We continue to follow the case of Air Force Major Jill Metzger, the personnel officer whose “abduction” Kyrgyzstan last year touched off an international incident. About weeks ago, various media outlets and websites have reported that Metzer would be medically retired in early July, due to post-traumatic stress resulting from that incident. That sparked an outcry from military personnel and veterans’ groups, who wondered how Major Metzger’s disability claim was processed so quickly, while wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan inch their way through the system.
Within a couple of days of that initial report, Metzger’s status seemingly changed again. The Major’s mother told reporters that her daughter would be taking an 18-month leave-of-absence from the Air Force, beginning early next month. Then, almost as quickly, the story took another turn, with Mrs. Metzger reporting that her daughter was going on medical leave. She explained that the planned leave period would allow Major Metzger to spend time with her husband (who she married just before the deployment to Kyrgyzstan), and decide about her future in the Air Force. A number of retired commanders and First Sergeants that we spoke with expressed puzzlement about that option, saying they were unfamiliar with any service regulation that allows personnel to take a “leave of absence.”
Since our last post on this subject, we’ve heard from Capt E., a longtime friend (and former student), who has almost a decade of experience in the personnel career field. He researched the appropriate Air Force regulations and tells us that a military medical board has four options for someone in Major Metzger’s situation:
1. Separate with severance pay
2. Permanently retire the member
3. Give the member leave of absence
4. Temporarily retire the member
Capt E also notes that Air Force Instruction 36-3003 allows commanders to grant “excess leave” (without pay and benefits) after all ordinary leave has been exhausted. However, our friend could not explain multiple “changes” in Metzger’s status, since medical boards are appointed by senior Air Force officials, and carefully weigh the facts of each case before rendering their decision. It would be extremely odd for a board to “retire” a service member, then reconvene and modify their decision two times, all within a 48-hour window.
In fairness, the confusion over Major Metzger’s status may be the result of uninformed or “misinformed” speculation by supposed “insiders.” The personnel officer has not spoken with the media since returning from Kyrgyzstan, and the only public comments on her duty status have come from her mother, the wife of a retired Colonel. Due to Privacy Act restrictions, Air Force public affairs officers (and other officials) are barred from commenting on the duty status of individual service members.
Unfortunately, the lack of “official” information and purported changes in duty status have only muddied the situation, and prompted even more conjecture about “back-door” deals and alleged cover-ups. However, given the fact that the Kyrgyzstan incident remains the subject of Air Force and Justice Department investigations, the “leave” option may have been the only viable choice for the medical board. Service regulations do not allow the retirement or separation of personnel who are the subject of on-going probes; placing Major Metzger on leave allows the service to retain administrative control while those inquires continue.
While granting medical leave (or a leave of absence) were clearly within Air Force regulations, the decision still leaves unanswered questions about the Metzger case. The amount of leave that was granted (18 months) seems unusually long, particularly for someone with no apparent physical injuries and some capacity to perform assigned military duties (Major Metzger has worked as a Manpower Officer since her return to Moody AFB last fall).
There’s also the issue of consistency. How does disposition of Major Metzger’s case (so far) compare with those of other Air Force members suffering from PTSD? In other words, did other airmen with that condition receive a similar amount of medical leave, or did they get less time off for rest and recuperation? Obviously, all PTSD cases–and patients–differ, but the flood of patients from Iraq and Afghanistan have likely produced some general guidelines for patient leave and recovery times which could provide comparisons for the Metzger situation. [We would like to hear from military mental health professionals who have treated PTSD patients, and have experience in recommending medical leave, leave of absence or retirement for those personnel.]
From all we can gather, the Air Force had every right to place Major Metzger on medical leave, and we wish her well. But the controversy that began with her disappearance last year–and continued with her changing status earlier this month–won’t disappear with her pending departure from Moody. Until we have a better understanding of what happened in Kyrgyzstan (and the recent decisions behind her evolving duty status), there will be even more speculation about these issues, and the reputations of both Major Metzger and the Air Force will suffer, fairly or unfairly.