Lt. Gen. Robin Rand, 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) commander, briefs members of his staff on Dec. 7 at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., on Air Force-wide health and welfare inspections. Inspections by commanders were to be complete by Dec. 17. Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh will make public his findings after a review. (Master Sgt. Kelly Ogden / Air Force)
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At a base in southwest Asia, a first sergeant and an officer took as contraband the magazines Men's Health and Cosmopolitan, and DVDs of "True Blood," an HBO TV series featuring the sex lives of vampires, werewolves and shape-shifters.
A first shirt and squadron commander at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, confiscated a beer poster, a cigar calendar and a stack of tattoo, fitness, gaming and men's magazines.
Inside an office at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., two lieutenant colonels silently inspected cubicles and left empty-handed.
Each instance, described by airmen and a civilian worker, was part of a servicewide health and welfare inspection ordered Dec. 5 by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh to find, collect and document unprofessional, inappropriate and offensive materials in work spaces and common areas such as break rooms and heritage rooms.
The full extent of what the sweep turned up probably won't be known for weeks. Commanders had until Dec. 17 to report their findings, which Welsh intends to make public after he reviews them, said Lt. Col. John Sheets, a spokesman for Welsh.
Sparked by a rise in sexual assaults in 2012 and complaints of on-the-job images, jokes and comments that made some airmen uncomfortable, the sweep has been met with wide-ranging feedback.
In forums and on Facebook, airmen have likened the inspection to a cavity search, a raid and a witch hunt.
"What about objects that objectify men?!" wrote Cynthia Hettle-Shuff on Air Force Times' Facebook page.
A Facebook user named Ray Malone described how some computer desktop backgrounds now feature male dancers and women in burqas in mocking response to the inspection. Someone also used a black marker to cover pictures of women in Air Force Times and the base newspaper, he wrote.
Others have lauded the sweep as a much-needed and long-overdue war on sexism and misogyny in the service.
"Obviously other methods weren't working so they are trying a new one," Chris Tolczyk wrote on Facebook. "We got inspected last week and it was [the Equal Opportunity Office] coming through the duty section to make sure things were kept ‘professional.'"
‘Not a witch hunt'
That is precisely the intent, Welsh said in an interview earlier this month with Air Force Times. "It's really not a witch hunt. I'm not looking for criminal activity. I hope we don't bump into it, but if we do, we'll deal with it separately," he said.
A technical sergeant at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., filed a complaint with the inspector general and senior Air Force leaders in late October describing how her chain of command ignored for months her reports of sexual, violent and graphic images, songbooks and other documents on a computer server. The aviation resource management specialist went public with her complaint in November. She and her attorney said that sparked the forcewide inspection.
"Over the past months we have discussed how important an environment of dignity, trust and respect is to our culture of professionalism and discipline," Welsh wrote in a Dec. 3 memorandum. "If inappropriate written material or visual media are in our workplaces, they can create a hostile and offensive work environment."
The secretary ordered that commanders "document and remove as contraband" logbooks and other written materials such as those that "emphasize sexual or other inappropriate activity" as well as "lewd, obscene, or pornographic images or publications found anywhere in government work areas or common areas, in any form, on any media, whether commercially or individually produced."
Welsh said there could be a correlation between these types of materials and sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.
A staff sergeant at Sheppard said that in addition to stacks of magazines from the bathroom and work area, the first shirt and squadron commander took print-outs of Air Force-related jokes. Also removed: A Dos Equis beer poster with the words "I don't always have fun in the Air Force, but when I do, it's mandatory."
The airmen described the inspections as unannounced.
"It felt as if it was a raid," said a senior airman who asked that his name not be used. "We were given no warning or direction on what was now deemed ‘sexual and offensive.' One day it was perfectly OK to have a Men's Health magazine in the work area to try to get better ‘Fit to Fight.' Then all of a sudden it's almost a crime to have abs showing on a magazine.
"I agree that sexual assault is a horrible crime and that we need to protect our airmen. Men's Health is not to blame for sexual assault. The perpetrator is to blame. If we really want to get sexual assault completely out of our military, then we need to do better recruiting with psych exams and have more self-defense classes sponsored on base," the senior airman added.
A civilian at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., said he appreciates Welsh's effort. "It doesn't hurt to look," he wrote in an email. But when a search of the computer server turned up his graduate school homework, he said he was admonished for it.
Others also had their homework files removed, he said.
"I was told that it wasn't appropriate to keep non-work related stuff on the drive," he wrote. "I guess it's OK to spend hours on a social network but not do homework that the Air Force benefits from … so much for only looking for degrading materials."
Some see contradiction
The staff sergeant, an F-16 maintainer at Sheppard, said a commander's call on professionalism in the workplace followed the unannounced inspection. The message included the need to eradicate the "drinking culture the Air Force has adopted," he said.
The staff sergeant said it was hard to take the message seriously when F-16 operations buildings have fully stocked bars "where the pilots all hang out and drink. These are not just a table with some bottles lined up, mind you, these are full-sized bars with beer on tap, bar stools, pool tables, flat screens, bottles of expensive liquor, and some that I have seen even have a small stage for playing live music. I can't even begin to go into how many unprofessional and offensive posters there are in these bars, many involving sexual material pertaining to women."
Complaints about noise and alcohol-related shenanigans are often met with a rebuke to mind one's own business, he said. "The point I'm trying to make is that even though we are supposed to enforce standards and always maintain a professional image, these rules don't apply to pilots. [Neither] I nor anyone I know can take any of this seriously while we are aware of the behavior of the ‘good old boys club.' "
Welsh said he plans to use the feedback from the sweep to determine how widespread the problem is and whether it is isolated to a particular group in the Air Force.
"I want the entire chain involved in this. This is commander business," Welsh said.