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Mistakes Become Career Enders During Drawdown

Nearly every airman has forgotten to salute, missed a meeting, showed up for work late or flubbed a test.

By and large, those moments strike fear in airmen's hearts - and for good reason.

A little thing, or a seemingly little thing, can kill a career as much as a big thing. You don't have to commit a crime to get kicked out of the service. You can be handed your walking papers for simply being in an overmanned career field or flunking the PT test.

And in these times when the Air Force is looking to get rid of 6,000 active-duty airmen, it doesn't hurt to know what can trip you up - innocuous or not.

The list of potential pitfalls comes mostly from the rank and file. The Air Force doesn't keep an official list of reasons why airmen separate - either voluntarily or involuntarily, a spokeswoman told Air Force Times.

"Currently we have no means to track the different, varied separation reasons," Elizabeth Gosselin wrote in an e-mail.

The number of airmen who left the service in fiscal 2009 totaled 2,246, up from 2,234 in fiscal 2008. The number for the first seven months of fiscal 2010 is 1,145.

A tough civilian job market triggered the drawdown, announced in early April by Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz. High unemployment plus job security equals high retention. Now, the Air Force is faced with doing its own layoffs.

Schwartz and his force management advisers figure a three-pronged plan - the active-duty cuts along with the delayed commissioning of hundreds of ROTC cadets and severely curtailed recruitment goals - will bring the service back to its congressionally mandated end strength of 332,200. The number right now is about 335,500 and was projected to hit 336,500 by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, if the Air Force didn't act.

To implement the cuts, the service is using both the carrot and the stick. Some airmen are eligible for incentives - accelerated retirements, voluntary separation pay, fewer years in grade and shortened service commitments, for example. Others are getting the boot - for being denied or declining re-enlistment, poor grades in technical school or being passed over for promotion.

Crime, cross-train and PT

Even if you don't think you're vulnerable because of the drawdown, your fellow airmen warn that you should know how to protect your future anyway.

One big way to stay in is to stay out of trouble - criminal trouble.

Assigned to the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, Tech. Sgt. Christina Parsons has seen a lot of airmen get kicked out because they broke the law: smoking pot, viewing pornography - not only at work but at home - writing bad checks, misusing a government travel card, sexual misconduct, assault.

"These are just to name a few," wrote Parsons, one of three dozen airmen and retirees who responded to a call-out from Air Force Times. "And although most think that there is no way that they will be found out, remember, someone is always watching and/or listening. There is never anywhere to hide."

An Air Force legal expert backed up Parsons' contention about crime being bad for careers: A drug conviction, for example, means discharge.

"Most of our courts-martial are drug offenses, marijuana, dereliction of duty, making false statements, disobeying orders, and everything you can imagine, to sexual assault and the occasional murder," said Col. Ken Theurer, chief of the military justice division in the Air Force Legal Operations Agency.

"We expect our airmen to live up to the Air Force core values at all times," he said.

Saving your career can be as easy as being open to switching Air Force Specialty Codes.

"Being in an overmanned career field coupled with an unwillingness to cross-train can be a career-ender," Maj. Juan Doan of the Georgia Air National Guard told Air Force Times. "With the Air Force ranks swelling due to the economy, the Air Force may have to push you out if you are unwilling to move into a position of need."

Keeping fit is an easy way to make sure you stay in. Involuntary separation is automatic if you get four unsatisfactory fitness assessment scores in a 24-month period or remain in an unsatisfactory fitness category for 12 continuous months.

"The No. 1 career-ender? No question about it, the scarlet letter 'F' as in consistent fitness test failure," Capt. John Parrish wrote. "We're not a one-mistake Air Force unless you mistakenly under-prioritize your fitness."

Lies, washouts and rusty skills

Capt. Michael Fontana sent up a red flare about false allegations. He speaks from experience, accused - and eventually acquitted - of giving lethal doses of painkillers to three terminally ill patients at Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

"My personal opinion is victims of false accusations and failures of the chain of command are career-enders," wrote Fontana, who had faced three counts of murder. "I am living proof of such an event. I am trying to remain strong after dealing with this situation, which is now over, but reintegration back into patient care has been an enormous obstacle."

Francis Crotty said he saw his career come to a screeching halt when he had to leave navigator school for medical reasons, though he didn't realize it at the time. He entered another career field, acquisitions, and retired as a major.

"Washing out of a school, may it be the military member's choice or not, puts a permanent mark against them forever," Crotty wrote. "The lesson to be learned is to be successful at everything you undertake, period."

As a training manager, Master Sgt. Lyndell Massey said he has seen commanders target airmen who have failed a career development course twice - especially during a drawdown.

Massey said he also has seen airmen punished for failing to progress in training or for receiving one too many letters of counseling for decreased performance when dealing with personal or family issues.

"The Air Force says people are their number one resource," Massey wrote. "If this is true, why are our fellow Air Force brothers and sisters always the first thing on the chopping block to save money?"

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