A controversial Air Force case dating back to 1972 is stirring up debate over whether to posthumously restore the honor and ranks to Maj. Gen John D. Lavelle, who was demoted and fired over alleged unauthorized airstrikes over North Vietnam.
In 2010, Pentagon officials petitioned members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to restore Lavelle’s rank. The panel — mainly Senators John McCain and Carl Levin — rejected it due to “inconsistencies” in information provided at the time.
Former Air Force officer Dr. Mark Clodfelter has spearheaded bringing Lavelle’s case back before the Air Force.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he was thrown under the bus,” said Clodfelter.
The case centers on then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen John D. Ryan firing the four-star Lavelle for “allegedly conducting unauthorized airstrikes against North Vietnam and ordering the falsification of mission reports,” according to Clodfelter’s research.
When officials agreed to halt Operation Rolling Thunder in 1968, the agreement stipulated that in exchange for stopping the bombing, the North Vietnamese would not attempt to shoot down American reconnaissance aircraft surveilling the area.
But when tensions flared up again, armed U.S. Air Force and Navy fighters began escorting the recon aircraft in the surface-to-air missile laden area for safe measure.
Between 1971 and 1972, firings on U.S. aircraft increased tenfold, and Lavelle grew increasingly concerned how best to proceed.
In February 1972, Lavelle took pre-planned actions — which investigators say violated any interpretation of the rules of engagement.
It was found that Lavelle had conducted “28 unauthorized missions, consisting of 147 sorties, during a four-month span in which Seventh Air Force flew between 25,000 and 40,000 total sorties,” Clodfelter wrote.
Lavelle chose an “early retirement” and settled for the Senate’s decision to demote him two ranks.
Lavelle died in July 10, 1979.
Clodfelter added the effort is about “righting a wrong, an injustice that’s now existed for almost 45 years.”
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson has agreed to review the case before an official recommendation is made. If approved, the petition would head to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis before potential White House approval and a future Senate committee vote.