The controversial and forcible removal of a retired airman who was attempting to deliver a flag-folding speech at a friend's retirement ceremony was because it was unauthorized and not because it mentioned God, the Air Force Inspector General said in a report released Friday.
But the incident prompted the Air Force to review its rules governing the flag-folding portion of retirement ceremonies, and allow some ceremonies to contain religious elements if the retiring airman so wishes.
In a statement, the Air Force said it concluded the Air Force Instruction governing flag folding scripts at retirement ceremonies was too restrictive, and rescinded the language.
Under the new rules, an airman having a retirement ceremony – as long as attendance is voluntary – can have a script of their choosing read during the flag-folding portion.
Retired Senior Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez had been invited by now-retired Master Sgt. Chuck Roberson to deliver a flag-folding speech at Roberson's retirement ceremony in April. Roberson was moved after hearing Rodriguez deliver the speech, which he had written himself and performed more than 100 times at ceremonies.
But because Roberson's ceremony was an official on-base retirement and Rodriguez' speech was not the script spelled out in Air Force regulations, he was told by base leaders multiple times that he could not participate, the IG said in a report released Friday. Rodriguez was told he could attend the ceremony quietly as a guest, but not as a participant.
When Rodriguez ignored those commands and stood up to deliver his speech anyway, he was dragged out by four noncommissioned officers while continuing to shout the opening lines of the speech. Video of his removal was soon thereafter posted on the John Q. Public blog and sparked a heated debate online over whether base officials went too far.
The religious freedom organization First Liberty Institute began representing Rodriguez. In June, First Liberty said he had been kicked out and assaulted because his planned speech was to mention God six times, and that this violated his First Amendment rights to freely speak and freely exercise his religion. First Liberty also said his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights had been violated. First Liberty threatened to sue the Air Force if it did not apologize to Rodriguez, admit the airmen who dragged him out of the ceremony acted wrongly and unlawfully and punish them, and provide written assurance that nobody from the 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis would commit assault or battery against Rodriguez for engaging in constitutionally protected conduct.
But the IG found no evidence that the religious nature of Rodriguez’ script was behind officials’ decision to not let him take part in the ceremony, or that officials were trying to squash religious expression. In fact, the report said that, at Roberson’s request, the ceremony began with a chaplain’s invocation that closed with "in Jesus’ name." Officials had no objection to that prayer, the report said.
The Air Force did not allow non-regulation flag folding speeches to be read at official, on-base retirement ceremonies including uniformed service members. But unapproved speeches – including speeches that are religious in nature – were allowed to be read at unofficial ceremonies held elsewhere, as long as they were prefaced by a disclaimer that the speech is at the retiring airman’s request and not reflective of the U.S. government, and use volunteers other than the official honor guard.
Rodriguez had been a member of the Honor Guard, but the IG also said that he was removed from the Honor Guard at some point before his 2013 retirement. The portions of the report discussing Rodriguez’ alleged misconduct were redacted from the publicly released report.
An unnamed former commander of Rodriguez told investigators that he ordered Rodriguez not "to participate directly or indirectly in any kind of Honor Guard-type duties, to include the flag-folding ceremony."
Senior Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez had been removed from Honor Guard duties in 2013 for reasons the Air Force would not divulge.
Photo Credit: First Liberty Institute
Despite that order, Rodriguez delivered his personalized speech at his own retirement ceremony in 2013. That unnamed commander told investigators that "I took it as kind of a slap in the face."
Other officials told investigators they did not want Rodriguez participating in retirement ceremonies due to what they felt was his "repeated insubordination."
In an email, Michael Berry, the senior counsel and director of military affairs at First Liberty, expressed outrage at the IG’s conclusions, and said the group could still sue the Air Force.
"The Air Force broke the law, and now it’s trying to do a shameless cover-up … one that anyone can see through," Berry said. "The Air Force has declared war on one of its own. If the Air Force thinks it can dishonor a decorated veteran and violate the Constitution like this, the Air Force had better buckle up."
Berry said officials had no right to remove Rodriguez.
"That's why the Air Force had to change its policy to expressly permit flag-folding ceremonies that mention 'God,'" Berry said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.