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Turmoil shakes California National Guard with firing, suspension of top generals

Paul Pringle and Alene Tchekmedyian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

“I told him I think we could put 500. He said, ‘No, I want 800.’ We were tasked with training 800 airmen the next day,” he said, adding that the training included firearm and riot control components. “Luckily nobody got hurt, we didn’t have any accidental discharges. It could’ve gotten really ugly.”

The Guard and Baldwin did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Jones’ assertions.

Jones’ predecessor as commander of the Air Guard, Maj. Gen. Clay Garrison, was removed from the position in 2019 amid complaints of reprisals against whistleblowers and allegations of a cover-up of misconduct that reached into the highest ranks of the organization. The complaints, which were disclosed by The Times, focused on the leadership of the Fresno base and included an alleged cover-up of an incident in which someone urinated in a female Guard member’s boots. The commander of the base was also removed.

In announcing Jones’ appointment to succeed Garrison, a spokesman for Baldwin said, “The Guard is committed to providing a transparent, respectful and positive command climate .… I am confident that Brig. Gen. Jones will be able to lead the organization effectively and with the utmost integrity.”

Guard sources told The Times that last year’s order to put the F-15C on an alert status didn’t spell out the mission but, given the aircraft’s limitations, they understood it to mean the plane could be deployed to terrify and disperse protesters by flying low over them at window-rattling speeds, with its afterburners streaming columns of flames. Fighter jets have been used occasionally in that manner in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, they said.

The sources said the directives from Guard headquarters made their way down orally or in text messages, rather than in formal written orders, which was unusual and heightened their concerns that the jet would be used inappropriately.

Mellon, the governor’s spokeswoman, said she couldn’t speak to how Guard members interpreted directives beyond “what the governor’s office’s understanding is, which is — the aircraft would never be authorized for such a mission.”

 

She provided The Times with a memo in which Col. Jeremiah Cruz, who commanded the 144th Wing until January, said: “At no time during my tenure as wing commander, vice wing commander, and operations group commander was I ever tasked to utilize an F-15C at the 144FW to respond to a civil unrest event nor has the idea ever been discussed with me as an option.”

The memo was dated April 21, well after The Times began asking the Guard to respond to concerns among its members that the jet had been readied for a possible response to civil unrest.

An earlier email reviewed by The Times shows that Cruz had referenced concerns over the jet’s use to several officers three days before the Nov. 3 election. “There is no expectation that the F-15C will be used in any way in support of civil unrest,” he wrote, instructing the recipients to keep him apprised of “any requests or upcoming requests” from Guard headquarters in Sacramento.

The Times reviewed other internal Guard documents that show the jet was placed on an alert status for a possible election-week mission and that officers discussed concerns in March 2020 as well as that summer about using the F-15C for domestic purposes, including to intimidate civilians.

The Guard has faced scrutiny before for how it has deployed military aircraft.

Last October, Newsom’s office denounced the Guard’s decision to send a military spy plane to suburban El Dorado Hills, where Baldwin lived, to help civilian authorities monitor demonstrations over the Floyd killing. Baldwin said the fact that he resided in El Dorado Hills, where the protests were small and peaceful, had nothing to do with the deployment of the RC-26B reconnaissance plane.

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