Special Warfare training students at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, Aug. 9, 2019. US Air Force photo by Sarah Loicano.
As the Air Force inspector general prepares to investigate the training experience of a female officer in the notoriously difficult Combat Control training pipeline, Coffee or Die Magazine obtained a memo the woman wrote about her experience and several training reports from her time as a student. The documents have circulated among the secretive Air Force commando community and were first reported by Air Force Times.
Operators in the all-male Combat Control community believe the documents prove two key arguments that current and former combat controllers began making earlier this month:
One, that the female officer was allowed to continue in training — and may soon be returning to the training pipeline — despite setbacks that routinely end men’s training careers;
And two, that the three-star general in charge of all Air Force special operations has been deceptive in explaining how the service has handled the episode.
At the heart of the controversy is belief among many Combat Control operators and instructors that Lt. Gen. James Slife, the AFSOC commander, has been deceptive in addressing it.
Slife emphatically insisted this week that “We can unequivocally say the standards—which are tied to mission accomplishment—have not changed.”
The documents seem to contradict that statement.
“It has nothing to do with the female from our perspective,” a combat-decorated combat control veteran told Coffee or Die Magazine. “It’s the toxic environment the leaders have created.”
The training documents indicate that the student, who is an Air Force captain, said there was a strong perception among her male classmates and instructors that training standards had been changed for her benefit. In a memo she wrote after leaving training, she said she believed that perception deeply undercut her standing with her peers.
“I believe the change in standards invalidated me with a majority of my team,” she wrote. “One cadre [instructor] had a conversation with a student and said that the cadre ‘rioted’ when they found the PT test was changing back to lesser standards. Perhaps all of this timing is coincidental, but looks highly suspicious with my arrival on campus.”
Training documents obtained by Coffee or Die cover two events: a fitness test early in the student’s class, and an incident in which the candidate quit the course after a land navigation event, known as a self-initiated elimination or SIE.
Of the two training irregularities, members of the small Air Force community appear more concerned with the report of the SIE, but her memo addresses a “change in standards” in a specialized fitness test given to combat controllers known as a Tier 2 Operational Fitness Test, or OFT. It includes events like a farmer’s carry, ruck march, and 300-yard shuttle run, events significantly more demanding than fitness tests in the regular Air Force. The training record indicates the student performed a dead-lift of 250 pounds three times.
Under Tier 2 guidelines published on several websites run by current and former combat controllers, the minimum has in the past been at least 270. However, the 250 lift appears to have been sufficient to pass by March 2021, when the test was taken.
The apparent change was not lost on other students, the candidate wrote. “They knew the standard was at one point 300 lbs for the deadlift. During the test, we were not told any standards and I lifted 250lbs. Since I passed, they believed the standards had been bent for me.”
By itself, the unusual test result is not out of the ordinary. Fitness standards often change across all branches of the military, even within intense special operations courses, and students who fail fitness or other graded areas are commonly given a chance to “recycle” to a future class. The first three women to graduate from the Army’s Ranger school in 2015 all recycled through multiple classes, as did many of their male classmates.
But the more serious concern in the training documents for many combat controllers is that the student chose to quit training via SIE.
A Record of Administrative Training Action, or form 125A, dated April 9, 2021, provided to Coffee or Die appears to confirm that the student self-eliminated from Combat Control School about two weeks into the course’s 61 days of training.
Quitting during training is almost always fatal to a candidate’s hopes to join any area of the Air Force’s special warfare community, which broadly includes Combat Control as well as Pararescue, TACP, and Special Reconnaissance roles (officers who complete Combat Control training are referred to as special tactics officers, not combat controllers). But on the student’s 125A form documenting the SIE, a recommendation box is checked indicating the student should be “considered for reinstatement into this course.”
A second 125A provided to Coffee or Die for a male student who chose to SIE does not provide for the student to return but instead recommends they be reclassified into another job — a scenario that plays out dozens of times in every Combat Control class, as students quit and are reassigned.
It does appear that the candidate will be getting another shot. In a Jan. 10 memo, the commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing, which oversees special tactics squadrons, confirmed the student will be returning to Combat Control School. In a memo to the wing obtained by Coffee or Die, Col. Jason Daniels wrote that “Wing leadership offered the candidate another opportunity to meet graduation standards and complete the pipeline. The candidate is now preparing to re-enter the pipeline after a year.”
On Jan. 7, Lt. Gen. Slife circulated a memo to special tactics squadrons addressing an anonymous letter that accused AFSOC leadership of interfering with the female student’s training. That letter included references to the PT test and SIE in the documents Coffee or Die reviewed.
In the memo, Slife wrote, with underlined text: “Our standards have not changed to accommodate women. Period.”
But it was the next paragraph of the memo that got the attention of several combat controllers.
“But beyond standards, there are norms, which are those things which reflect something usual or expected,” Slife wrote. “It’s easy to conflate standards and norms, because over time, the norms we establish can come to be viewed as ‘the standard.’ The norms of how we train Special Tactics operators have certainly changed over time.”
That explanation — drawing a distinction between “standards” and “norms,” which have “changed” — struck many in the CCT community as vague and perhaps double talk.
“The special tactics culture that Slife is trying to paint is [supremacist] or whatever,” said one CCT veteran. “It’s not us. It’s the men in the uppermost leadership. They are creating a toxic environment in which you have junior guys who know that if they complain about what they are seeing, they would get removed or not selected for jobs they want.
“You basically said you just lowered the standards without saying you lowered the standards.”
Matt White is a former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.
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