According to Air Force IG, Combat Control Selection Standards Not Lowered for First Woman

PJ/CRO Indoc Water Skills

Pararescue Jumper/Combat Rescue Officer Indoctrination Course candidates practice water skills during their extended day of training conducted in Joint Base San Antonio - Medina. The PJ/CRO Indoc is a nine week course conducted by the 350th Battlefield Airmen (BA) Training Squadron, BA Training Group, 37th Training Wing, AETC.

An Air Force Inspector General report found that officials did not lower standards Combat Control training, nor did they show preferential treatment to a woman closing in on becoming the first service’s first graduate of the arduous Combat Control pipeline. Photo by Johnny Saldivar

An Air Force captain closing in on becoming the first woman to qualify as one of the service’s special tactics operators received no preferential treatment as she advanced in the arduous combat control training pipeline in 2021, the Air Force inspector general found.

In a report released Tuesday, June 7, Air Force Inspector General Lt. Gen. Stephen L. Davis examined much of the woman’s experience in the famously difficult training pipeline, from her entry in 2018 to her abrupt decision to leave the training in early 2021. Davis also examined claims in a 13-point anonymous letter circulated in January in the secretive community with claims of special treatment.

The IG found that the decision to allow the woman to return to combat control training this spring was appropriate and in line with opportunities that are often extended to male candidates with similar training records. The woman’s record included failures at two of the half-dozen elite schools that combat controller (CCT) trainees (and the officer equivalent, special tactics officers, or STOs) attend during their training pipeline.

air force combat control

Special Warfare training students at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, Aug. 9, 2019. US Air Force photo by Sarah Loicano.

Special Warfare training students at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, Aug. 9, 2019. US Air Force photo by Sarah Loicano.

The IG also found that the woman was in a “dysfunctional” training class at Combat Control School, in which both students and instructors would “openly make gender disparaging statements.” As a result, the IG found, the woman faced a “disadvantage compared to her [male] peers.”

Finally, Davis found that all 13 points of the letter were either not supported by facts or were grounded in inaccurate information or assumptions.

The report did, though, confirm that the student has had two notable failures in training.

First, the IG confirmed, the woman did not pass an initial weeklong tryout for officers in 2018. But, the IG found, she was invited to try out again and was selected in a later class, a training sequence routinely made available to promising male students.

combat control woman

An Air Force combat controller in Afghanistan. Courtesy photo.

An Air Force Combat Controller in Afghanistan. Courtesy photo/Coffee or Die.

Second, the IG also confirmed that in early 2021, after completing most of the combat control training pipeline, the student unexpectedly quit within weeks of graduating from the final portion of the Combat Control School. Formally known as the STO Apprentice Course for officer candidates, Combat Control School is the final qualifying course of the CCT pipeline. But her return to the school this year — where she is still a student — was not unprecedented, and was supported by high performances prior to departure, the IG found.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall ordered the IG investigation after a 13-point letter circulated in January among combat controllers and online that claimed the candidate had received preferential treatment during her selection, at several points during training, and after she quit the school, just a few months from graduating.

The report said investigators interviewed 22 instructors, students, and senior leaders in Air Force Special Operations Command and the combat control training pipeline.

Finally, the IG found, her performance at every step of the pipeline had met the standards for advancement, and no standards had been changed to accommodate women in the training. The report said that 21 of the 22 witnesses interviewed insisted that standards had not been changed within the training pipeline (the 22nd said they did not know). Most, said the IG, used the phrase “the standards are the standards” or similar language in their interviews.

combat control woman

Airmen from the 352nd Special Warfare Training Squadron participate in a memorial physical training session on Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, where combat control students spend much of their training pipeline, on Aug. 9, 2019. US Air Force photo by Sarah Loicano.

Airmen from the 352nd Special Warfare Training Squadron participate in a memorial physical training session on Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, where Combat Control students spend much of their training pipeline, on Aug. 9, 2019. Air Force photo by Sarah Loicano

Two Setbacks

When the candidate was initially not selected at her initial tryout — an intense weeklong course known as Phase II Selection and Assessment — the IG found that 70% of the instructors involved with the decision indicated she should be invited to try out again, a common practice for officers who show potential.

Once selected, she passed a long series of schools, including the Air Force Special Warfare’s Assessment and Selection Course and the Army’s Special Forces-run Combat Diver Qualification Course in Key West — both notoriously difficult courses with high dropout rates even among special operations-trained candidates. She also passed the earlier portions of the combat control pipeline, which includes jump schools and air traffic control training, without incident.

However, the woman quit Combat Control School after just two weeks there, during a land navigation exercise.

The decision apparently surprised many at the school. When she quit at Combat Control School, the IG said, “three witnesses who had first-hand experience [said] they were surprised she quit because she excelled in the course and was on course to graduate.”

But the IG also found that, when she quit at the STO Apprentice Course, the school’s squadron commander told the IG that her class had “dysfunctional dynamics.” The woman’s class had “an environment where students would openly make gender disparaging statements. Multiple witnesses corroborated incidents of unprofessional conduct by a few instructor cadre and students occurred,” the IG wrote. “This investigation determined those incidents put [her] at a disadvantage compared to her peers.”

Combat controller school

Combat control trainees from the 334th Training Squadron run back on shore after doing 100 jumping jacks in the Gulf of Mexico during a physical training session April 12, 2013, on Biloxi Beach. US Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue.

Combat control trainees from the 334th Training Squadron run back on shore after doing 100 jumping jacks in the Gulf of Mexico during a physical training session April 12, 2013, on Biloxi beach. Combat controllers are ground troops who are embedded with special forces teams and provide close-air support for special forces units. While at Keesler, trainees learn how to run, swim, carry a rucksack and conduct air traffic control. These Airmen are prepared physically and mentally for the demands of the combat controller pipeline while earning air traffic control certification in just 15 weeks. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue/Released)

Return to Training

Complaints about the woman’s training both in January and this month, as reported by Coffee or Die Magazine, focused closely on the decision to allow her to return to the school a year after quitting. But the IG found evidence that male officers who have quit the training have been allowed to return in the past, and that no policy precludes a student from returning.

The IG quotes a senior enlisted leader saying, “People have quit before. She’s not the first person that’s quit. There’s been many successful people that have quit and then come back, and redone it.” Two senior officers told the IG they had “first-hand knowledge of officer candidates who returned to the pipeline following [quitting], later progressing to become commanders in the same field.”

Also, the school’s squadron commander told the IG that “she was performing at a level where I need her to be. I don’t know why she wouldn’t be given another chance.”

The report noted that no written policy in the Air Force, AFSOC, or Air Education and Training Command “prohibits candidates from applying for re-entry following SIE,” or self-initiated elimination, nor was any “waiting period” prescribed in written policy.

Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek said the report “concluded that Air Force Special Warfare standards were not lowered for women nor was preferential treatment given to the female candidate attending special warfare training.”

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Matt White is a 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. He also teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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