes in leadership, few Airmen, other than those directly involved with the new F-35 mission, feel good about the direction of the organization, and believe that positive changes will take place."
"In general, there is a sense of uncertainty with the new F-35 mission across the entire VTANG [Vermont Air National Guard]; this adds to the diminishing morale as Airmen lack clarity [of] what will be expected of them and if their efforts would even be valued or recognized," the report says.
In separate interviews, Knight and Shevchik told me angst and low morale were not surprising, given that the Air Guard was switching over from three decades of flying and maintaining F-16s to the new, more sophisticated F-35s. Vermont was the first Air Guard unit in the country to receive the next-generation jets, and the change took some adjustment.
"People were unsure about how the transition was going to go, where did they fit in," said Shevchik, who took command of the Air Guard in early 2020. He said he has worked to be sure that every member "understood where their place was and that they have an important role." He said he's widened the group of personnel at regular leadership meetings to foster inclusion.
Knight agreed: "There were a lot of stressors, and I think part of that was driven by the uncertainty. Now that we've got the jets, I think that unit has really got its feet under it."
Beyond the specific complaints about the F-35 transition, both Air and Army personnel complained about poor communication, which they said hurt morale. Too often, they saw high-profile disciplinary cases handled behind closed doors, raising questions of favoritism, and heard about scandals and bad news from the media, not from Guard leaders. And when members provided negative feedback, leaders were defensive. Many commented about "passive-aggressive leadership" across the organization.
Guard members also said their leaders needed to make their expectations clearer.
"Better defining and communicating its priorities, expectations, and responsibilities to both Commanders and VTNG personnel will provide the necessary transparency and clarity that currently seems to be contributing to a culture of mistrust and low morale," the report said.
Guard members also complained to investigators that the Guard's chain of command was "confusing and convoluted" and that they sometimes didn't know who was supposed to make final decisions. This confusion delayed decisions on matters such as hiring and discipline. Decisions were often made at a low level, and members were hesitant to appeal to higher-ups.
Knight said providing clearer expectations and being more transparent are exactly where he and Shevchik have focused. Knight said he didn't wait for the final report to start making changes. (He received a draft in May and the final report, which was undated, about one month ago, he said.)
Knight knew the Guard was going to "get bruised" by the report, he said, but that was not his worry. What is crucial, he said, are the recommendations included to help drive change.
Among steps he's already taken, Knight said, are instituting a promotion system that relies on what you know, not who you know; offering training programs so people have more opportunities to move up; and applying discipline that is more evenhanded, consistent and transparent — including sharing with troops the offenses and outcomes of disciplinary investigations. Knight also said he has started sending lawmakers a regular Guard update after concluding, "We've circled the wagons for way too long."
Shevchik, a Springfield native and Rice Memorial High School graduate, insisted that the mood of Air Guard members has much improved. He and Knight described a recent training exercise in Nevada as a success that boosted morale. That training, Knight said, "tells me a lot about the direction of the organization, because if we went to that exercise and we were deficient, it would become very quickly apparent" that the Guard still has big problems. "And that's not the case," he said.
How ironic that the F-35 program — hailed by local, state and federal officials as crucial to the Air Guard's future — has fueled so many problems.
When I shared my doubts that morale could be so quickly restored, particularly in such a large, bureaucratic organization, the adjutant general raised a flag of caution. "We've come a long way, but I don't think we're there yet," he said.
Let's hope Knight's right, that there's less internal turbulence today. At $78 million a plane and a cost of $33,000 per flight-hour to operate — not to mention fierce local opposition to the ear-shattering flights — the F-35 program can't afford low morale, dissension and resentment among the troops. There's already enough division between the Guard and a big chunk of the community that hates hearing the jets roar.