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Tops in Blue's tour from hell

December 29, 2015 (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force)

[Editor's note: This story, originally published Dec. 29, was updated Feb. 3.]

Back-to-back truck wrecks, including a tipped-over tractor trailer. Allegations of toxic leadership. And rampant and persistent sexual harassment.

The missteps and misconduct that occurred during Tops in Blue’s 2012 tour led to two commander-directed investigations, both of which substantiated some of the concerns raised by former members.

The Air Force’s controversial Tops in Blue traveling show band has been canceled in 2016 while the service conducts “an extended review.” But an internal investigation newly obtained by Air Force Times shows significant problems behind the scenes during the band’s 2012 tour.

Drawn from the ranks of the Air Force, Tops in Blue is made up of about three dozen amateur musicians and technicians who spend a year traveling the world to put on shows for airmen and their families. They perform a mixture of modern pop and rock songs as well as classic rock and oldies. Some airmen have loudly objected to Tops in Blue, saying its performances are outdated and waste of money. Those criticisms, and others in official surveys conducted earlier this year, led to the cancellation of the 2016 season for the program to be reviewed by senior brass.

The first commander-directed investigation was launched in February 2013 when former Capt. Gavin Light, who spent a year as a technician and piano player for Tops in Blue, filed a complaint alleging a “culture of waste, abuse and disregard for [Air Force] instructions” and “blatant disregard for safety.”

Air Force Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Tops in Blue investigations in April. After months of inquiries from Air Force Times asking for the results of the FOIA request, the Air Force Personnel Center mailed the commander-directed investigation on Dec. 21, the same day the Air Force announced it was canceling the band’s 2016 tour. The Air Force said the 2013 report was not a factor in the decision to cancel the 2016 season.

During that investigation, a female senior airman who was a Tops in Blue member, described abusive leadership and frequent sexual harassment while on tour.

As a result, a second commander-directed investigation was launched later in 2013 to look into alleged "misconduct and sexual harassment." AFPC said that the second investigation substantiated sexual harassment allegations against one member. Air Force Times has requested the results of that second investigation.

UPDATE Feb. 3: AFPC provided the results of the second commander-directed investigation substantiating the female airman's allegations of sexual harassment to Air Force Times on Feb. 3. In the report, investigators concluded that the preponderance of evidence showed that airman "was subjected to sexual harassment" and her supervisor violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice's equal opportunity rules "by wrongfully creating a hostile work environment which had the effect of unreasonably interfering with the work performance of, and creating an offensive working environment for, [the airman] and other technician personnel."

The Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center said that the commanders of the units where band members were subsequently assigned received the information uncovered from the second investigation, and it was up to those commanders to decide what, if any, discipline they would receive. AFIMSC said it did not know whether or how anyone might have been punished.

In the report on the first command-directed investigation, investigators partially substantiated some of Light’s allegations, and concluded:

  • An unnamed technical sergeant received a severe electric shock at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, in July 2012 while trying to hook up equipment to a poorly grounded temporary power board. That tech sergeant was taken to the camp’s hospital, evaluated and cleared by medical staff, and released after 24 hours of observation. The Army Corps of Engineers conducted a safety investigation, decided the power source and equipment was safe and the show went on that night. But in the report, investigators concluded that while the electrocution “was simply an unfortunate accident,” the evidence showed Tops in Blue did not follow the rules and properly report it.
     
  • On Oct. 28, 2012, that same technical sergeant jackknifed and rolled a 7 1/2-ton tractor trailer onto its side while taking an interstate exit ramp too fast near Newburgh, New York. The investigators said when the truck started to tip, the tech sergeant applied the brakes, which caused a jackknife. He then tried unsuccessfully to correct the jackknife, and the tractor-trailer rolled onto the driver’s side. The tech sergeant driving the truck reported breaking his left ankle, the report said, but did not receive immediate medical care.

    That crash caused $71,000 in damage, towing and cleanup costs, including $16,000 to repair musical and other equipment damaged in the trailer and $21,000 to tow the vehicle and clean up the accident scene. In a handwritten statement included in the report, the driver said his truck, which was rated to haul 45,000 pounds at most, was estimated to be 3,000 pounds overweight.
     
  • The next day, Oct. 29, 2012, another driver – an unnamed senior airman – crashed another tractor-trailer into a lamp post in a church parking lot in Liberty, Ohio, probably because the driver was not using a spotter. That trailer – which was rented to replace the one wrecked the previous day – was extensively damaged, the report said. Its belly box was torn off, its cross frame was broken, a wheel was bent, and the trailer skirt was dented. The driver said in his own testimony the lamp post was knocked to the ground.

For both truck accidents, investigators said that while it did not appear the “accidents were intentionally ‘swept under the rug,’” as Light alleged, there was no evidence that Tops in Blue followed the proper safety procedures to report them. It should cause concern, investigators concluded, that the incidents may not have been raised up the chain of command. For that reason, investigators partially substantiated Light’s allegation that the incidents were not brought to the attention of officials who needed to know about them.

“The severity of both incidents should have warranted an immediate review of safety procedures within TIB operations,” the report said. “Likewise, both incidents should have warranted immediate concern for TIB’s [AFPC directorate of services] chain of command. However, there is insufficient evidence to prove to what level and depth the incident was briefed up the [directorate of services] chain. One would presume that incidents of this severity should be briefed up to the highest levels of AFPC leadership.”

Neither driver surrendered their government drivers license, the AF Form 2293, as required after an accident by Air Force regulations, the report said. The tech sergeant received remedial driving training and kept driving for Tops in Blue, according to the report. It did not say if the senior airman kept driving.

All told, Tops in Blue’s accidents cost $135,208 in equipment replacement, fixing the church’s lamp post, towing and scrapping the trashed trailer that was flipped.

In witness testimony attached to the investigation report, some Tops in Blue members suggested the grueling pace of the tour and fatigue contributed to the dangerous environment.

“Sometimes, the lack of sleep made the work situation unsafe,” a senior airman said. “While deployed, we averaged 1-2 hours of sleep a night, but were still required to perform our duties as if we had slept 8 hours.”

“The schedule was always demanding and often very taxing on people,” one master sergeant said. “Because the program always seems to be on the chopping block, it was also important to make sure that we completed every show and maintain[ed] the demanding schedule. Failure was not an option.”

In an Oct. 3, 2013, memo, AFPC Commander Maj. Gen. Margaret Poore followed the report’s recommendations and ordered safety training, instructions on proper safety reporting procedures, and a reduction in the number of shows on Tops in Blue’s tour to alleviate the strain on its staff and team members.

Poore also ordered an investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct and sexual harassment described by one Tops in Blue member.

That member, a female senior airman, said in her written statement that sexual harassment was rampant on the tour. Some Tops in Blue members regularly made comments about girls in the audience and pointed out attractive ones, she said in her statement.

A male master sergeant often hit on a male senior airman, “explicitly saying what he’d like to do to him,” the female senior airman said in her written testimony.

The senior airman said she heard her master sergeant explicitly speculate about her sex life to other Tops in Blue members over the headset, and because her mic was broken, she couldn’t ask him to stop.

“I’ve hardly been more embarrassed,” she said.

During a stop at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in January 2013, the master sergeant again brought up the senior airman’s sex life.

“He insisted that I was sleeping with every aircrew member and volunteer that I could,” the senior airman said. “I informed him that I had never slept with a volunteer or aircrew member. He dismissed that, and continued to tell the other technicians what he thought I had been doing.”

The senior airman described instances of abusive leadership while on tour. A tech sergeant would threaten her physically, she said, and threaten to make sure she got a poor rating on her enlisted performance report.

And the same senior airman said another civilian leader began screaming at her during a multi-day marathon work session.

“The longest day I ever worked for Tops in Blue was 42 hours straight,” she said. "After working for 38 hours, Mr. [redacted] was still yelling and screaming at me. He was upset about mistakes TSgt [redacted] had made, and I was too busy trying to fix TSgt [redacted] work to do my own. I was literally too tired to handle the added stress.”

The senior airman said an unnamed tech sergeant often bragged to her about beating a first lieutenant with a crowbar, which she said further intimidated and scared her.

“Because of his volatile mood swings, I was scared he’d lash out at me or someone else on the team,” she said.

The work environment was unsafe, she said in her testimony. For example, Tops in Blue members were not given the right kind of harnesses to climb up 23-foot-tall trusses, she said, so “we climbed without harnesses all the time.”

Privacy was nonexistent, she said, and any time a Tops in Blue member had a medical appointment – including visits to behavioral health – the entire team was briefed. This made the senior airman reluctant to speak up about any medical problems she was having.

It got so bad, the senior airman said, that at one point she bought a bottle of Tylenol, sat down in the loading dock over dinner break, and started “taking more pills than I should have.”

“Emotionally, I was so far gone I didn’t know what to do,” she said in her testimony. "I called my best friend, and he wanted to put me on suicide watch. I managed to talk him out of it, and went back to work. I thought about going to mental health or going to a chaplain, but there was no way that I could have gone without the rest of the team knowing. There was too much work to be done for me to be able to take the time to talk to someone.”

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