Rise and fall of an American hero: How USAF pioneer Maj Gen Dawn Dunlop's career faltered over harassment claims

She was fired in May 2019 from the position of director of the Special Access Programs Control Office and now serves as the Air Force's director of capability requirements

                            Rise and fall of an American hero: How USAF pioneer Maj Gen Dawn Dunlop's career faltered over harassment claims
Brig Gen Kristin Goodwin, Maj Gen Dawn Dunlop and Brig Gen Jeannie Leavitt (Kenji Thuloweit/Wikimedia Commons)

Major General Dawn Dunlop, one of the highest-ranking female pilots in the US Air Force was removed from office last year. The reasons behind the removal have now come out, as reported by Air Force Times. A Daily Mail report states that, according to an internal investigation, she has been accused of berating and belittling her junior and sometimes reducing them to tears. She was the first woman to become a fighter test pilot, fly an F-22, and command a test wing, as per the report.

Dunlop graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1988 and had logged more than 3, 500 hours of flying, which included F-15, F-16, and F-22 fighters, according to the Air Force, as stated in the report. She was the topper in her class at the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB. Dunlop was featured in the movie Captain Marvel in recruiting videos, according to the Daily Mail.

In August 2018, she led the Pentagon office which was assigned to oversee some of the military's closest-held secret programs. However, as reported by Daily Mail, she was fired in May 2019 from the position of director of the Special Access Programs Control Office, or SAPCO. She now serves as the Air Force's director of capability requirements.

In a January 2020 report by the Inspector General, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Air Force Times, stated the reasons behind the firing of Dunlop. According to Daily Mail, as per the IG report, a few weeks after taking over the SAPCO office, some alleged that Dunlop treated her juniors rudely. This alleged behavior sometimes used to be on a weekly basis and even on a daily basis. Dunlop was accused of humiliating her subordinates when they failed to live up to her expectations and used to insult them by regularly indicating that they were stupid, according to witnesses, as per the report.  

As stated by Daily Mail, a lot of them described her leadership style as 'dictatorial' and 'borderline abusive' and compared the situation as a 'parent scolding a child. An anonymous witness is quoted as saying, “That's the environment we were in, nothing was ever right.” However, the witnesses did acknowledge that she was very talented and wanted the Air Force to succeed.  The report states that Dunlop felt that SAPCO needed to be fixed and she was meant to do it.

A statement provided to Air Force Times, as quoted by Daily Mail, by Dunlop's lawyer Gary Myers, indicated that Dunlop's efforts to fix SAPCO led to the IG complaint against her. “Throughout her career, Maj Gen Dunlop has brought a clear sense of integrity, excellence, and a strong desire to serve airmen and the nation. She has always been willing to work with others to take on difficult change where needed to deliver results in support of these values. After she was assigned to lead SAPCO, she endeavored to identify and undertake actions to better align the SAPCO enterprise with the Secretary of Defense priorities and SAP community needs,” Myers said. He added, “Her implementation of these efforts resulted in an inspector general complaint in May 2019. The IG allegations and report of investigation do not reflect who she is as a person, her values or her dedicated service of over 30 years.” Myers stated that Dunlop is grateful that the Air Force considered her response alongside the IG report when deciding to allow her to continue serving. According to the report, she “has gained invaluable insight and perspective from this experience, and by reading the feelings of others clearly expressed in the IG report,” Myers is quoted as saying.

Some people feared so much that they avoided weekly meetings of a working group of top Special Access Programs officials in order to avoid her ire. A few witnesses claimed to have tried talking to her but found her not too open about feedbacks. But this behavior reached its breaking point on January 4, 2019, according to the report, Dunlop grabbed a shocked subordinate's hand without her permission to draw her attention during a discussion about her calendar and a visitor coming in for coffee.

According to the subordinate, Dunlop allegedly “just went ballistic” when she was informed that a visitor, with whom Dunlop had a coffee appointment, was first going to stop by her office. As per the report, Dunlop’s concerns were that the visitor would see bare walls in her office, misaligned coat hangers, and papers on her desk. Dunlop allegedly raised her voice and told the subordinate: “Look at me, look at me please.” Witnesses said it was “completely inappropriate”, one was quoted by the report as saying, “If it were a male general, he might be done that day … if he had grabbed a 115-pound lady like that.”

It was ruled that her behavior violates the rules of barring conduct unbecoming an officer. In May 2019, as per the report, Dunlop allegedly provoked another senior officer, who took off from the meeting in tears. In another separate IG report, dated November 2019, witnesses said she used her subordinates to carry out personal tasks serving as the commander of the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (2016-18) at Geilenkirchen, in Germany. These tasks included swapping out the summer tires for winter tires of her personal vehicle four or five times, getting an oil change done, and making personal lodging arrangements. It further alleges that when she was moved to the US in August 2018, a subordinate helped Dunlop shipping her car back by driving it around until it had burned off enough fuel to qualify for shipping, and also sold her winter tires for her. The report concluded that these were violations of Defense Department ethics regulations.

In his statement, Myers said that Dunlop regrets it and said it was unintentional.  Myers is quoted as saying, “She is committed to incorporating these lessons learned as she moves forward in her current position.”

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