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Retired SMSgt. Oscar Rodriguez is known for his moving and patriotic renditions of a specialized script during the folding of Old Glory at various ceremonies and tributes around the Travis Air Force Base community. He’s been performing the script for years at the invitation of honorees and friends.

But when he showed up to provide his famed rendition at the retirement tribute for MSgt. Chuck Roberson, things went terribly wrong. What should have been a dignified moment creating a lasting memory for Roberson, his family, and the Air Force teammates he was bidding farewell turned into a shameful spectacle. When Rodriguez arose to make his remarks, he was approached by uniformed NCOs who demanded that he shut up and sit down. When he refused, three of the men proceeded to lay hands on Rodriguez and remove him from the ceremony — and indeed the building — through physical force.

The video:

With all the recent talk about political rallies spiraling into out-of-control displays of violence and threats against free expression, it’s disheartening to realize we need look no further than our own Air Force to find just such a grotesque spectacle.

 

I reached out to officials at Travis for a response to initial reports of the incident and received the following statement from spokesman Lt. Col. Robert Couse-Baker of the Air Force Reserve’s 349th Air Mobility Wing:

“The Air Force Reserve respects and defends the right to free speech and religious expression. The disruption of a recent retirement ceremony at Travis Air Force Base, California by retired Senior Master Sergeant Oscar Rodriguez stemmed from an unplanned participation during the flag-folding ceremony portion of the event. The narrative associated with the ceremony is determined by Air Force Instructions and was not the version initiated by the retiree. Rodriguez ignored numerous requests to respect the Air Force prescribed ceremony and unfortunately was forcibly removed. We will continue to investigate the situation fully.”

There are a number of interesting things about this statement.

First is that it makes reference to free speech, apparently recognizing that many viewing the video will cringe at the visual of military members physically constraining expression by a civilian in a public place. And cringe they should.

Second is the mention of religious expression, likely a reference to part of Rodriguez’s usual script — a part that touches on the traditional choice by many to associate the flag with deeper spiritual or religious meaning. A full version of the remarks ordinarily given by Rodriguez is viewable here. Officials obviously contemplate that his use of the word “God” might somehow categorize the entire rendition as “religious expression,” thereby imposing limits and generating protections. This feels like a classic case of reaching for a controversy. Chaplains routinely give invocations at retirement events, and do so in the same photo frame as a U.S. Flag. But in this odd response, we glimpse the underlying cause of the entire sordid mess … the unwillingness of a retiree and his guest to conform with a hyper-interpretive rule that, among other things, seeks to distance the flag from religious references. More on that in a moment.

Also interesting is that the statement positively identifies Rodriguez, but makes no mention of the three individuals who ejected him from the ceremony. This is brazenly biased, transparent spin. It seeks to shift focus away from the conduct of concern (physically assailing a civilian) and rest it upon the conduct it claims provoked the incident (speaking in a way some commander forbade). 

The immediate invocation of free expression — and specifically religious expression — is curious and revealing. Such a breathlessly lurching explanation recommends to suspicion that the chain of command feels vulnerable to charges these rights were infringed. The need to re-frame the vulnerability away explains why we’re immediately treated to a caricature of Rodriguez coupled with sparing notice of his assailants. 

The rest of the statement is also more revealing than it means to be.

As mentioned, it turns out there is an Air Force Instruction governing flag folding ceremonies, and that this instruction was deliberately modified to strip out certain language someone considered inappropriate — including, notably, religious references.

From AFI 34-1201:

“There are no ceremonies in the Air Force requiring a script to be read when the flag is folded. However, when a flag folding ceremony is desired and conducted by Air Force personnel at any location, on or off an installation, this script is the only one which may be used.”

This sounds authoritative. But like many Air Force rules, it withers under scrutiny.

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. 

In a follow-up email exchange, Course-Baker opined to the contrary that “even if it’s a retirement, no one is free to make up their own Air Force ceremony.” This flies in the face of a well-established and broadly espoused norm recognizing the right of a retiring airman to determine how his last moments in the service should be spent. This norm has developed over time in recognition that if the chain of command begins dictating the precise content of retirement events, airmen will simply elect to forego them, degrading the service’s overall esprit and team orientation as a result.

In this case, the retiree being honored was clear as a bell about what he wanted, but his wishes were ignored by the chain of command. His tribute was dictated to him. His commanders attempted to control what was to occur, and when that control failed, they eliminated the source of protest.

I contacted Chuck Roberson by phone, and he told me in no uncertain terms that he invited Oscar Rodriguez to his retirement for the express purpose of delivering the flag-folding speech, and wanted him to participate in his retirement tribute precisely because the speech captured perfectly what the flag meant to Roberson and his family throughout their Air Force service. He had seen Rodriguez deliver the speech before, and was moved by it.

According to Roberson, his preference met strong resistance from the chain of command, who first attempted to keep Rodriguez away from the ceremony altogether. When that proved impossible, commanders gave Roberson the direction that Rodriguez was not to perform the “unauthorized” flag speech. Roberson relayed to Rodriguez the guidance given by the chain of command, but he also made clear that he, Roberson, still individually preferred that Rodriguez make his prepared remarks. He left the final decision about whether to stand and speak during the flag folding to his guest.

Rodriguez did what good wingmen do. He screened out the distraction and meddling of others and did what he felt was best for his comrade. He stood and prepared to give his part of the tribute, likely comforted by the idea that as a civilian, he’s not bound by arbitrary limitations on allowable speech during the public folding of a flag in the same way airmen are wrongly thought to be. He did what his brother in arms wasn’t best positioned to do: he challenged an overextension of authority.

What happened next was clearly stupid, wrong, and unlawful, though you might not suspect so given the equivocation of the official statement from Travis. The fact that “Rodriguez ignored numerous requests to respect the Air Force prescribed ceremony” provides absolutely no justification or valid rationale for what followed. Standing and speaking at a retirement tribute — at the invitation of the honoree — is not provocation for battery.

Unless it can be shown that those who manhandled Rodriguez believed he presented a threat to the safety of others, his removal was unlawful. While it’s comforting to think the situation is being investigated, that comfort will prove hollow if local commanders are calling the shots … because they themselves may have played a material role in triggering the incident. Multiple sources close to the situation tell me commanders had made an edict, before the ceremony began, that if Rodriguez stood and began delivering his script, he was to be physically removed from the building. If that’s the case, the order given was unlawful and the person who gave it is culpable in abuse of power. The lackeys who carried it out are culpable in breaking a bunch of laws to avoid standing up to an unhinged boss.

Interestingly, the same sources tell me commanders are not backing away from the idea they wanted Rodriguez tossed if he attempted to participate. Instead, they are actively reinforcing that the edict existed, as if comforted by the fact Rodriguez was on notice and still chose to test their resolve. If true, this demonstrates they have no idea how wrong they were to sanction violence.

*      *      *      *     

This was supposed be about Chuck Roberson, his family, his teammates, and their service together. His commanders made it about themselves, their need to control the content of his last day in uniform, and their miscalculation that command authority includes the right to suppress inconvenient speech by force of arms.

This incident evinces the obvious sickness in the moral heart of the Air Force, which is slowly strangling its own core values and serially defiling the Bill of Rights in furtherance of a culture demanding obedient conformity. The fact that three NCOs carried out an unlawful order to inflict violence on a civilian to prevent him from exercising “unauthorized patriotism” is downright alarming. It demands a swift response beyond Course-Baker’s assurance that “this is an active investigation and more facts will emerge in time.” 

Chuck Roberson wanted Oscar Rodriguez at his retirement. He wanted him to participate. That should have been the end of the issue. The Air Force doesn’t have the authority to tell airmen how to think about or talk about the American flag during a folding ceremony.

But even if it did, the ceremony was over. This was an informal tribute designed by the honoree and his wingmen. Commanders too squeamish to bear witness should have excused themselves and taken no notice.

But even if they felt compelled to stay, they had no power to force a civilian invitee to sit down and shut up. He’s not subject to their authority.

But even if he were, his resistance to that authority could never legitimize the use of violence as a response to non-compliance.

There’s so much clearly wrong here that it’s hard to understand how any “investigation” could legitimately drag on for the several days that have transpired since this display of mindless obedience took place. But at an Air Force moment characterized by a ruthless drive for conformity and a streak of fascist philosophy consistent with the militaries of our nation’s enemies, it’s only natural to see the chain of command graduate into the big leagues and start applying physical force to manufacture the control it seeks.

It’s also unacceptable, and another clear signal that our nation’s leaders need to pay closer attention to the institutional collapse taking place in their air service.
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