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Health, welfare inspections - expect more

Jan. 30, 2013 - 10:26AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 30, 2013 - 10:26AM  |  
The confiscated items included magazines such as Maxim and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, as well as print editions of Air Force Times.
The confiscated items included magazines such as Maxim and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, as well as print editions of Air Force Times. ()
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The Air Force-wide sweep of workspaces and public areas was your warning. But that was just the beginning.

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The Air Force-wide sweep of workspaces and public areas was your warning. But that was just the beginning.

In an effort to eliminate environments that tolerate sexual harassment and keep inappropriate materials such as magazines with scantily clad men and women and other possibly offensive items from finding their way back into the workplace, health and welfare inspections are going to be the new normal for airmen, Air Force officials say.

Future inspections are less likely to happen as a raid in the middle of your work day and across the service, as they did in December under a directive from Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. Instead, you can expect them to happen more subtly as part of the routine inspections the service already conducts.

Welsh ordered the crackdown in a wide-ranging effort to combat sexual assault amid an ongoing scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland involving military training instructors accused of offenses such as assault, inappropriate relationships and rape.

"Obscene, vulgar or disrespectful images, songs or so-called ‘traditions' are not part of our heritage and will not be accepted as part of our culture," Welsh said Jan. 23 during a congressional hearing on the Lackland scandal. "While these things may or may not directly relate to sexual assault, they certainly do create an environment more conducive to sexual harassment and unprofessional relationships, and I personally believe that both of those are leading indicators for sexual assault."

The inspections, conducted Dec. 6-17, yielded more than 32,000 items that were confiscated, removed or destroyed for being inappropriate, offensive, unprofessional and even pornographic.

Welsh told members of the House Armed Services Committee that since becoming the top officer of the service, he has worked hard to express his concerns about sexual assault to airmen at every level. He said the many changes that are being implemented at basic training, and the service's recommitment to treating every airman with respect, "can't be a one-time fix" — they must be a way of life.

Clean slate

While the inspection swept up what some might view as benign items such as health and fitness magazines, Kelly Sanders, a spokeswoman for Air Combat Command, said the inspection put people on notice they need to consider what they leave lying around common areas and how it might be perceived by their co-workers.

"The inspection was about resetting the environment and making sure we are all aware of items that may be potentially offensive to others in the workplace," Sanders said in an email. "Some commanders may have erred on the conservative side [in what they deemed inappropriate or offensive], but the bottom line is that people need to consider what is in the common areas."

ACC inspectors found about 18,000 items — the most of any command — that they deemed inappropriate, offensive or unprofessional. The vast majority of items reported in the inspection were considered by inspectors to be "inappropriate or offensive" or "unprofessional." However, more than 6,700 of those items were deemed unprofessional or inappropriate because they represented improper storage of personal photos, video, audio or text files on government computers, not because they were potentially offensive, ACC officials said in a release.

Of the remaining items, the majority was made up of pictures, posters, calendars, magazines or graffiti located in common areas, offices and latrines that inspectors believed to be potentially offensive. A single image also was found and referred to appropriate agencies for investigation for possibly being illegal, according to ACC.

Sanders said that, going forward, ACC airmen can expect inspectors of all stripes to inspect work areas for inappropriate material, even if the inspection is primarily for something else.

"Health and welfare is a commander's interest item for our [inspector general]," Sanders said. "[Health and welfare inspections] will be accomplished in conjunction with all our regular inspections — not restricted to any particular type — and evaluated through visual inspection of common/work areas that inspectors normally have access to during the course of their other inspection activities.

"Our regular unit inspections may or may not be announced, depending on the type," she said.

Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of ACC, said in a release that airmen deserve a safe, professional work environment that is free from harassment.

"Sexual harassment and sexual assault have no place in our Air Force, yet both continue to affect the Air Force's mission and harm our airmen," he said. "Any environment that encourages or tolerates holdovers from our past such as offensive pictures or songs is unacceptable."

‘Rebaselined' environment

The inspection at Air Force Materiel Command didn't turn up nearly as many items as ACC, but the command said it will continue looking for inappropriate material as part of the IG inspections it already conducts. Inspectors found just more than 3,200 items in December that had to be confiscated or removed.

Susan Murphy, AFMC spokeswoman, said in an email that commanders at all levels are responsible for maintaining work centers that are positive and professional, and commanders and airmen should expect that commanders will conduct formal notice and no-notice inspections in addition to informal walking around inspections at every level on a daily basis.

"The vast majority of our work centers were reported to be positive and professional work environments with no issues," Murphy said. "We are confident the December inspections raised awareness among our commanders and our workforce, and rebaselined our work environments.

Murphy said that Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger had addressed the issue "at length" with center commanders and directed commanders at all levels to do the same with their personnel.

"AFMC remains committed and stands behind the Air Force-wide effort to remove inappropriate materials from government work areas," she said.

An ongoing journey

Inspectors found more than half of the 631 instances of pornography Air Force-wide at Air Education and Training Command squadrons and wings, but ultimately found just more than 1,400 items it deemed inappropriate or offensive.

Amy Bartholomew, a spokeswoman for the command, said commanders were allowed to use their judgment and discretion in determining what was pornographic or not. That means that even magazines that didn't show full nudity or graphic content could have been deemed pornographic for the purpose of the inspection.

"The key, though, is that each commander needed to determine what was appropriate in ensuring that a work place is safe and respectful of all Airmen and employees, and we are confident that commanders across AETC exercised their judgment appropriately."

As the command in charge of basic military training, AETC has been in the national spotlight for its connection to the ongoing investigation of sexual assault and misconduct at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

AECT Commander Gen. Edward Rice testified before members of the House Armed Services Committee that "it was completely unacceptable that so many of our instructors have committed crimes or violated our policies, and we clearly failed in our responsibility to maintain good order and discipline among too many of our instructors in basic military training."

Rice said the changes that have been implemented so far indicate that they are making a difference.

"We have not had a reported incident of sexual misconduct in basic military training for the past seven months," he said. "This is not to say that we are nearing the end of our work. On the contrary, we know this is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning of a journey that can never end."

Bartholomew said though the December inspection was the first time that a health and welfare inspection has been done Air Force wide, it is a tool routinely used by unit commanders, command chiefs and first sergeants to emphasize professionalism and discipline, and they will continue to do so at AETC.

If you have to ask …

Pacific Air Forces, where inspectors found just more than 3,100 items that needed to be removed, also plans to continue to incorporate health and welfare checks into the inspections that it already conducts, said Col. Richard Coe, PACAF's chief of staff. PACAF commanders know they have full discretion to conduct similar health and welfare checks at any time, he said.

Like the other commands, PACAF is committed to raising awareness about sexual assault and maintaining a professional work environment, Coe said.

"Bottom line, if you have to ask [whether something is inappropriate], it probably shouldn't be there," he said.

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