The U.S. Air Force acknowledged it changed the "norms" on how a candidate advances through its elite Special Tactics training pipeline after an anonymous service member accused the military branch of making special accommodations to advance a female trainee who failed to meet the program's rigorous physical standards.
Typically a candidate who quits the training program is reassigned to his or her previous duty, but that wasn't the case with a female candidate who was kept in the program even after repeatedly quitting and failing to meet its physical standards, according to a memo published anonymously Wednesday morning and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. Advancing a candidate who quit the program violated the Special Tactics community's "societal norms," the memo states.
Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, who heads the Air Force Special Operations Command, responded by acknowledging that "norms" have indeed changed. "How we bring trainees through the pipeline today is different than the way we brought them through the pipeline 15 years ago," Slife said, "because our understanding of the best way to get trainees to meet these standards by the time they join the operational force has evolved. It will continue to do so."
The admission comes years after Obama administration defense secretary Ash Carter opened all combat roles to women in 2015. That decision led to concerns from special operations forces and Republican lawmakers that integrating women into demanding combat jobs would lead to lower standards and diminished effectiveness. Members of the military familiar with the creation of the memo and corresponding effort to blow the whistle on declining standards for the Air Force's elite unit said the criticism is not about keeping women from advancement.
"The military community is not against women serving in the Air Force Special Warfare unit," the service member, who spoke anonymously to avoid retribution, told the Free Beacon. "However, we want the first female to have earned the beret and NOT have been given it."
The sentiment is echoed by military veterans on Capitol Hill. Rep. Mike Waltz (R., Fla.), a former Green Beret who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said the military should only care about trainees' qualifications, not their gender. "In the military, we shouldn’t care about gender, skin color, and religious background. All that matters is whether one meets the standards in place that has made the American military the best in the world," Waltz said. "The moment we lower those standards, we are messaging to our adversaries we no longer care about military readiness."
According to the memo, the female trainee in question first received "preferential treatment" when she quit a difficult swimming test that was part of the Special Tactics Officer selection process. After the incident, the trainee "was invited to return" to the program, a major deviation from common practice. The memo goes on to allege that the female trainee "self-eliminated" from a number of additional physical and tactical tests. Still, the memo says, Air Force leadership approached her "about staying in the training pipeline despite her effort to self-eliminate/quit." The memo predicts the trainee will graduate the program "regardless of if she meets standards or not."
Slife would not comment specifically on the female trainee in question, but denied that adapting the military's "norms" equals a reduction of "standards."
"There is a difference between standards and norms," Slife said. "Norms may adapt over time, but the standards are always tied to our mission. As the mission changes, the needed standards may change as well, but that hasn't happened in this case."
Slife also called the memo an act of "bullying and harassment" against the female trainee. "Singling out a fellow service member for public abuse is bullying and harassment, which are unacceptable deviations from both our standards and our norms," Slife said.
The accusation was slammed by a former Air Force officer, who said the service branch's top specialists must navigate far more harsh situations.
"They're concerned about bullying when this trainee is supposed to be ready to fight with a Tier 1 unit in some of the most hostile environments on earth," the former officer said. "This is really their response? More evidence that our military leaders are hopefully lost."
Slife's full statement to the Free Beacon can be read below:
"The anonymous email’s author is rightly concerned about training standards. We can unequivocally say the standards—which are tied to mission accomplishment—have not changed. However, there is a difference between standards and norms. How we bring trainees through the training pipeline today is different than the way we brought them through the pipeline 15 years ago because our understanding of the best way to get trainees to meet standards by the time they join the operational force has evolved. It will continue to do so. Norms may adapt over time, but the standards are always tied to our mission. As the mission changes, the needed standards may change as well, but that hasn’t happened in this case.
Regrettably, the author chose to make the point about standards by highlighting one individual trainee. Singling out a fellow service member for public abuse is bullying and harassment, which are unacceptable deviations from both our standards and our norms.
Furthermore, most of what the author asserted about this trainee’s experience is either factually incorrect or missing important context which would completely change the perception. However, in order to avoid adding to the attention and pressure this trainee is facing—attention and pressure the author did not experience during his own journey—we will not address specific details related to her experiences."
The anonymous memo, parts of which were shared on social media by military podcaster BKactual, was obtained in full by the Free Beacon and can be read below.