Basic Officership: Paperwork and Reality


One of the more important (and unfortunate) things that a fighter pilot will discover in his military career is the preeminence of paperwork.  One day a pilot may go out and save the world, but unless it’s documented on an official Air Force form, it’s as though it never happened.  Like it or not, an officer’s career may live or die based on his Officer Performance Reports (OPRs), which are evaluations of his professional career.  A pilot’s supervisor will be required to complete a report on him regularly; normally, every 12 months, but depending on the circumstances, from every six to 18 months.  Pilot training and other formal courses create Training Reports instead of OPRs, so a young pilot could be well into his first operational assignment—more than two years after being commissioned—by the time he receives his first OPR.  The first time one is coming due, a predictable thing will happen:  his supervisor will ask him what he’s been doing for the past 12 months.  In a perfect world, the leadership would monitor their subordinates’ successes and failures and document them accordingly.  Unfortunately, in the real world the leadership will be so busy that unless the subordinates are being derelict they’ll likely go unnoticed.  For that reason the leadership will ask those below them to provide bullet statements of the things that they have accomplished since the last time they received an OPR or training report.  They’ll use this information to fill in all the “white space” on the report. 

Because young fighter pilots generally haven’t received an OPR in their first two years, they’re very often caught off guard by the first request for bullet statements.  It is helpful if a pilot makes a habit early on—ideally, as soon as he arrives at his first assignment as an officer—of keeping track of his activities and achievements.  There are a variety of ways to do this: a calendar, a record book, or a journal is a good place to record accomplishments.  I have found that a convenient way to achieve this in the computer age is to create a document on my computer and save it to an obvious location in plain view.  I update the file with bullet statements as significant events occur.  It’s not important for it to be fancy, just dated and factual.  A pilot should write down awards he receives, official activities in which he participates, dates he is deployed, and contributions he makes to the unit and the mission—for pilots, this most often means sorties in support of exercises or inspections.

For that reason I also recommend a logbook to record sortie information—not just flight time, which the Air Force will record as well, but also details like mission type, other pilots in the formation, ordnance, and significant events.  I maintained a flying logbook from my earliest sorties, but I regret not including more details, particularly when it came to my combat sorties.  I remember some events that I witnessed but cannot recall the specifics of when they occurred, like the Patriot intercepts or Army surface-to-surface missile launches I observed.  A combat logbook or war journal with those kinds of details, as well as newspaper articles, email traffic, and other bits of information and paraphernalia may mean little at the time but will later serve as a reminder of what actually happened.  Whether it is an OPR or an award for which someone wants to submit a name, a pilot will definitely be asked for a list of things he’s done.  Having a ready and up-to-date list of items, even if they’re simple and plain, will prevent him from having to recall details months later.  In addition, as he progresses in his career he may appreciate having maintained a record of the events of his professional life. 

Let’s say a young pilot is standing around one day and his commander tells him to figure out a way to get the dumpsters emptied because they’re making the squadron parking lot a mess.  He figures out that Civil Engineering (CE) is responsible for that portion of the base and calls them; they give him the phone number to the contractor and soon the trucks roll out and empty the dumpsters.  He might record that on this “date—commander asked to get dumpsters emptied; called CE, emptied 2 hours later.”  While that may sound lame, he’ll turn that information into his supervisor a year later for his OPR, and his OPR will read “Hard charger—hand picked by commander to spearhead bioenvironmental cleanup effort; coordinated with multiple base agencies and ensured continued mission success with record setting response.”  While the content of the example bullet is a little unlikely, the change from “fact” to “performance report” is not far from the truth.  In many cases it is not unusual for an officer to review his own OPRs (officers generally don’t see them until after they’re written and signed) and not recognize his own accomplishments.  Glorification is, unfortunately, a virtual requirement for success in the military and has been for many years.  It used to be said that an OPR needed to make an officer look like he “walked on water.”  Now, an average report makes him look that way—to be above average, he needs to walk on water and freeze it behind him so that others may follow; in some cases, he merely needs to make the water that others will walk on. 

Embellished Records

Unfortunately, generating “amazing” reports from “normal” things is a relatively common occurrence in the military.  As the initial invasion of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM wound down and the combat sorties for my squadron decreased, the leadership started telling pilots to write down their war stories so they could create awards packages.  For us, the hunt for the enemy was coming to an end, and the hunt for medals was on.  On the surface, the squadron’s leadership appeared to be looking out for its people to reward outstanding conduct.  The problem was that every single pilot was put in for an award of one kind or another; there was no distinction of one man excelling above another.  Each pilot was already getting an award purely based on the number of sorties he had flown.  These “sustained flight” medals were awarded for completing a certain number of combat flights, much as similar awards were given in previous conflicts.

Part of the reason that everyone was submitted for an award was that the leadership had found out that other squadrons were submitting all of their pilots.  Some were concerned that if our peers in other units got medals and we didn’t, we’d be at a disadvantage; ten years from now at a promotion board to Colonel, the fact that one guy had a medal and another didn’t might be the distinguishing factor that would get one promoted and the other passed over.  Each pilot was put in for multiple medals resulting in hundreds of submissions from each of the multitude of squadrons involved in the conflict.  So many packages of questionable content were submitted that the Air Force Central Command review board actually sent a message out saying they’d rejected a huge percentage of the packages and telling the commanders to forward only those that were actually worthy. 

The overall attitude of the medal hunt—that we should scrounge for decorations and embellish our escapades so as to be awarded higher honors—was epitomized by a member of our unit who received the Bronze Star Medal (BSM).  Apparently, it is practically a military tradition that certain members of combat units get a BSM at the close of hostilities.  Therefore, in due course our unit submitted a Bronze Star package for specific members of the squadron, and it was subsequently rejected—the requirements of the BSM dictated that it only be given to those involved in “ground operations against the enemy,” and regulations specifically directed that it not be awarded for action involving aerial flight. (Read the requirements in AFI 36-2803 Table 2.1 and A4.1.2.)  We were a flying squadron and hadn’t conducted ground combat.  Still, upon receiving the rejected awards package the squadron staff did the routine thing and added the phrase “in ground combat against the enemy” to the decoration narrative.  They resubmitted it, and it was approved.  Left out of the package was the fact that our unit was based on a peninsula in the Persian Gulf that was nearly 400 miles from the nearest hostile force.  True, the base had been locked down for fear of terrorist act (much as every base—including those in the United States—had been), but no hostile act ever took place against the base.  No member of our flying squadron participated in ground operations, and therefore no member of our squadron deserved the Bronze Star Medal.  The desire to receive accolades prevailed over the truth of what actually happened. 

Inflation and magnification in OPRs and military awards packages are not anything new.  Based on anecdotal evidence, the current attitudes toward combat medals probably started in Korea or Vietnam, where awards and medals were given to compensate men forced to be in an unpopular part of the world in an unpopular war.  Some have told me that the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) was given as a “tour completion” medal in Vietnam, much as Air Medals were given out after OIF.  Given what I know now about the military and medals, it does not surprise me that people might question why an award might describe one person’s harrowing and life threatening experience while a fellow soldier, airman, or seamen might recall a much different story of the same event.  Members of my squadron received medals whose citations described amazingly dramatic and frightening events, but other pilots who flew that same night (or perhaps even in that same flight) might have considered the sortie routine and dull.  Such disagreement in memory was also the case in the political run-up to the 2004 presidential election, when Senator John Kerry’s Silver Star was questioned by some who claimed to have been there but didn’t see what the medal citation described.  One man sees truth, another stretched truth, another exaggeration, and another sees a lie and a fraud.  Who is correct?  Only the men who were there, and their God, will ever really know. 

During the medal hunt in Qatar, I told my commander that all of my missions had been routine, and that I would not submit a report that described them as otherwise.  When my flight lead began to write an awards package for himself he suggested that he might change some of the details and submit one for me.  Because I knew that no worthy awards package would contain a sufficient degree of truth, I told him and my leadership that I would neither sign nor accept any award based on such evidence.  The issue was dropped.  A Christian fighter pilot will see—and will be a part of—reports, forms, and packages that describe everyday events in spectacular terms.  Depending on perception, it is very possible that at some point those documents will cross the line from “fantastic” to “fantasy.”  It is up to a Christian’s moral turpitude to determine what he will allow. 

From OPRs to awards packages and every other form of paperwork, official documentation reigns supreme in the Air Force.  Supervisors want their subordinates to succeed and will try to write an evaluation to guarantee that.  Commanders want to reward the courage of their troops and will submit their names for medals.  “Doing right by your people” is not wrong, nor is accepting what is deserved and earned.  As pilots and officers Christians must use discretion and wisdom in what amount of praise they are willing to accept.  As supervisors, Christian fighter pilots must strive to take care of their subordinates by writing competitive OPRs and medal packages.  In no case, though, should they stretch, slant, or sacrifice the truth.  Paperwork may be supreme in the Air Force, but One is Supreme over all.

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