About two years ago, Gen. Mark Welsh made a remark during one of his many base visits that made me think, incorrectly, that he understood something important about public agency leadership. He said (paraphrasing) that the Air Force should listen to its critics, because they’re not always wrong.
Had he followed his own advice more often, his legacy would be dramatically more favorable. For example, had he followed his own advice in April of this year after a civilian was violently and unlawfully removed from a retirement ceremony at which he was an invited guest, the Air Force could have avoided what is mushrooming into a massive public relations crisis hinging on the hot-button issue of religious expression.
When the story of Oscar Rodriguez being battered and expelled from MSgt. Chuck Roberson’s retirement ceremony first broke (here at JQP), it wasn’t a story about religious expression. It was a story raising questions about whether a commander (Lt. Col. Michael Sovitsky) had issued an unlawful order to his NCOs, whether those NCOs had wrongly carried out that order rather than appropriately stiffen their spines, and what the chain of command would do address an obvious wrong.
Here at JQP, we covered the story extensively, interviewing both Roberson and Rodriguez for separate articles and providing several layers of analysis. We also prodded the Air Force for a response, and got stonewalled and slow-rolled when we weren’t being fed intelligence-insulting non-answers by publicists happily carrying out misdirection and misrepresentation on behalf of the local chain of command, “led” by Col. Raymond Kozak.
We pushed because we felt Rodriguez was owed an apology and Sovitsky and his thugs should be held accountable. Major media dabbled in the story but didn’t wade fully into it, notwithstanding solid coverage by a few select outlets.
As a result of the Air Force double-dealing and dishonesty, claiming to have conducted an internal investigation but refusing to discuss the results with Rodriguez or hold anyone to account, he decided his sole path to a remedy ran through the court system. He secured representation.
When his representatives studied the fact pattern, they quickly recognized the Air Force’s vulnerability to a public relations scandal. As we first reported here, Rodriguez was removed from the ceremony because the chain of command didn’t want him to perform a special recital during the folding of Roberson’s retirement flag – a recital containing religious references that some commanders have misinterpreted as a violation of Air Force Instructions (AFIs). If we trained and educated better commanders, they’d have understood from the outset that when it comes to certain kinds of protected expression, Air Force red tape can’t override the black letter of the Constitution. As I wrote back on April 6th:
“Such an instruction likely carries no legal force, creating as it does an unwarranted limitation upon the freedom of service members to draw whatever meaning they desire from the Old Glory and to express that meaning publicly — themselves or through someone else — so long as it creates no threat to good order and discipline. The Air Force need not control the content of flag folding ceremonies to maintain good order and discipline, so no interest weighty enough to justify a limitation on free speech exists here.
But even if the AFI were strictly constitutional, it wouldn’t apply in these circumstances because the flag folding occurred outside the “ceremonial” part of the retirement event in question. The formal part of an airman’s retirement terminates after the retirement order has been published by the officiating officer and any final decoration has been presented (which had all occurred before what we see in the video). What follows after is considered an informal tribute, and is not regulated.”
Rodriguez’s lawyers astutely got big media interested in what would certainly be a hot-button element of the story, and the issue swiftly appeared in national outlets. Oscar appeared on national television to talk about it. The story went viral again, but this time with a national audience. High profile members of Congress reportedly began asking the service to explain itself earlier this week.
The Air Force responded to this geyser of negative attention with three visible steps in roughly the opposite direction it had been traveling on this story.
First, it cut the local Travis chain of command (and its publicists) out of the issue competely, lifting it to headquarters level for handling.
Second, a new investigation was initiated by the Secretary of the Air Force Inspector General (IG) office. As a side note, this is problematic. The IG isn’t supposed to investigate criminal cases, and the evidence already available to the public shows prima facie criminal acts.
Third, and most significantly, the Air Force has made public statements confirming that airmen are perfectly welcome to include religious references in retirement ceremonies if they so choose.
This latter statement confirms a number of things. It tells us that there was no need for a 60-day investigation to determine what happened. Video shows NCOs mobbing Rodriguez and removing him forcibly from the ceremony, and the Air Force now admits they had no legal justification to do so. Second, it confirms that the idiotic AFI attempting to outlaw religious references during flag folding ceremonies is a wasteful nullity. This also incidentally proves that the service sometimes signs into legal effect rules that lack a legal basis, fostering chaotic situations like this one.
The substance of the statement is best digested via the latest press release from Oscar’s legal team, provided via email to JQP on Thursday:
Two days after First Liberty sent a demand letter to the Air Force on behalf of their client Oscar Rodriguez, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James ordered the Air Force Inspector General to review the Air Force’s actions against Mr. Rodriguez.
During a retirement ceremony held in April at Travis Air Force base, multiple uniformed Airmen assaulted Oscar Rodriguez, a thirty-three year Air Force veteran, and forcibly dragged him away for giving a speech that included the word “God.” Read more about the case and watch a video of the incident at FirstLiberty.org/Rodriguez
“We view the Pentagon’s action today as a positive first step towards not only acknowledging that religious scripts may be used at retirement ceremonies, but also ensuring these kinds of situations are not repeated,” Mike Berry, Director of Military Affairs for First Liberty Institute, says.
In a letter sent to the Air Force on June 20, First Liberty Institute attorneys asked the Air Force to acknowledge that religious scripts may be used in retirement ceremonies, to send a written apology to Mr. Rodriguez, and to hold all responsible parties accountable for the assault on Mr. Rodriguez.
On Wednesday, multiple media outlets reported that the Air Force acknowledged that religious scripts may be used in flag folding ceremonies.
“Air Force personnel may use a flag folding ceremony script that is religious for retirement ceremonies,” the Air Force said in a statement. “Since retirement ceremonies are personal in nature, the script preference for a flag folding ceremony is at the discretion of the individual being honored and represents the member’s views, not those of the Air Force. The Air Force places the highest value of the rights of its personnel in matters of religion and facilitates the free exercise of religion by its members.”
Just like that, Air Force “sells out” one of its own instructions. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because of the publicity pain level.
Of the many sicknesses plaguing today’s Air Force, the subjugation of principle to publicity is among the most pernicious. In this instance, the service chose to actively ignore an issue that could have been easily addressed and remediated … right up until it triggered unfavorable media attention. At that point, Big Blue sprung into action and promised to get things right. But it should never have progressed to this point.
If principle were our guiding light, this entire wave of publicity would almost certainly have never occurred. Mr. Rodriguez would have been given and apology for the way he was treated, and the thugs involved in this debacle would have been reprimanded and sent back to work with a fresh lesson tucked under their wings.
But none of that happened. And it didn’t happen because the Air Force refuses to listen to its critics, even when they’re plainly trying to help.
So here’s some more advice: apologize to the victim, punish the offenders, explain to everyone what’s been learnt as a result of the situation, and strike down the AFI that helped provide the foundation for this conflict. Do these things transparently and swiftly … not because you want to avoid more bad publicity, but because they’re the right things to do.
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