Air Force Col. Kenneth Bode resigned in protest from command of a unit in Brooke Army Medical Center, the military's largest hospital, citing toxic leadership and "Machiavellian maneuvering" as "the BAMC way of doing business." US Army and Air Force photos. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
Citing a culture of “widespread harassment” and “toxic leadership,” an Air Force colonel resigned his command in protest Monday inside the sprawling Brooke Army Medical Center, the military’s largest hospital. And troops who have worked at BAMC who spoke to Coffee or Die Magazine told stories of suicidal co-workers, uncaring leadership, and junior staffers sabotaging careers in order to leave the hospital in San Antonio.
Col. Kenneth Bode, the commanding officer of the 959th Medical Operations Squadron of the 59th Medical Wing, publicly announced his resignation from command on July 19 by emailing a four-page letter to hundreds of people within BAMC and elsewhere in the Air Force, including the service’s surgeon general at the Pentagon and a long list of general officers. Bode wrote that working conditions at BAMC included “widespread harassment, defamation, inappropriate behavior, and toxic leadership.”
According to his letter, which was posted on social media and separately obtained by Coffee or Die, Bode was set to turn over command of the 959th on Tuesday before announcing his protest resignation Monday (his timing, he said in the letter, was to avoid disruption to the unit). Bode, a 1999 Air Force Academy graduate, is an orthopedic surgeon who was assigned to BAMC.
Then-Lt. Col. Kenneth Bode, during an assumption of command ceremony July 27, 2016, at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington. Bode resigned his command of the 595th Medical Operations Squadron at Brooke Army Medical Center Monday in protest over what he called “toxic leadership” in the hospital. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sam Fogleman.
Both Bode in his letter and three former BAMC staffers who spoke with Coffee or Die said cultural and leadership battles between clashing Army and Air Force authorities have left many junior enlisted and noncommissioned officers trying desperately to do their jobs under severe stress.
“While ‘dignity and respect’ is a claimed policy, the current Army-Air Force structure dynamics do not support this initiative,” Bode wrote in his resignation letter. “In fact, it is rife with cronyism and sycophancy, with Machiavellian maneuvering and counterproductive bureaucracy. This caustic environment, ‘the BAMC way of doing business,’ is an affront to all ideals of military leadership.”
BAMC sits on Fort Sam Houston, one of several military installations that collectively make up Joint Base San Antonio. BAMC is an Army medical facility but has hundreds of Air Force workers assigned to the facility full-time in the 959th Medical Group. BAMC absorbed much of the Air Force-run Wilford Hall Hospital on Lackland Air Force Base in 2011.
Several BAMC staffers who spoke with Coffee or Die agreed that BAMC has a toxic work environment, which often impacts most heavily on junior enlisted personnel.
“It was very much a good old boys club kind of environment,” former Staff Sgt. Vanessa Heederik told Coffee or Die. Heederik was in charge of junior enlisted on her floor of the hospital, working in the intensive care unit. “A lot of them were really struggling. They were not set up for success in their careers at all.”
Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. US Army photo by Jason W. Edwards.
Heederik said she watched as her fellow airmen suffered physically and mentally from the punishing command climate. “Their schedules were crazy,” she said. “I had one airman who had just had knee surgery, and they had him standing out doing COVID testing for months outside.”
She left the Air Force in San Antonio, where Heederik now works for Black Rifle Coffee, Coffee or Die’s parent company. She spoke out about life at BAMC on a Facebook page that posted Dade’s resignation letter.
Heederik said she was theoretically in a position, as an NCO, to stand up for her airmen.
“Anytime I felt like they were being treated unfairly, I would bring it to the attention of the people above me,” she said. “A lot of the time it was just like, that’s the way it is. That’s the policy. And so I would take it a step further, I would find the policies, bring it to them. Tell them, there — this is not fair. But they didn’t want to hear it.”
Heederik knew many of the junior enlisted below her were struggling with thoughts of suicide.
“I almost decided, you know what, let me just stick around here so I can help them,” she said. “But it ended up getting so bad that I was like no, I just need to get out of here for my own mental health and for my family. I just need to leave.”
Brooke Army Medical Center nurses conduct a shift change briefing in a COVID-19 intensive care unit, July 17, 2020. US Army photo by James Camillocci.
In his letter of resignation, Bode said that BAMC had seen at least three formal investigations into leadership culture at the hospital during his tenure, and the departure of at least three leaders.
Formal Army inquiries — known as AR 15-6 investigations — looked into the command climate in both the anesthesiology and orthopedics departments. After those inquiries, Bode said, leaders in both orthopedics and surgical services left or were relieved, the latter for “a failure to treat people with dignity and respect, degrading comments, and regulation violations.”
The commander of the Air Force’s 959th Medical Operations Group, Bode said, also resigned due to the structure and climate at the hospital.
Bode’s letter noted that his own complaints had led to an Air Force investigation by the 59th Wing, his parent organization.
“Following my formal complaints to the 59th Medical Wing about widespread harassment, defamation, inappropriate behavior, and toxic leadership, a commander-directed investigation was conducted that examined interference with command authority, failure to maintain a healthy command climate, abuse of authority, and disrespectful/libel comments,” Bode wrote.
Screenshot from the resignation letter written by Col. Kenneth Bode, commander of the 959th Medical Operations Squadron.
According to Bode’s letter, the investigating officer substantiated five of Bode’s concerns, but the commanding officer of the 59th Medical Wing, an Air Force officer, dismissed these findings, substituted her own findings, and unilaterally declared that “all was well.”
Bode made his concerns known to multiple authorities at the Pentagon, including the chief of staff of the Air Force, the secretary of the Air Force, and the Department of Defense inspector general.
The 59th Medical Wing did not respond to Coffee or Die’s request for comment at the time of this article’s publication. BAMC’s public affairs office also did not respond to a request for confirmation of the 15-6 Army investigations Bode cites in his letter.
The 959th MDG is the third-largest medical group in the Air Force Medical Service. BAMC is the largest military health care organization and the only Level 1 Trauma Center within the Department of Defense.
Technical Sgt. Josh Vega said his mental health was tested during his time working as a nurse in the ICU at BAMC. “There was just like an overarching negative climate,” he said to Coffee or Die. “There were very few and far between leaders that I feel like cared.”
“BAMC is known to be a cutthroat base,” agreed his wife, Staff Sgt. Taylor Vega, who worked as Bode’s command secretary for his first eight months at BAMC. “It’s very well known that people will sabotage each other to get one leg up or try and get a promotion or whatever it may be.”
Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph’s Taj Mahal and Missing Man Monument, July 2, 2014. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Stormy D. Archer.
When Bode arrived, Taylor Vega said, he had hopes of addressing the reputation of BAMC as a workplace.
“He came in gung-ho wanting to make changes, because changes need to be made,” Taylor Vega said. “He was always trying to meet with group commanders. He was meeting with the wing commander. It just seemed like a lot of people were trying to push it away. They didn’t want to hear it. They didn’t want to make changes. I saw him struggle at times. He would go into his office, and you could tell he was frustrated. He would try and hide it from us, because he didn’t want us to see it. But you could definitely see there were times where he was discouraged.”
The Vegas are now stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “It was a whole night and day difference,” Josh Vega said. “It was hard to adjust. I was in this mode where you can’t really trust people with information because then they use it against you. So coming here, once I started opening up and sharing things a little bit, the way people treated me wasn’t like, oh, we’ll need to blacklist you. It was like, well, like what can we do to help you? And that was just mind-blowing for me.”
At BAMC, he explained, “it was all about the mission. [...] Let’s say your behavior kind of started to tank a little bit, you’re struggling with stuff. They have a don’t-give-a-shit type of mentality about it. And it’s mainly the Army, but [BAMC] is Army run. So as long as you show up and perform, that’s all they cared about. When you were unable to show up, then you’re kind of put on that shit list essentially. And then once you’re blacklisted, it’s just painful.”
Josh Vega said he felt like nothing more than a worker bee. “It was a very high tempo job. We’d watch people dying all the time in the ICU that I worked at. And you could never take a knee.”
He is in the middle of medically retiring from the Air Force with post-traumatic stress that he developed working in the BAMC ICU. “He has been diagnosed with PTSD from seeing so many deaths and working shift work as long as he has,” Taylor Vega told Coffee or Die. “Leadership didn’t care. They didn’t care that he was struggling. They didn’t care about anything.”
“The Army leaders basically treated Air Force like we were like the bottom of their boots,” Taylor Vega said. “We were a joke. We got treated like crap. It was the Army’s way over the Air Force way.”
She spoke highly of Bode’s character. “He wasn’t a hard-ass. He cared about his people. He was a very compassionate commander. He was willing to teach you and learn. When I worked with him was probably the best time in my Air Force career.”
But prior to her time working directly for Bode, Taylor Vega was miserable at BAMC. “One time I worked seven days, seven 12-hour shifts in a row,” she said. “And I brought that up to my leadership because I was like, ‘Hey, I looked up the Air Force [policy directive] and it says that only a commander can approve for someone to work this much.’ And they were basically like, ‘Yeah, well, suck it up.’ And it was like nobody really cared.”
Taylor Vega saw people all around her suffering. “One girl failed her PT test on purpose so she would get kicked out because she was so close to killing herself,” she recalled. “She said if she wasn’t able to get out that she was going to end her life. She said that to her supervisor, and her supervisor didn’t do anything. They didn’t call anybody, didn’t escort her to a chaplain or anything. They were like, ‘Well, if you want to be that weak, be that weak.’ Suicide in the military is high all around, but there it was like every other day. We’d have these trainings, but these trainings do nothing if they’re falling on deaf ears.”
Bode’s push for improvements at the base was ultimately unsuccessful, but Taylor Vega hopes his message will live on after his departure. “One of the toxic comments I think a lot of places have is, ‘This is how it’s always been,’” she said. “‘This is how it’s always going to be.’ And I remember him saying: ‘This isn’t how it’s always going to be. Just because it’s been like that means that there’s room for change, and it’s time for change.’”
Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!
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