Leader Blues

Friday, June 19, 2009

TOP STORY >> Pope installs commander from LRAFB

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor-in-chief

“Look over your shoulder now and then to be sure someone’s following you.”

—Henry Gilmer

Col. John McDonald, the top commander at Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina who had once been a squadron commander here, lost the confidence of his superiors and was dismissed from his post a week ago Friday, apparently for showing poor leadership.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, also previously assigned to Little Rock Air Force Base, signed off on the firing.

The Air Force didn’t have to look far for a replacement: Col. James C. Johnson, who until last weekend was vice commander of the 19th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, was named commander of the 43rd Airlift Wing at Pope AFB.

Johnson moved into his new post on Monday morning. The change of command happened so quickly — the Air Force does move fast — there was no time for a ceremony, where military leaders and local dignitaries watch parades and a display of colorful flags, listen to military music and wish the new commander all the best.

Johnson missed out on that ceremony this time, but he will lead some 5,000 men and women at Pope. His job includes command of a sprawling complex, where the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, the 82nd Airborne Division and the U.S. Special Forces Command are ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

The C-130s at Pope provide tactical airlift for those forces, although the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission has assigned Pope’s active-duty C-130s to LRAFB. A reserve wing at Pope still has 16 C-130s available for combat duty.

Johnson’s new duties at Pope also include air mobility and airdrop testing, joint-force training and supporting the 440th Airlift Wing, Combat Control School, 21st and 24th Special Tactics squadrons and 18th Air Support Operations Group.

It’s a huge responsibility, but Johnson is a natural leader: He’s smart but unpretentious, looks you straight in the eye and knows how to get the job done.

The job may have been too much for McDonald: There’s buzz on the Internet that he abused his position of power and lost the respect of those he commanded.

McDonald “was removed for cause,” according to a terse Air Force statement. That means he was dismissed for job-related improprieties.

Maj. Gen. Winfield W. “Skip” Scott III, his commanding officer at the 18th Air Force at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, decided McDonald’s “actions rendered him ineffective as the 43rd Airlift Wing commander,” according to the statement. The general is in charge of Pope AFB and Little Rock AFB.

McDonald will get a desk job as an assistant to Gen. Scott and will probably retire soon. The Air Force isn’t saying much else about McDonald’s dismissal.

McDonald also has ties to Little Rock Air Force Base. He was director of operations of the 50th Airlift Squadron and commander of the 61st Airlift Squadron from 1998-2000.

You don’t often hear about commanders who are dismissed for poor leadership, but it does happen once in a while, and apparently those serving under McDonald were fed up with him.

According to a blogger named Nathan Hale, when McDonald was assigned to Kuwait to oversee cargo operations into Iraq, his subordinates thought there was “something wrong” with him, pointing to “his rigid discipline and inflexible personality.”

“They paint a picture of a commander who often ran roughshod over his troops, ignored his own directives, and punished subordinates for petty infractions,” Hale wrote.

McDonald was demanding — he forced airmen to spend up to 12 hours out in the desert heat — and wouldn’t let them eat in a cafeteria for Army personnel, where the food was considered better than what the Air Force contractor had to offer.

McDonald, you guessed it, ate at the Army chow hall.

But that was a while back, so McDonald may have stumbled more recently — seriously enough so that his commanding general and the Air Force chief decided they’d seen enough.