The nuclear option
In a previous chapter, we talked about the path leading up to the Wall Street Journal article. For many, including myself, this was a seemingly extreme measure. That is not to say it was truly an extreme measure, it just felt like it. You see, there exists a significant stigma in the military as it pertains to the press, some feel the relationship is adversarial, some feel the press carries out the work of our opponents. Many times, people who diverge from that groupthink are thought of as rats, or finks, or sellouts for having gone and reported to the “enemy.” Another sad fact of reality: a military member does avail themselves to backlash when they go to the press. Since reporting wrongdoing to the media is not considered a Protected Communication (PC), as defined by Title 10, that member is not protected against retribution or reprisal for having spoken to the media. While there are few legal restrictions as to what a person can be charged for in terms of press engagement, there is conversely little protection from any fallout that may occur as a result of going on the record either. A military member can also be ordered to not engage with the media; there exists precedent for that as well. This is all to say that “going public” is a dicey proposition when wearing the uniform and, given all the risks, why so few opt to go this route.
When I began working with the Wall Street Journal in October of 2021, it was imperative for me to go on record while on active duty and appear in uniform. I felt I needed to dispel the misnomers about appearing in the press while in the service. As you read in “Hello, Mr. Narrative,” the progress of the story was retarded several times, to the point where in January 2022, I had serious doubts that my goal of appearing in uniform would be realized. However….
January 31, 2022
My final day on active duty, 9,717 days after rolling up onto the Air Force Academy with my pair of broken-in boots and some dreams of becoming a fighter pilot. It was a brisk, but sunny afternoon at Langley Air Force Base. I got out of the car and walked to the photo shoot location – the air park in the center of the base. Most officers mark the end of their career with a little ceremony: typically a speech, maybe an award, most have their friends and family alongside them, maybe there’s a cake. My last day, instead, was having my picture taken for the WSJ article…in uniform, standing alone. “How apropos,” I thought to myself. I’m not sure if I can, even now, adequately describe the emotions evoked that day – this feeling of incredible accomplishment, in several facets of the meaning, juxtaposed against a sense of eery solace. I was, of course, proud of what I accomplished in my 22-year career, proud of having defended my country dutifully, proud of the amazing people I had served with and for. On the other hand, the great irony of the moment was not lost on me – standing there in uniform to speak out against my military and its failures.
One of the Air Force’s core values is “Service before self.” I can’t think of a time in my career I served more selflessly than that day. It was not the happiest moment, not the fondest memory, but was absolutely the proudest.
A lot of people asked me in the months following the article what kind of reaction I received for having gone to the press. The true underlying probe of their question was: “what kind of backlash did you get?” The answer is: none. Had I still been on active duty and in DIA, there is no doubt I would be getting railroaded (again) right now (hell, I wouldn’t be shocked if DIA is still trying to plot my demise…no doubt there are a few dart boards hung on walls in the Mothership with my mug on them). However, the journalists I worked with were professionals and the story was vigorously vetted and therefore airtight. That, in and of itself, helped to curb any potential retribution. Also, due to delays and happenstance, the story was published February 19, 2022 – 18 days after I retired from active duty. But when you think about it, who in their right mind would publicly retort the narrative by raising their hand in support of the cabal and its miscreants (and thereby out themselves in the process), right!?
You’ve already read about the follow-on discussions I had in the busy month that followed – scores of supporters, witnesses, victims who came forward to recount their stories; all very much sounding like, as my G.O. would say, “same church, different pew.” Aside from adding to the voluminous amount of evidence for the case, these discussions helped to also assuage any fears I had throughout this process. Those fears didn’t center around retribution, they didn’t center around fallout, they centered around the constant “nag” in my mind: “is this really just Ryan Sweazey’s fight?” I say this because I was always aware and always concerned that the mission I had set out on was just a personal crusade; that any tepid responses, or lack of responses altogether, were not attributable to people being afraid to come forward, but because they weren’t seeing what I was seeing, they weren’t being victimized like I had been. Of course, in retrospect, that was absolutely not the case – the number of witnesses and documents and assessments that mounted over the course of the year, especially after the article, is as damning as it is irrefutable. (Nearly) everyone sees that now.
But there was one important exchange I had shortly after the publication of the article which, although brief, was probably the most important to me. Here is the text I got from one of the WSJ journalists on the day after the publication of the article. It simply said:
“Lots of people reaching out from within the USG to agree with the story, Ryan.”
I don’t think I could have authored better closing remarks for my “retirement ceremony” than that.