Secretary Roche’s Leadership Failure

By Raymond Perry

Nine days ago on Sept. 29, Secretary of the Army nominee James G. Roche testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in response to the report of the independent panel chaired by former Rep. Tillie Fowler. The panel was tasked with investigating the allegations of rape at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Secretary Roche asserted that as the current Secretary of the Air Force, had he known about the seriousness of the problems within the Academy he would have acted. More significantly, he stated that since he lives in Annapolis and had observed similar problems at the Naval Academy, he was acutely attuned to such things.

In earlier articles about the Air Force Academy scandal (see “Air Force Academy: They Still Don’t Get It,” DefenseWatch, Sept. 9, 2003, and “The ‘Annapolization’ Threat,” DefenseWatch, Aug. 1, 2003), I have asserted that the key to the Academy’s problem is absent leadership. The Secretary’s testimony is the clearest confirmation that I can conceive that the problem remains untouched.

This is why his nomination is in danger of capsizing.

Secretary Roche should know better. He is a veteran of 23 years of commissioned service in the U.S. Navy who rose to the rank of captain. While on active duty, he served as commanding officer of the guided missile destroyer USS Buchanan (DDG-14). During his tenure, his ship was awarded the Arleigh Burke Trophy for the most improved combat ship in the Navy, a true mark of outstanding leadership.

One does not achieve such things without understanding how to employ the tools of leadership. During an officer’s apprenticeship to command, he or she is taught many things, including:

* Walk your ship.

* Listen to your people.

* Form your own opinion, compare it to what your chain of command is telling you, and don’t buy BS from the chain of command.

There were plenty of tip-offs as far back as the mid-1990s to the current travails of the Air Force Academy, and the news media covered them: The New York Times did a Sunday magazine cover story on Cadet Elizabeth Saum in 1996, who reached an out-of-court settlement with the Air Force over her treatment. The ABC news show “20/20” did a report on an abusive SERE (Survival, Evasion Resistance and Escape) training program. The Air Force Surgeon General even released a report taking issue with how sexual assaults were being handled at the Academy.

It has now come to light that an Air Force psychiatrist who had investigated these allegations in the mid-1990s personally briefed General Fogelman, then Chief of Staff of the Air Force.

Either Secretary Roche ignored these indicators or uncritically accepted the information provided by his staff. Walking your ship when it spans the world is a bit tough, but there remains an obligation to find a way to get independent assessments and take a hard look at these things. Regardless, this was a breach of the good leadership methods he had learned many years ago.

Leadership demanded that Roche not evade an unpleasant subject, yet his own public statements indicate that this was his choice. In an interview with National Public Radio last March, Roche stated that less than half of all active-duty officers come from the Air Force Academy; that in the operating forces the situation was far better, and therefore the situation at Colorado Springs was just an “academy problem” to be fixed. Moreover, he added that the academy leadership was not at fault, only the cadets.

In my view, the service academies are the heart and soul of their respective services and the source of the professional ethos of each one. A prime purpose of the U.S. military, and the raison d’être of the service academies, is to pass on longstanding values to a core of our commissioned officers that will ensure combat victory while enabling decisive control when battlefield emotions are on the precipice of barbarism.

If the heart and soul of the U.S. Air Force is this sick, then the Air Force as a whole is sick.

The indicators are clear: this scandal has been going on for a generation. If the service academies cease to provide that core of officers with the right kind of longstanding values, then there is a case for abolishing them as counterproductive and useless.

When an organization goes astray and glosses over such poor generalship, the leaders must hold themselves accountable first. The Air Force leadership failed to do this and the cadets continued to engage in criminal acts that they perceived as acceptable and tolerated by senior officers.

Under Title Ten this responsibility lies foursquare on the shoulders of the Air Force Secretary. Training and organizing the Air Force is the Secretary’s job. Ensuring that the Board of Visitors is effective is just as much the Secretary’s job. Roche must hold himself accountable for what the organization he has led did do – and failed to do.

It is clear that the cadets are reflecting the quality of leadership that they long observed. It is clear that this scandal goes back a generation. It is clear that Roche had ample opportunity to observe the indicators but bought BS from the chain of command instead.

This is a servicewide leadership failure. Roche has the continuing obligation to clean it up.

The Senate should decline to advise and consent on his nomination as Secretary of the Army and instead task Secretary of the Air Force Roche with fixing his ship.

He should do so, however long it may take, then quietly depart public service without fanfare.

Lt. Raymond Perry USN (Ret.) is a DefenseWatch Contributing Editor. He can be reached at cos1stlt@yahoo.com