Before he was removed from command of the 62nd Medical Squadron last September, Col. Daniel Murray’s leadership was marked by concerns about his fairness, rock-bottom morale in the squadron, and his tendency to discuss religion in ways that made his airmen feel uncomfortable.
Airmen under his command testified to equal opportunity investigators last spring about a “palpably negative” and “terrible” climate and low morale in Murray’s squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, as well as concerns about favoritism.
For those witnesses, the poor morale was exacerbated by his talk about religion and his poorly explained decisions, such as extending the duty day by an hour, they said. One witness called him “egocentric” and said he created an atmosphere in which “it’s about him, not necessarily others.”
Another equal opportunity investigation — Air Force Times obtained both via the Freedom of Information Act — substantiated an allegation of discriminatory harassment filed after a transgender airman felt Murray made disparaging comments in a meeting, equating transgender status with mental illness.
Murray, who also was director of base medical services at Lewis-McChord, was removed from command Sept. 21 by Col. Rebecca Sonkiss, commander of the 62nd Airlift Wing “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to lead and command.”
He led the squadron for about a year.
In response to questions from Air Force Times, Master Sgt. Shanda De Anda, a spokeswoman for the 62nd Airlift Wing, said in a Jan. 5 statement that Murray is awaiting reassignment.
“It would be inappropriate to comment on the specific allegations,” De Anda said. “However, during Col. Murray’s tenure at JBLM, a series of investigations occurred which, rather than reveal a specific event warranting removal, demonstrated a pattern of ineffective communication and failure to foster a healthy command climate that contributed to an overall loss of confidence.”
Murray told investigators that when he took command of the squadron in 2016, he set out to turn around “eight years of a declining climate with poor guidance.” He was also concerned that inspections showed “basically that people did not know how to do their jobs well.”
Murray said he sought to fix that problem by extending the squadron’s duty day by an hour “to create white space at the end of their day, to go through regulations and tell me what they can do, what they can’t do, and what they could do if Army would help them.”
“There was an immediate decline in morale because they felt they were being punished,” Murray said. “I told them it was not punishment, it was white space to become the subject matter experts they are supposed to be.”
The EO investigation did not substantiate an allegation of religious discrimination against Murray. However, it showed several airmen were bothered by how he ran his squadron and brought his Christian faith into the workplace.
Airmen told investigators he discussed religion in commander’s calls and made what they perceived to be disparaging comments about atheists.
But while the investigator concluded in an April 18 memo that the preponderance of the evidence did not support the religious discrimination allegation, the investigator chided Murray.
While Murray has a right to express his religious beliefs, the investigator said that military officers are held to higher standards and must be aware that their authority “sometimes makes it necessary to be less transparent with personal faith beliefs, as subordinates may misconstrue the intent of the message.”
The investigator concluded it was likely he said, “there are no atheists in foxholes” during his first commander’s call in October 2016, as witnesses alleged.
The investigator said there were at least three atheists under his command.
One witness told investigators that the first time they had a meeting, Murray said that “he not only answers to the Air Force but to a higher power.”
Another witness reported Murray said, “I do not care what god you believe in, but you have to believe in something.”
‘I knew it wasn’t right’
Birthday cards with Bible verses — a photo of one was included in the report — were distributed in the squadron.
One major said Murray sent her a chastising text message that included a Bible verse. That major, who is also a Christian, said Murray’s discussion about religion didn’t bother her until she received the text containing a passage from Proverbs and admonishing her to maintain “military bearing.”
“Your commander has been patient with you, but I have little use for threats and guilt trips from subordinates,” Murray said in a screenshot of text messages included in the report. “ ‘The mouths of fools are their undoing, and their lips are a snare to their very lives.’ Something I was reading yesterday that you should heed. Do not be foolish with your words.”
“I knew it wasn’t right, but didn’t know what to do about it,” the major told investigators.
Murray acknowledged in his interview that during his first commander’s call, he told his airmen that he is a Christian, “but I don’t expect everyone to be one. I do expect that they seek out and define a spiritual pillar for themselves.”
Murray said he didn’t recall saying “there are no atheists in foxholes,” though he admitted it was possible.
Murray also said he didn’t buy the birthday cards, or notice the religious messages in some of them.
“If I signed a birthday card with a religious message in it, I was not tracking,” Murray said. “That would be weird.”
A transgender airman filed a complaint against Murray after an April meeting to discuss that airman’s plans to leave the Air Force for medical reasons stemming from his depression and anxiety.
The transgender airman, whose name was redacted from the documents, alleged Murray made a remark in the meeting, in reference to mental illness and transgender status, that he “could not separate the two.”
The airman said in his complaint that he interpreted that to mean Murray thought all transgender people are mentally ill. He also said he didn’t bring up his transgender status in the meeting prior to Murray’s comment.
The airman also alleged Murray said, in reference to his transgender status, “We let you guys serve now.”
He felt Murray’s comments amounted to harassment and a hostile work environment by his commanding officer.
Murray disputed that characterization of his remarks to the investigator.
Murray said he may have made a comment about transgender people having a statistically higher rate of anxiety and depression, and that “as his commander I was informing him that there were many helping agencies to assist him with his circumstances.”
The investigation substantiated the allegation of discriminatory harassment.
“The statements were numerous and significant, and had the harmful effect of insulting and denigrating” the transgender airman, the investigator wrote.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.