Atomic wedgies and atomic situps are usually the stuff of middle-school pranks — not the behavior of adults, aspiring officers seeking to become part of the next generation of Air Force leaders.
But a rash of hazing and other juvenile behavior on the Air Force Academy's men's gymnastics team led to punishments of the coach and some cadets in 2014.
The commander-directed investigation — which the academy recently provided to Air Force Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request about overall hazing at the academy — uncovered "hazing and physical maltreatment" of freshmen on the team, as one investigator described it. The academy announced in September 2014 that the disciplinary actions — which included letters of counseling or admonishment, verbal counseling, and probation — were due to a series of "incidents over the past year [that] have revealed a pattern of unprofessional behavior and underage drinking by the men's gymnastics team."
An academy official at the time would not say what "unprofessional behavior" the cadets were punished for, but said it was not as bad as hazing and described it as "tomfoolery."
But investigators uncovered several behaviors common to the team that served to embarrass or humiliate younger members of the team. In some cases, gymnasts sustained injuries, including a severe abrasion, broken ribs, at least one broken nose, a broken hand, and a concussion.
The documents provided also included a Report of Conduct for one cadet awarding him 50 demerits for "participat[ing] in activities defined as hazing or fail[ing] to take action against those involved in hazing activities," which included atomic wedgies and situps and hitting freshmen with a plastic whiffle ball bat dubbed a "recognition bat." That cadet's conduct constituted cruelty and maltreatment and conduct unbecoming an officer under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the report said.
Another redacted letter of counseling included in the documents — it was unclear whether it was issued to the same cadet who received the demerits or another one — blasted the cadet for the same offenses.
"This behavior is unbecoming of a United States Air Force officer candidate," the cadet's squadron commander, an unidentified major, said in the LOC. "Further lack of judgment may result in more severe corrective or punitive actions taken against you. Any further involvement in hazing or subordinate mistreatment may result in consideration of your disenrollment from USAFA."
In a statement provided to Air Force Times along with the FOIA, the academy said the 2013 misconduct was "a severe, unacceptable deviation from our core principles. When the nature of the misconduct was discovered, investigations were promptly initiated. Those found responsible were disciplined. Their misconduct fundamentally conflicts with the values our nation holds dear — the values we serve to protect. Whenever this kind of behavior is discovered in our ranks, in any form, we will take appropriate action to hold perpetrators accountable."
An investigator noted that the team's coaches gave the team's seniors, or "firsties," free rein to control the culture and climate of the team, with apparently alarming consequences.
"Lord of the Flies: Firsties, without supervision, set the conditions for and/or actively participated in hazing and physical maltreatment of the freshmen under the pretense that 'boys will be boys,' " an investigator noted in a section labeled "Observations." "The lack of understanding of what hazing is by team members is disturbing."
One coach disagreed with the upperclassmen's view that they are solely in charge of managing the team's culture, and told investigators that "he is much more than just a coach 'teaching flips.'"
Investigators found that in August 2013, upperclassmen had the new freshmen engage in a handstand contest before unexpectedly wrestling them to the ground and giving them so-called "atomic wedgies" — pulling their shorts or underwear up until they ripped, though they weren't pulled all the way off. One freshman suffered a severe rug burn on his shoulder the size of a racquetball while getting dragged around the mat, the report said.
Gymnasts told investigators that giving unsuspecting freshmen atomic wedgies was a tradition going back years to build team camaraderie, and that after the freshmen's shorts or underwear ripped, the upperclassmen embraced them and welcomed them to the team. One gymnast described it as "a fun event intended to unify the team and their class," and several said they didn't feel it was done maliciously. Another said he still kept his ripped underwear in his locker as a memento.
Another cadet told investigators that the atomic wedgies usually happened after coaches left halfway through the team's strength and conditioning practice. But while coaches didn't see it happen, the cadet said the team spoke about it openly in front of them afterward, so they must have known.
Cadets also said "atomic situps," in which blindfolded freshmen were tricked into shoving their faces into the exposed buttocks of upperclassmen, were a common prank on the team. Unsuspecting freshmen were told to do situps with a towel over their face while another teammate held them down to provide more resistance. While the freshmen did situps, other upperclassmen positioned themselves over them with their pants pulled down. On cue, the other teammates would whip the towels away from the freshmen's eyes at the last second so they would drive their faces into the other cadets' buttocks.
Gymnasts told investigators they often launched into spontaneous wrestling matches with one another, which typically continued until someone tapped out or said they were done. But sometimes, team members were not comfortable with this physical activity.
One freshman cadet on the team told investigators that over an eight-month period from late 2011 to early 2012, he was repeatedly called names, subjected to "constant verbal abuse," and headbutted by a team captain, leaving him with a concussion that lasted two weeks.
"I immediately fell to the ground, and got really dizzy, and [my] vision was blurry," the unnamed cadet told investigators. "I got up, and did my best to try to laugh it off. I didn't want [redacted] to see that it bothered me or that I was weak. I gave [redacted] an awkward embrace and pat on the back because I wanted him to see that I could handle it. I literally stumbled down to the training room but ensured [redacted] didn't see me."
That cadet didn't feel like he could talk to his coaches or the trainers about the problems he was having, so he lied and told trainers that he sustained his concussion on the rings. He eventually told the trainers about the head butt.
The cadet became angry a few weeks later when he wasn't included on the roster to compete in the 2012 NCAA tournament, and a coach told him he was dropped "because he hadn't seen enough out of me from a workout/competition standpoint."
"I was livid, and extremely mad," he said. "I then told him I wasn't working out because his team captain gave me a concussion. I remember it specifically, he just turned away and didn't acknowledge that at all."
Another unnamed freshman also told investigators that one day, a senior on the team mockingly asked him if he was gay and the freshman replied, "Yeah man, aren't you?" The freshman said the senior brought up the exchange later at practice, punched the freshman "moderately hard" in the stomach so he doubled over, tackled him, wrestled him and choked him in front of several other members of the team. The team captain broke it up, but the senior later tackled, wrestled and choked the freshman again. When the freshman tried to tap out, the senior stopped choking him, he said, but kept wrestling until another senior again broke it up again.
A few minutes later, the senior attacked him for a third time, that freshman said, holding him down and hitting him in the chest repeatedly. That senior was later removed from the team for a week because of that incident, which other teammates confirmed to investigators.
That senior told investigators that "I wasn't trying to hurt him" when he punched the freshman in the stomach, and "I was still joking around" when he resumed wrestling him.
'A rougher culture than I expected'
That freshman said that a few days later, he bragged to the locker room about a 92 percent score he and his roommate had just received on their Saturday AM inspection, or SAMI. A junior felt that violated an unofficial rule against discussing military matters while practicing gymnastics, so he started punching the freshman in the chest and upper arms 92 times, while another teammate held his arms back from behind. The freshman said the punches were "enough to be aggravating but not nearly enough to leave bruises," and were followed by a 93rd punch to his thigh.
Another teammate described those punches as "not hard, barely touching him," and said "it didn't seem unusual because they were both laughing."
However, that freshman told investigators that he thought the upperclassmen's behavior, while inappropriate, wasn't an abuse of their power.
"I just think they got carried away as testosterone-fueled boys," he said. "I never felt it was 'hazing' and never used those terms. I never felt in danger like I was going to break any bones, just didn't feel like I was part of the team."
That freshman was the one who sustained the racquetball-sized burn on his left shoulder while receiving an atomic wedgie. He said the incident was "roughhousing and playful," but also said "I started to notice that the team had a rougher culture than I expected."
He also said the team "left the coaches in the dark" about some of the stuff that went on to keep their teammates from getting into trouble.
"I'm just sick of always having to watch over my shoulder for the next punch or thing being thrown at me and having to be silent around them because anything I say gets mocked," he told his father in a text message.
Another gymnast dislocated three ribs when a teammate tackled him on the academy's terrazzo for making fun of his home, and also pretended that his injury happened on the rings. He also said he broke his nose while wrestling with a teammate, and said "I break [it] frequently. I think I have broken it 14 times." However, it was unclear how many of those times were due to wrestling.
Yet another gymnast broke his hand punching a teammate in the back of the head. The cadet who was punched admitted he "took a joke too far," and said they were soon laughing about it. That punched cadet was also the junior who punched the freshman 93 times for talking about his inspection score, though he characterized them as "light punches in the stomach area."
"I wasn't singling [redacted] out, I would have done that to anybody on the team," he said. "It was not intended to be a violent thing, it was a reminder to focus on gymnastics while you're in the gym."
Another teammate told investigators that while he thought the atomic situps and recognition bats were dumb or useless, he thought the wedgies were valuable exercises and that team's culture didn't amount to hazing or abuse.
"It's just pranks and messing around with people, no different than any other team I've been on in the past," that cadet 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.