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July 09, 2014 News » Cover Story

Broken Wings 

Michael Coots was almost a suicide statistic. Now he’s fighting to shed light on the demoralizing culture of Hill Air Force Base

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NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
Untitled Document

What stopped Michael Coots that Saturday in September 2012 from going home and putting a gun in his mouth was that he could not remember where he lived.

The 54-year-old sat in his truck in shorts and flip-flops and struggled even to recall why he had left his Ogden home that morning. His life had no meaning and he wanted out of it. “I just wanted to get it over with,” he says now. “I wanted to stop the pain.”

But then the electro-mechanical technician looked through his windshield, saw a sign for Ogden Regional Medical Center, and, in a moment of clarity, realized that he was sick and needed help.

His brown eyes awash with tears, Coots took stock of his life with a doctor in the ER. Divorced once, his second marriage was now also collapsing. But more than that, he said, stress over his work at Hill Air Force Base, where he had been employed for 13 years, was destroying him.

The doctor called in a psychologist and locked the door. He told Coots that he was suicidal and needed to be hospitalized.

Coots panicked. He asked to go to the restroom and, as he was let out, twisted a guard’s arm behind his back, pushed him away and took off running, only to tumble to the parking lot asphalt as his flip-flops fell off his feet. Half a dozen medical staff and a security guard piled on top of him, strapped him onto a gurney and wheeled him into a barred room, where he spent the next week heavily medicated, monitored by the unblinking eye of a wall-fixed camera.

On the eighth day, after filling out a 500-page psychological evaluation form and being interviewed by a judge on closed-circuit television, Coots was found to be no longer a danger to himself and was released.

If Coots had managed to find his way home that Saturday morning and killed himself, it would have made him one more statistic to add to the 40 civilians and seven military employees of Hill Air Force Base who, between 2006 and the end of 2013, took their own lives, according to previously published statistics figures the base released to City Weekly.

Coots says the base is a toxic world where supervisors and managers use bureaucracy to persecute people to the breaking point. Coots and others—none of whom would go on the record for fear of retaliation—say it’s also a world filled with hypocrisy, where employees take mandatory classes on the 2002 Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act, which claims to have zero tolerance for harassment, and attend assemblies where military brass urge employees to look out for each other. Despite all this, Coots says, no one would listen to his concerns of workplace retaliation.

“That was the reason for all my desperation,” he says. “No one cared.”

In November 2013, a little more than a year after his almost-suicide, Coots filed a health discrimination complaint with HAFB’s Equal Opportunity Office, alleging he had been discriminated against because of his age and a 2006 heart-bypass surgery.

Hill declined to address Coots’ complaints, citing the ongoing litigation.

Coots provided City Weekly with several reports prepared by investigators with the Equal Opportunity Office that detailed both his claims and documentation and the responses of colleagues and supervisors to his complaints. The first investigator made no conclusions, but several people she interviewed supported Coots’ allegation that he was being driven out of the base by disgruntled management, who, as one maintenance mechanic put it, were “maliciously trying to fire him.”

Coots is a fighter; his father boxed for money in back alleys during the Great Depression and taught his son a love of the sport. Now, Coots is determined to fight for himself and others like him, who’ve been sapped of the will to live because of their working environment.

But in boxing, Coots says, “you know where you stand, you know who you are up against. You have the opportunity to defend yourself, you can look them in the eye. With the government, you’re fighting a vast entity that is elusive in every way, and you don’t know what’s the truth, when you’re being entrapped. It’s like trying to fight the invisible man; it’s like fighting a ghost.”

RAISING THE DEAD

Coots and his two best friends, Brian and Jimmy, were hell raisers as kids, chasing each other on dirt bikes through the small town of Lemont, Ill., just outside Chicago. Brian’s sister Laurie Zuro recalls the then-redheaded Coots as being old-fashioned and respectful, someone who “loved to learn, always watching how things were done, and then doing them better.”

click to enlarge Michael Coots finds solace in spending time with his childhood friend laurie Zuro in the ogden home they share. - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Michael Coots finds solace in spending time with his childhood friend laurie Zuro in the ogden home they share.

Brian enlisted in the military in 1977, an act that eventually inspired Jimmy and Coots to follow suit, because, Coots says, “It was the right thing to do.” Coots enlisted in the Air Force in 1984 in Chicago when he was 25. He attended jet school for four months, then went to New Mexico on active duty as a jet-engine technician. But in October 1988, his father died, and his mother, suddenly alone after 52 years of marriage, wanted him to come home. Although he had only one more year of active service left, he made a deal with the military that he would do six years of weekend duty with the Air National Guard so that he could return to Lemont.

But in the wake of Desert Storm, Coots’ knowledge of jet-engine propulsion made him invaluable, as the Air Force desperately needed replacements for their sand-damaged jets. He returned to full-time active duty, putting in 12- to 14-hour days building as many engines as he could, jet fuel running into his cuts and burns.

His supervisor wrote that Coots’ work at the jet engine shop reflected the “kind of spirit [that] is necessary to national defense. While you did not actually deploy, your mission here at O’Hare was equally important in the ‘Big Picture.’ ”

Coots says his service “gave me a sense of duty and honor. It made me feel good to be able to do well there.”

Shortly after the refueling wing returned from deployment, the base commander called employees into a hangar. To his surprise, Coots was awarded the Meritorious Service medal, the equivalent, he says, of a Bronze Medal for non-combat military personnel.

Coots moved to Utah in 1994 and joined “Team Hill” in 1999.

Hill Air Force Base is a world unto itself. It’s fenced off, with guards at every exit and anonymous voices that blare from external speakers, counting down to lightning strikes or reminding employees to use safety glasses. The 6,650 acres, straddling Layton and Clearfield in Davis County, is dotted with almost 1,500 windowless buildings and 11 huge hangars, plus a 13,500-foot-long airstrip from which high-tech fighter planes roar into the sky.

click to enlarge Hill’s Ogden Air Logistics Complex, where maintenance of fighter aircraft is performed - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Hill’s Ogden Air Logistics Complex, where maintenance of fighter aircraft is performed

Hill is also littered with aging machinery, like a 1960s altitude chamber the base used to test re-entry rocket motors for intercontinental ballistic missiles, simulating altitudes in excess of 160,000 feet. When the chamber “gave up the ghost,” Coots and his team were called in. The 649th Munitions Squadron commander, Nathan Ply, described in a 2003 memo how, with no documentation or repair manuals, Coots got it to work “as well now as it did on the day it was built.”

According to 35 commendations and letters of gratitude from Hill staffers, Coots proved himself to be a highly valued mechanic, maintaining and salvaging machines from disposal that saved “the USAF untold dollars in machine replacement and down time,” according to a 2009 letter written by civilian manager Shane Olsen.

The concept of the chain of command is fundamental to the Air Force, where you are accountable to your immediate superior. If an employee is not satisfied with the response of that immediate superior, he or she has the right to go up to the next level.

Coots worked under five levels of supervisors, all civilians. The first level manages workers, handing out work assignments. The second level, Coots says, carry down orders, questions and disciplines from the third level to the first. The fourth and fifth levels are “figureheads,” at least for those working on the shop floor, he says.

Hill officials, Coots says, “realized my abilities and put me in charge of maintaining a lot of equipment. I was very busy, and busy means being happy.”

In December 2006, the 48-year-old Coots had heart-bypass surgery. After he returned to work, his third-level supervisor, Scott Boothe, asked if Coots “could get the second shift to perform their duties and straighten up,” effectively making him their supervisor.

Coots says his management style was to work on improving employee relations. When “someone did something good, I’d ask for an on-the-spot reward for that person,” he says. Along with a “cheesy” item like a hat or a T-shirt, Coots would get a letter of appreciation typed up.

A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM

On Feb. 15, 2008, Coots was electrocuted at work by a malfunctioning power switch, according to an OSHA form. The 270 volts of electricity caused Coots to convulse so intensely that he fractured two ribs and suffered sternal muscle spasms. Supervisor Ryan Smith identified three causes of the mishap: malfunction/defective equipment, failure to follow procedures and failure to use safety device/equipment.

Coots says that he followed all procedures and that they were never given protective equipment, which he told safety personnel when they asked why he hadn’t been wearing any. That, he believes, gave his shift a black mark that some set out to make him pay for.

The base seeks to keep its accident rates as low as possible, Coots says. “If you hurt yourself at Hill, they act like you’ve done it intentionally. And that’s a product of protecting the record of the department.”

Soon after his accident, Coots received an e-mail from base security informing him that he was in danger of losing his 10-year-old security clearance and thus his job if he did not gather certain documents from his financial and legal past.

Coots took the e-mails, which he says he viewed as retaliatory, to the Inspector General’s Office on base. A few days later, he was informed his security clearance was no longer a problem.

While Coots did battle with his superiors, a shadow was looming over the base as the number of civilian suicides at Hill received widespread publicity.

Coots says that though people all have their tribulations and trials to bear, given how much time people spend at work, “when you take that [belief in your work] away from someone, they have nothing left but the existing problems. Nothing else to focus on because they’re being badgered and harassed. They think life is just a huge clump of agony and they just want to end it.”

Ex-marine and Vietnam veteran Frank Crofts worked alongside Coots for several years before retiring in 2012. As the number of suicides rose both on base and in individuals’ homes, Crofts says, “They’d have big draw-downs [meetings] and promise to study this.”

But soon, he says, base leadership began to shift its focus on the suicides. “Management blamed it on alcoholism, drug dependency and other factors, so it didn’t reflect on them,” Crofts says.

Crofts says that blaming other factors fails to take into account that work problems create frustrations that lead to alcohol and drug abuse. He knew three men who’ve taken their lives in recent years. One called the police, then put a deer-hunting rifle under his chin; another did the same with a shotgun; and a third hung himself over his own docking station in a hangar.

A psychologist was brought in, Crofts recalls, “but it didn’t take me long to figure out he wasn’t there for us, he was corporate, he had HQ’s interests at heart.”

It’s all about “making sure corporate is buffered from whatever happens.”

The U.S. Air Force has made much in the public arena of its Wingman program, a response to the epidemic of suicides. At Hill, 18 employees are assigned as wingmen and, according to the base’s website, offer “a 24/7 service for civilian employees by providing information and referrals for on- and off-base services/resources for issues raging from personal/marital/family stressors, financial stressors, substance abuse, etc.”

What the website doesn’t say, Coots says, is that the Wingmen who offer a willing ear to your problems and will direct you to services can also be a direct pipeline to base management. On the back of a Wingman Advocate’s card, it states, “Interaction between employees and Wingman Advocates is considered peer-to-peer and no confidentiality provisions apply.”

Part of what fuels Coots’ anger is that while the Air Force sends out e-mails saying such things as, “We are an Air Force family, and you mean a lot to us,” the resources the base and the Air Force say are available to civilians in the event of harassment, retaliation or discrimination do not live up to their claims.

Banners on the base direct airmen, both military and civilian, with concerns to the Inspector General’s Office, but when Coots went there to file a harassment complaint, he was told the office didn’t help civilians. Coots asked one of the IG officials what they did; he replied, Coots says, “We ask ourselves that all the time.”

CHAIN OF COMMAND

After 32 years in the military as a civilian, Crofts became increasingly frustrated with Hill’s management culture, particularly when a new rule at Hill meant that those appointing new hires had to take only the last five years of employment into consideration. “I’d been on top, underneath and between the walls of every dang building out there on the base,” Crofts says, but “all that work experience is flushed.”

Crofts and Coots saw the number of managers and supervisors grow, while the shop-floor mechanics did not. “They do nothing to bring money into the organization,” Crofts says. “You had a small number of mechanics working their guts out so they could support the overhead upstairs.”

Crofts and Coots say they found themselves being undermined as supervisors sought to bring in relatives and friends to fill positions. Crofts says those charged with hiring would give deference to the relatives of co-workers. “You hire my kid, I’ll hire your kid,” he says.

Hill was “directly going after you if you had gray hair and were a veteran,” Crofts says. “They wanted you out of there.”

click to enlarge FrANK Crofts knew three men who’ve took their lives in recent years. One called the police, then put a deer-hunting rifle under his chin; another did the same with a shotgun; and a third hung himself over his own docking station in a hangar. - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • FrANK Crofts knew three men who’ve took their lives in recent years. One called the police, then put a deer-hunting rifle under his chin; another did the same with a shotgun; and a third hung himself over his own docking station in a hangar.

Richard Essary of Hill’s media-relations office wrote in an e-mail that “Hill AFB takes seriously our obligation to abide by the prohibitions against nepotism found in the Department of Defense Joint Ethics Regulation and in federal statutes. If Mr. Croft can provide more specific statements regarding alleged nepotism, we will look into them and take appropriate remedial action to remedy any violations of the law or regulation.”

In mid-October 2010, Coots’ first-level supervisor, Tom Odell, gave him a letter advising him that he was being sent for a Fit For Duty examination the following month. If he failed that examination, he could lose his job.

The letter, signed by Odell, detailed how Coots “had a long history of showing up late for work,” had had heart surgery, family issues and used up all his leave. “I feel that Mr. Coots’ physical symptoms have not only become a safety concern but a possible hazard” to those he worked with, Odell wrote.

In private the next day, Odell told Coots that supervisor Boothe had ordered him to write it and that he did not believe Coots merited such an examination, particularly given that Odell had given him a “straight 9s” appraisal—basically, top marks.

“I feel that Mr. Boothe is just out to get Mr. Coots,” Odell says during an audio recording made by Coots, which Odell agrees to on the recording. “I think there’s certain people the organization has come after, and Mr. Coots happens to be one.”

According to the report made by the investigator from the Equal Opportunity Office, Odell expressed similar sentiments to her. When she interviewed Boothe, he said that he was not out to get Coots.

Coots complained to Boothe, who’d been his supervisor for 10 years, about the Fit for Duty examination and recorded the conversation. On the recording, Boothe tells Coots that going up the chain of command was “disruptive,” and if there were further attempts to go above him to complain, “I guarantee you someone else is going to pay a price for it.”

Coots asked if he meant him.

“You would be a part of it, because I would make sure you’re a part of it,” Boothe says.

Boothe later told an Equal Opportunity investigator that he did not recall any such conversation with Coots, and that he also hadn’t directed a supervisor to send Coots to a Fit for Duty examination. No one in management that Boothe was aware of, he told the investigator, was trying to remove Coots from employment.

MIDDLE FINGER

Coots’ supervisors wrote him up repeatedly in 2010 and 2011 for failing to secure his toolbox and not attending a scheduled doctor’s appointment. Each write-up went into his file.

In mid-2011, Coots filed a claim of work-related stress issues with the U.S. Department of Labor. In response, an unidentified supervisor wrote an undated note that he did not believe Coots’ claims to be warranted. Rather than being singled out, “Mr. Coots has been given due process on all write-ups, and write-ups are done to rehabilitate his behavior, not harass him as claimed.”

Coots, the supervisor continued, “seems to want to make his own rules and not adhere to the same rules as his fellow employees do.”

In May 2011, a staff engineer and support squadron maintenance manager e-mailed Boothe to say that Coots had disrupted a heavy-metals toxicity class by clipping his fingernails during a slideshow and had also flipped off the instructor. Those complaints resulted in a two-day suspension.

Coots denies flipping off the instructor and says he was clipping his nails in part because mechanics’ nails get torn apart from working on machinery.

His battles with his managers took an increasing toll on his mental health. His primary-care physician wrote in an October 2011 letter to the base that Coots “has a history of severe psychological trauma associated with recent work environment issues.”

Things move slowly in a federal bureaucracy, and it wasn’t until January 2012 that a labor-management arbitrator was flown in from California for a daylong hearing on Coots’ 2011 two-day suspension.

Coots told the arbitrator that he’d made a quip during the slideshow when a photo was shown of a man mining beryllium in Africa without safety gear. “I bet that guy never had this class,” Coots says he said aloud in the class. But, he told the arbitrator, he’d been unaware that clipping his nails during the slideshow portion of the class was distracting.

The arbitrator found that the testimony of the supervisor who accused Coots of giving the bird to the instructor “was not substantiated.” She wrote in her opinion in favor of Coots that she “could not conclude that the Grievant did not merely glance at his fingers, rather than extend his middle finger in an offensive manner.”

Three months later, in April 2012, as part of a base-wide restructuring, Coots was assigned to F-22 Raptor fighters as an electrician, although, he says, he was qualified only as a mechanic, not as an electrician.

Coots’ then-first-level supervisor, Richard Merrill, later told the Equal Opportunity investigator that the two positions were quite different, and that he “understood why Mr. Coots was stressed about learning the new job.”

Coots couldn’t concentrate, appeared sad and depressed, and struggled to learn even things that Merrill knew were easy for him.

Merrill believed that not only had the stress that plagued Coots while working under Boothe continued to affect his performance at the new shop, but that Coots “wasn’t really qualified to do the […] position and that the [reassignment] set him up for failure.”

A GOOD MAN

Later that year, Coots was forcibly committed to Lakeview Hospital for suicidal ideations following his breakdown in the Ogden Regional Hospital Emergency Room in September 2012. He was released eight days later.

Coots was placed on light duty in late 2012 and worked at the Hill Air Force Base Museum, where he happily tinkered with old aircraft. “It’s great not to feel bad and to know you can still do well,” he wrote in a letter to base officials.

In June 2013, the base’s head clinician, Dr. Chris Kleinsmith, determined that Coots was “not medically qualified” to work on actively flying aircraft because the doctor viewed his mental health as too precarious for the stress of working on F-22 fighter planes.

That started the ticking down of 150 days for Hill’s personnel department, along with Coots, to find a position on base, or “I’d be out of the gate come March,” Coots says.

Merrill told the Equal Opportunity investigator that the clock on Coots’ employment worsened the mechanic’s stress. Merrill wanted to keep Coots on his team. “He was a good mechanic and a good person,” Merrill told the investigator. “He is smart and I know that as soon as he was through the stress stuff, he would pop right back.”

Coots went home to Illinois in June 2013 to see his mother. While he was there, he visited Laurie, the sister of his best friend Brian, who had died of cancer the year before.

Laurie had married Jimmy, Coots and Brian’s childhood buddy, but the relationship had not gone well, and Coots invited Laurie to live with him in Utah while she recovered from a spine operation.

While Laurie says Coots was the same respectful man she’d known in her youth, “I saw he was also extremely stressed,” she says. “And the stress is wearing on him.”

She’s read every single page of the voluminous reports and paperwork Coots has accumulated in his fight to document the abuse he has experienced. “It’s just not right. He’s busted his butt and given everything for this country, and they turn around and treat him like crap.”

INTO THE LIGHT

Coots’ Meritorious Service medal now sits on a felt board with his other medals and coins of recognition, along with a photo of himself, age 24, in his uniform—“A naïve young man with high aspirations,” he says—gathering dust on top of the fridge.

While Coots’ friend Crofts was able to retire, Coots and so many others of the 15,000-plus labor force at Hill stay on because they have no choice. Saddled with mortgages and debts and unlikely to easily find work in a region where their current employer is the major player, many, Coots says, are simply driven to despair. “I feel trapped, I feel so trapped,” he says. “You’re at their mercy. This is not a land of opportunity, there is not work out there. These people have bought homes, they have debt, they figured they’d be here the rest of their lives.”

In February 2014, the Physical Disqualified Program at the base found Coots an industrial engineering mechanic position at the 75th Civil Engineer Squadron, replacing overhead doors.

In early May 2014, Coots decided to go up the chain of command as far as he could—to the Commander in Chief.

Laurie detailed Coots’ battles with “Team Hill” via the White House website. “The base is the livelihood of thousands of people here and they feel they have nowhere to go,” she wrote at the end. “That is why everyone is so scared to speak up against the base. I am begging you, at least look before another life is lost and let Michael get his faith back in his country.”

Two weeks after Coots sent his e-mail, his supervisors sent him to Hill’s Occupational Medicine clinic for an evaluation.

Coots says the doctor told him that the White House had called the base and requested they evaluate him.

Now, he thought, “I’m getting somewhere.”

The next day, he was summoned to a meeting with Hill Air Force Base’s commander, two-star General H. Brent Baker. Coots says Baker had been asked to report to a three-star general in Washington, D.C., regarding Coots’ concerns.

Shortly after that meeting, he says, he received an e-mail from a colonel informing him that based on the information he’d provided Baker, there was no substantive issue that the base could address.

But Coots isn’t giving up. “They think that’s it for me, that I’m done?”

Coots’ discrimination complaint continues to wend its way through the federal complaint system. And while the hate he feels for “the ghost” he battles continues to surprise him, Coots’ mission continues. He knows from firsthand experience how the base’s toxic culture can drive employees to contemplate suicide.

And that, he says, is something he’s determined “to bring into the light.”

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