LOS ANGELES — A U.S. Air Force officer who served on the presidential security detail faces a possible court-martial in Texas for encouraging service members to send him photos of their genitals from locations around the world and rewarding contributions with commemorative T-shirts, patches and coins.
Second Lt. Travis Burch was charged earlier this month at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, with conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman.
Burch created a fraternal club of sorts that grew to 84 people, including 58 active military and 10 former members among the civilians, according to an investigation file obtained by The Associated Press. Most members were enlisted men in the Air Force, though the group also included a U.S. Marine and one current and one former U.S. Navy sailor.
Burch used the military alphabet to create the code name “Whiskey Delta Tango” for the group known to users by a more vulgar term, according to a summary of the investigation.
It started in 2012 and “was comprised of members who when going someplace deemed ‘cool’ or coming up with a ‘funny’ idea would take a picture of their penis with something related to the location or object in the picture,” the investigation said.
Defense lawyer Jeremiah J. Sullivan III said no crime was committed and the case was built around what was done privately in a “jovial, joking spirit” among consenting adults.
“The Air Force has spent well over a year investigating this case all over the globe,” Sullivan said. “This was a completely private group that is now embarrassed by Air Force investigators. They’re now being publicly shamed for lawfully and voluntarily sharing their penis pictures. It’s a private matter.”
The partly censored investigation document said Burch told someone not identified that he took his final suggestive selfie at the vice president’s residence while assigned to the security detail.
Sullivan confirmed Burch was part of the presidential security detail while stationed at Joint Base Andrews from 2014 to 2016, but said no such photo was shot at the house then occupied by Vice President Joe Biden.
“There were never photos taken at the White House or the vice president’s house,” he said. “We know that for a fact.”
Burch was enlisted during most of the time he collected and shared images so voluminous they had to be stored on an external hard drive.
In a conversation with a friend, Burch said there was nothing illegal about the club among enlisted personnel, but he had to either go into “hibernation” or pass the torch to someone once he entered officer training school, according to the investigation report.
The investigation, however, said he didn’t stop after being commissioned as an officer in March 2016 at the end of his assignment to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
Two months after his commissioning, he texted an airman in Belgium and said he was going through “withdrawal” and asked the man to send a racy video.
One of the charges alleges Burch threatened to share a photo of one member touching Burch’s penis if the man didn’t send more images.
Sullivan rejected that charge and said all the photos were taken consensually and no one was threatened.
Investigators found the hard drive hidden in a hollowed-out book in Burch’s quarters. They also found coins and other prizes featuring the symbol of a rooster that were awarded for completing a series of different poses and other acts.
The Air Force acknowledged the misconduct charges after being contacted, but declined to comment further. Burch faces a hearing to determine if he should be tried by court-martial for any of three counts, including an allegation that he solicited service members to commit indecent conduct that brought discredit to the armed forces.
It was not immediately clear what penalty he could face.
Military commanders have broad disciplinary discretion and evaluate whether misconduct behind closed doors interferes with control of a unit and could lead to breakdown in obedience, said attorney Dwight Stirling, former chief prosecutor of the California National Guard.
“In this case the commander must view this behavior as seriously undermining the good order of his unit and wants to throw the book at the defendant,” Stirling said. “It really suggests that the commander is trying to send a message not just about one case, but the culture of the unit.”
Sullivan said an administrative hearing would be more appropriate.
Last year, the Navy disciplined two pilots who used the contrail behind their fighter jet to draw a penis in the sky over rural Washington. That incident became widely publicized after photos were posted on social media.