The Khobar Towers bombing happened so long ago that many might need a refresher course on both the disaster itself and the man who once was, but no longer is, its scapegoat—Terryl J. Schwalier.
On the night of June 25, 1996, USAF sentries on the roof of the Khobar Towers compound, a high-rise apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, saw two men wheel a tanker truck into an adjacent lot, next to Building 131. Quartered in that building were airmen of the 4404th Wing (Provisional). Their commander was Brigadier General Schwalier.
The terrorists parked their truck 80 feet from Building 131, got out, and fled. In four minutes, the truck exploded with the force of 20,000 pounds of TNT, shearing off the face of the building. Nineteen airmen died. Another 240 were injured, some horribly.
Investigations ensued. A year later, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, propelled by a Capitol Hill lynch mob, charged Schwalier had not done enough to protect his troops—despite the fact that he had taken 130 specific actions to improve security and carried out 36 of the 39 recommendations from a recent vulnerability assessment. Though two USAF probes found Schwalier blameless, Cohen blocked his previously approved promotion, sending him into retirement.
This was a notorious injustice. It stood for a long time—10 years, five months, and 21 days, to be precise—but not forever. Schwalier, who never abandoned his pursuit of vindication, has finally put an end to it. He has won his case.
The Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records, after carrying out a major review, concluded Schwalier had been victim of “an injustice” and never should have been denied his second star. The board ruled he should regain it, retroactive to Jan. 1, 1997, and be placed on the retired list at the grade of major general. The Air Force affirmed the decision Dec. 21 with an official order, made public in January.
We at AFA have followed the case in detail from the beginning, and it has been a matter of discussion among many with experience in the responsibilities of command. Our view has been strong and consistent in support of Schwalier.
Retired Gen. John A. Shaud, who headed AFA during the original controversy, declared in a July 28, 1997 letter to Cohen, “In our opinion, there is no way that Brig. Gen. Terryl Schwalier can be held at fault. What happened was that his command took casualties in an attack by an adversary. Without the security initiatives he put in place, the casualty toll would surely have been higher.” Shaud said Cohen’s message “seems to be that reasonable attention to security (or any other area of responsibility) is not enough; a commander becomes punishable if he leaves anything—anything at all—undone, even when discovered with 20/20 hindsight. That is a very tough standard for mortals to meet.”
Shaud continued that second-guessing would “tend to put your field commanders in a self-defensive mode, and that is not what you would want.”
Retired Maj. Gen. Stephen P. Condon, AFA’s Chairman of the Board at the time, said in a June 1, 2006 letter to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld: “To us, it is obvious that General Schwalier never should have been blamed. His men died in an act of war, one that was no different from the August 1998 attack on US embassies in Africa, October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, or September 2001 attack on the Pentagon.” None of these events produced similar punishment of individuals.
“A decade ago,” Condon went on, “one Administration bowed to political forces demanding a sacrifice for the deaths at Khobar Towers, and the result served neither justice nor US security interests. ... The injustice ... continues to weigh on a conscientious military officer who did his best in a difficult and dangerous situation.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael M. Dunn, AFA President and Chief Executive Officer, said in a Jan. 11 statement that AFA was “pleased to learn that the United States Air Force has rectified a decade-long injustice against an outstanding former general officer. ...
“For more than 10 years, Schwalier persevered in seeking redress. He has finally succeeded. The Air Force’s action was entirely logical and proper. We applaud it, as will any fair-minded person. ... Those responsible for the deaths of the Khobar Towers airmen were the terrorists—not the commander who did everything reasonably within his power to protect them.”
The Schwalier case was a disaster for everyone. It elicited some truly reptilian performances from members of Congress, the media, and persons within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. It played a big role in the decision of Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman to step down prematurely from the post of Chief of Staff. It divided the services between self-appointed “real warriors” and everybody else. We are glad it’s over.
The Schwalier injustice has been eliminated, but the Khobar Towers case goes on. The outrage occurred a long time ago; many, perhaps most, of today’s airmen were not yet even in uniform. However, the US should continue to pursue the Khobar Towers killers. Here are 19 excellent reasons:
These are the dead at Khobar Towers. The killers who planned, aided, or carried out the attack are numerous and mostly still at large. It’s not too late for vengeance, but we should get going. Success can take a long time. Just ask Schwalier.
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