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Welsh battles culture of disrespect for women

Dec. 10, 2012 - 08:30AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 10, 2012 - 08:30AM  |  
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh announced a servicewide health and welfare inspection to identify offensive materials in work spaces.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh announced a servicewide health and welfare inspection to identify offensive materials in work spaces. (Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill / Army National Guard)
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Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Smith was looking for training material when she found a file labeled "songbook" on the operations group computer server where she and hundreds of other airmen at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., shared work files.

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Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Smith was looking for training material when she found a file labeled "songbook" on the operations group computer server where she and hundreds of other airmen at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., shared work files.

Curious, she clicked on "songbook." What she found shocked her: page after page of violent, degrading and sexually explicit content: songs called "Sit on My Face" and "Bye, Bye Cherry"; a rhyme called "The S&M Man" that graphically described mutilating women with machetes, chainsaws and grenades.

Smith complained — multiple times at different levels of her chain of command — without result, she told Air Force Times. The offensive material remained. A 17-year veteran of the Air Force, she worried about other, younger airmen seeing the content and what kind of message that might send. But the reports went ignored, and she filed a formal complaint with the Inspector General and Air Force leadership.

This case, and others like it, appear to have compelled Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh on Dec. 5 to order a servicewide sweep of all workspaces and public areas for images, calendars and other materials that objectify women. The health and welfare inspection covers all active, reserve and Air National Guard units and must be completed by Dec. 17.

Welsh has emphasized the need to stop sexual assaults and harassment in the workplace since taking his job in August. He told Air Force Times shortly before ordering the workspace inspections that he had received multiple complaints about images, jokes and comments that made women and some men uncomfortable. The complaints indicated that many women felt they had to "go along to get along" with offensive images and comments if they wanted to steer clear of trouble.

"In my view, all this stuff is connected. If we're going to get serious about things like sexual assault, we have to get serious about an environment that could lead to sexual harassment. In some ways, this stuff can all be linked," Welsh said Dec. 4. "I'm not saying every case is linked, but it could be linked, and why would we want to tolerate there even being a chance of that?"

His comments come amid an ongoing sexual assault scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where, this year, at least 25 military training instructors have been investigated regarding misconduct with female trainees. Twelve have been charged to date.

Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for service members who have been sexually assaulted, published Smith's complaint on its website, as well as dozens of pages of graphic content found on the server at Shaw.

POD president Nancy Parrish, as well as Smith and her attorney, Susan Burke, attributed the inspection to the technical sergeant's well-publicized complaint.

Welsh spokesman John Sheets would not say whether the case contributed directly to the Dec. 5 order.

But Welsh's comments indicate he had been looking at precisely this sort of problem.

"After talking to a number of our female officers and [noncommissioned officers], I believe that there is a potential that this is a problem in more than those isolated areas," Welsh said. "Quite frankly, if we have 20 percent of our people who don't feel that they are fully respected and valued for all of the incredible talents and the dedication they bring to the job, then that's just not the Air Force we want to be."

On Nov. 15, Welsh, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy acknowledged in a letter to airmen that the service expects more than 700 reports of sexual assault this year — 100 more than in 2011.

Necessary or politically correct?

Some active-duty and retired airmen have expressed incredulity at Welsh's suggestion of a correlation between racy images in the workplace and sexual assault. Others have sneeringly dismissed it as political correctness and lamented the suppression of the fighter-pilot spirit and the end to an era when aircrews painted "nose art" on bombers, pin-up style images of half-naked women that were openly admired and commented on.

A civilian employee at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., said such material has long been removed from flight-line culture.

"All that stuff was removed from the workplace over a decade ago," David Ellgass, a program manager for International Programs FMS EW wrote.

The service has a long tradition of using women as "motivators," according to a retired senior Air Force official and fighter pilot who asked that his name not be used. Units used to use Playboy images on acetate during briefings to get the attention of the fliers. At one time, it was common for strippers to perform in officers clubs on Wednesday and Friday nights. Much of that has disappeared, he said.

But not all.

"Unfortunately, there are still some pieces hanging around. The current chief is correct in getting rid of it all," the retired official said.

Parrish said what Smith found on the Shaw server is indicative of a cultural problem that has long plagued the military.

"There are significant, numerical numbers of individuals in the military who hold denigrating and disparaging views of women. If the n-word was used in the military today, someone would be fired. Someone would be punished," Parrish said. "But hate-filled speech and behavior toward women is not only ignored, it's permitted within the culture. The Smith complaint lays it all out in extraordinary detail."

‘You'll be safe there'

Smith grew up in a small town outside Buffalo, N.Y., with few job prospects. When a female Marine Corps recruiter showed up at her high school during her junior year, it was like somebody flipped a switch. She seemed so professional and put together, Smith recalled. She went home and told her dad she wanted to join either the Corps or Army.

"My dad is prior Army. He said, ‘Absolutely not. If you want to join the military, join the Air Force. You'll be safe there.'"

Smith enlisted in 1995 at age 18 and trained as an aviation resource management specialist. Over the years, she tracked thousands of sorties and combat hours, coordinated training, maintained flight records and ensured combat operations readiness. She deployed to Iraq, Kuwait, South Korea and Germany. In her downtime, she worked charity events and fundraisers. Records indicate she consistently excelled. She earned awards, accolades and superior performance reviews. In 2009, she was nominated for the Lance P. Sijan Leadership Award.

Smith said she was proud to work for fliers who, day after day, risked so much. She put in long shifts to ensure their jobs were easier. For the most part, Smith said she overlooked the off-color jokes, sexist remarks and rituals that permeated the fighter pilot culture.

In her complaint, however, she details the progression from offensive materials and behavior to sexual assault that Welsh is trying to eradicate.

That kind of behavior dates to the very beginning of her service, according to Smith's complaint. Soon after her enlistment, she deployed to Sembach Air Base, Germany, where her new master sergeant took her out and bought her 10 shots as part of a drinking game called "coining." The master sergeant looked on as Smith "became completely intoxicated," the claim states. He walked her back to her barracks, where she told him goodnight.

"He responded, ‘You're not going anywhere, bitch,'" the complaint alleges. He pushed his way into her room, dropped his pants and ordered her to touch his penis, according to the complaint. Smith escaped the assault, it says, when several other airmen intervened.

She reported the incident, the complaint states, but rather than investigate, leadership told Smith to try to avoid being alone with her attacker.

"Rather than disciplining men who harass and assault their female peers, the Air Force turns a blind eye to misconduct and instead retaliates against female Air Force personnel whenever they seek to defend themselves or otherwise mitigate the severe hostility of the Air Force environment," it says.

The complaint includes other allegations of assault and harassment:

• While stationed at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, a vice wing commander offered Smith alcohol and told her to take off the top of her uniform. She refused and left the office.

• While outside a club one night, Smith encountered a group of fighter pilots doing a "sweep" — one of them threw Smith over his shoulder, carried her into a bar, put her on a table and sang songs with hostile and offensive lyrics.

• While awaiting deployment to Iraq with the 55th Fighter Squadron at Shaw in 2008, she found two "Doofer" books, unofficial squadron records that included offensive material and pornographic images. She took it to her director of operations, who expressed concern. The lieutenant colonel "failed to remedy the hostile environment," had the books put in a vault and broke his promise of confidentiality, the claim alleges.

• Fighter pilots routinely showed pornographic videos on classified briefing monitors before taking off in their jets.

• A service member followed Smith out of a base gym in Iraq one evening, slammed her against a wall, groped her and threatened to kill her. She escaped when he stumbled. She did not report the attack.

Smith "adapted herself to this hostile environment, recognizing the reality that complaining or objecting to the Air Force's creation of a hostile environment would end her military career," the complaint states. "[Smith's] willingness to keep quiet about sexual assaults and harassment and instead work docilely … was rewarded."

Demanding accountability

The assault outside the gym base in Iraq changed Smith's perspective, she said. When she came across the songbook on the Shaw server soon after returning from the Middle East, Smith realized she had lost her ability to tolerate it. That's why she made the report. She said that after months of waiting for leaders to make good on their promises, Smith sought out Burke, a Washington, D.C., attorney who has filed multiple lawsuits against military leadership on behalf of sexual assault victims in the military.

Burke said she applauds the steps taken so far — including the health and welfare inspection — and looks forward to more. Since filing the complaint, the lawyer said she has heard from service members across the country who have encountered similar materials in their workspaces.

Welsh said that's what he intends to ferret out.

"I want to find out whether we have this problem. If so, how big it is, then immediately and definitively change the problem — fix it and ensure that everyone in our Air Force knows this stuff isn't part of who we are as an institution," he said. "If the commanders during this inspection find things that cross the line between stupid and criminal, I expect them to do their job within all the appropriate guidelines and authorities that they have to do that."

Fighter pilots' attitude toward women have changed a lot over the years, said retired Lt. Col. Scott "Poacher" Lysford, who was in the Air Force from 1989 until July.

When Lysford first became a fighter jock, the community was more than 90 percent male, so it had a "locker room" mentality, he said. But as more women joined the ranks, such traditions went away.

"I can't remember the last time I saw a female poster or calendar in a squadron," he told Air Force Times. "You'd just get shown the door."

Lysford's last assignment was to a Predator squadron, which was about 35 percent female. Pilots who don't understand that they need to work well with women are "not going to have a very long career," he said.

Still, while most airmen understand that they are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with women, some are still nostalgic for the days when testosterone ruled, Lysford said.

"The people who are not smart enough to understand that times have changed are the ones that get into trouble," he said.

Retired Lt. Col. William Berner said he saw a lot of good-natured humor between male and female pilots during his 20 years in the Air Force, but nothing that he feels rose to the level of harassment.

"It went both ways," he said. "I know a lot of women I was around — they would joke about the guys, too."

Berner retired in 2006. His last assignment was flying special operations helicopters.

It was considered OK for men to tell female pilots that they looked hot, but if anyone ever crossed the line, the offending party apologized immediately, he said. Guys could get offended, too, he recalled, mostly when other male pilots told them their flight suits were too tight, so they had to lose weight.

"I never saw it escalate to tears or fists were thrown," Berner said.

Col. Martha McSally, who retired in 2010 as an A-10 pilot, said she felt uncomfortable many times during the early part of her career, when women were new to the fighter pilot community.

"Sometimes I brought it up and sometimes I didn't," said McSally, who recently ran for Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords' vacated Arizona congressional seat. "Sometimes I made jokes about it and highlighted it in ways that were comfortable to me."

McSally said a subtle attitude of superiority has replaced overt misogyny.

But the documents uncovered on the Shaw server revealed it remains in some places — and not all that far below the surface.

• "This book is our thoughts, our songs and our games," begins "The Fighter Pilot's Handbook," part of the hundreds of pages of materials Smith presented to supervisors. "This book is our spirit and blood."

"Lesser individuals" who have never flown a fighter "will consider these of little or no redeeming social value. … Those people do not know, nor will [they] ever know what it means to be a fighter pilot. This book is not for them. [I]t is for us! The Fighter Pilot's Handbook is a collection of over 75 years of tradition. A tradition that will never die as long as enemy aggression challenges for supremacy of the skies and free men rise to defeat them."

• There's a hookup how-to for wingmen, "arguably the noblest creature to ever step into a barroom. Who else, with cavalier disregard for his personal reputation, is so willing to throw himself upon the cruel mercies of a brazen man-hater, just so his buddy can hook up with a sorority girl with big [breasts]?"

• A caption under a photo of a scantily clad young woman reads, "Jailbait. Because the best things in life are illegal."

Welsh said such materials have no place in a professional workspace.

Smith said she appreciates Welsh's efforts so far. But she, like Parrish and other advocates, is concerned the Air Force will address the issue just as it always has — without tackling the core problem.

More training won't fix it, Smith said, and may breed resentment.

"The most productive thing they can do is firing the people who don't do their jobs. We need to see some firing, and it needs to be big. And it can't be, ‘We retire you early; we're going to fine you $10,000 and you can collect retirement for the rest of your life.'"

Parrish agreed.

"This is one more incidence of what appears to be initiative [but] is actually an after-the-fact response to the crisis of the moment. The military is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. If these incidents weren't in the press or if the complaints or lawsuits weren't filed, nothing would be done," she said. "Senior commanders are responsible for these attitudes. Until their careers are at risk, there won't be a cathartic moment like there was with racism in the military. Until there is, we won't solve this problem."

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