“The Air Force tried to give him chances but he was just problem after problem after problem,” said Jessika Edwards, a former Air Force staff sergeant who worked with Mr. Kelley in 2011, near the end of his career.
“He was a dude on the edge,” Ms. Edwards added, noting that he would appear at informal squadron social functions in all black and a black trench coat. “This is not just in hindsight. He scared me at the time.”
Even after he left the military, he contacted her on Facebook with disturbing posts about his obsession with Dylann S. Roof, the Charleston mass murderer, and his target practices using dogs ordered online.
Ms. Edwards said the military had tried counseling and tough love, but nothing seemed to work. When punished for poor performance, Mr. Kelley would cry, scream and shake with rage, vowing to kill his superiors, she recalled. His temper was so unsettling that she warned others in the squadron to go easy on him or he was likely to come back and “shoot up the place.”
The Air Force, like the civilian world, is often ill-equipped to intervene before violence occurs. Though Mr. Kelley’s behavior raised flags, commanders say they have limited options until a crime is committed. Even then, the priority is more often on getting problem troops out of the military, giving little thought to the possible impact on society. After facing intense criticism for its failure to report Mr. Kelley, the Air Force has opened an investigation into the case and many questions remain about what more it could have done.
For Mr. Kelley, the military was likely an encouraging option at first. His family had a tradition of going to Texas A&M University: His grandfather, father and both siblings became Aggies. But growing up in New Braunfels, Tex., Mr. Kelley did not get the grades to attend one of the state’s top schools. Besides earning mostly C’s, he had amassed at least seven suspensions for insubordination, profanity, dishonesty and drugs, according to school records.
The Air Force offered him a clean slate and the chance to prove himself. He enlisted right after high school in 2009. Based on above-average aptitude test scores, he was picked to become a fusion analyst — an intelligence specialist trained to interpret and communicate the latest information on enemy tactics. It promised a clear career path and a top-secret clearance.
In the spring of 2010, after two months of basic training, he…