Monday, July 28, 2008

USAF Third Wing Commander General Thomas Tinsley Found Dead Of Gunshot Wound At Elmendorf AFB, Alaska; Suicide Not Ruled Out

Update July 28th 10:18 P.M: KTUU Channel 2 in Anchorage coverage of this story now available. To avoid cluttering up this post, the KTUU coverage is posted separately HERE.

Update August 5th: Colonel Thomas Bergeson diverted from Seymour Johnson AFB to take command of the 3rd Wing. Updated post HERE.

It's been a rough two years for the U.S. Air Force. First, there was the accidental loading of live nuclear weapons aboard a bomber bound for Barksdale Air Force Base, LA. Then it was learned that in 2006, there was the accidental shipment of nuclear weapons detonators to Taiwan. Then the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, ND tanked a major defense nuclear surety inspection. Then Colonel Samuel "Muh Dik" Lofton was convicted in a general court-martial at Sheppard AFB, TX on a host of sexual and corruption-based charges. And in a developing story from Utah, four Hill AFB airmen are being held on charges relating to a shooting outside a club in downtown Salt Lake.

This fraying-at-the-edges 21st century Air Force bears little resemblance to the STRAC 20th century Air Force in which I was proud to serve for 18 years of my 22-year miltiary career. Granted, they're a bit overstretched because of our excessive global commitments, but these serious breaches of discipline are inexcusable.

And now we are faced with the possibility that a major wing commander may have topped himself. The Anchorage Daily News reports that Third Wing Commander Brigadier General Thomas L. Tinsley (pictured above left) was found dead of a gunshot wound in his quarters at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska at 10 P.M. Alaska time on July 27th, 2008. So far, no foul play is suspected, although suicide is not normally classified as foul play. But officials refused to specify whether the gunshot wound was accidental or intentional. Media outlets nationwide beginning to pick up the story; click HERE for results of Google news search.

Major Update: At 3:27 P.M. Alaska time, the Anchorage Daily News now reports that the Air Force has confirmed that General Tinsley died of a SELF-INFLICTED gunshot wound to the chest. However, they have still not determined whether it was intentional or accidental, and it may take an autopsy to resolve this question.

Tinsley had served as the wing commander since May 2007, overseeing nearly 7,000 people. This morning his colleagues were shocked and sad, said Kelley Jeter, a public affairs officer who worked regularly with the general. "We're all trying to cope over here," she said. "We're trying to do our best to comfort the family and comfort one another."

Tinsley was quite active in the community in Anchorage, participating in numerous community organizations and events. He was involved in coordinating health services for returning Iraq veterans. He helped oversee the transport of Maggie, the Alaska Zoo's elephant, to the Lower 48 last year. He was at work trying to secure funding for hangars so people servicing aircraft on base could work inside in the winter. He was charismatic and well-liked.

Kelly Jeter also added, "He knew everyone's name. The lowest-ranking airmen that worked around him, he knew their names, he knew the names of their kids, he knew who they were married to".

This was General Tinsley's second tour of duty at Elmendorf AFB. From August 2000 until June 2003, Tinsley was assigned to the 12th Fighter Squadron, first as the director of operations, and then as the commander. General Tinsley is survived by his wife, a daughter and a nephew. The wing's vice commander, Col Richard Walberg, will take over as acting commander. General Tinsley's full official military biography can be read HERE.

Commentary: Speculation on the cause of death is not improper, as long as it is strictly represented as speculation. A more likely cause of death could be that he was cleaning or loading a personal weapon, and it went off at the wrong time. It will take further examination of the body to determine whether or not this was accidental.

But the reason why suicide can't be discounted is because of Admiral Jeremy "Mike" Boorda. Like Tinsley, Boorda was highly-popular, albeit as Chief of Naval Operations. Unfortunately, some of Admiral Boorda's military decorations were called into question late in his career. No one dreamed that Boorda would take it so hard. Yet Admiral Boorda topped himself anyway. I also recommend reading the analysis of General Tinsley's death presented on the FormerSpook blog; Former Spook is concerned that if the death was a suicide, it might raise questions about the effectiveness of the Air Force's "Wingman" program, an assistance scheme which has noticeably reduced suicides amongst Air Force people since implementation.

A cursory web search reveals no such controversy associated with General Tinsley's name. As far as I know, the Third Wing neither failed any major inspections nor been caught in any major improprieties during his tenure. One can only hope that General Tinsley did not take his own life. But one cannot rule it out at this point.


  1. General Tinsley was as exec for General Moseley who was recently fired for a laundry list of improprieties and missteps. Perhaps something was coming down the pike intimating that General Tinsley was aware of it. I sure hope not because taking ones life is an awfully severe way to deal with disgrace.
    I truly hope this was a mishap and not a suicide. It would be a shame that his family will have to live without him knowing it could have been prevented.
    My heart hurts for his family.

  2. My heart goes out to the family. Rembember your loved one in the way he conducted himself while he was alive. Suicide is common with a gun......I know as our son put a gun to his chest 1 yr. ago. He was in the military....he did in protective custody with 9 people present. Six of whom who were police officers. They never searched point? The family will never know. An autopsy report most likely will not give closure, nor will an investigation by the Air Force. Know your father/husband was loving, kind, smart, dedicated to his job/family.
    Grieving is a very long process. I can only hope that you his family can find someway to make sense of his death be it "deemed" an accident or by choice. In the end only God knows what happened.....I am so sorry for your loss as I do know firsthand what it feels like.