From ancient Roman barracks to Port-a-Jons at today’s Afghanistan air bases, anywhere troops are deployed and bored, it’s not hard to find crude, sexually themed graffiti.
So why did one Air Force squadron commander — by all accounts, a successful and respected combat leader — find himself out of a job due to his airmen’s, let’s say, artistic proclivities? Was it the right move?
Lt. Col. Paul Goossen was removed from command of the 69th Bomb Squadron at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota Tuesday “due to a loss of trust and confidence from his failure to maintain a professional workplace environment,” the base said in a release that day.
As commander of the expeditionary squadron during its deployment last year to the Middle East, Goossen oversaw nearly 6,000 hours of B-52 combat flights that pounded the Islamic State and Taliban with more than 2,300 bombs.
Despite, the pace of operations during the nearly nine-month deployment to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, during their down time his air crew members had a habit of drawing crude stick figures with penises. After a CD containing a slideshow with some of the drawings was found in a vehicle, a commander-directed investigation into the drawings ensued, resulting in a sharply worded report that cost Goossen his command.
Maj. Natassia Cherne, head of public affairs for the 5th Bomb Wing, said in a statement Thursday that “any actions or behaviors that do not embody our values and principles are not tolerated within the Air Force. This includes creating or contributing to an unhealthy, inappropriate work environment.”
Military.com on Thursday first reported that the CDI found penis drawings had been made on the squadron’s B-52′s map software. Minot released a redacted version of the report to the press Friday.
Goossen was apparently respected by airmen in the squadron, and was seen as a good leader during the August 2017 to April 2018 deployment. Senior leaders and deployed air crew members didn’t report any problems with a negative climate or culture while deployed, the report said.
“Indications were that the Lt. Col. Goossen emphasized taking care of each other [and] focus on the mission,” the report said. “Examples of his priorities were obvious through his notes while deployed, prudent actions to take care of discipline issues, and testimony from members that who [sic] were confident in the squadron commander and other senior leadership.”
When the 69th returned from its deployment, the Air Force touted its accomplishments, including launching 834 straight missions without any maintenance cancellations, and contributing to a two-year run of B-52 flights that surpassed records that had stood since the Vietnam War’s Operation Linebacker II.
Offensive, or morale-building fun?
Most of the phallic drawings were made using MS Paint on the B-52s' cockpit computers. And “there were no actual photographs of genitals, only stick figure type drawings,” the report said.
An unnamed witness told investigators that the drawings “were not malicious or sexually explicit, demeaning or directed toward anybody in particular.”
“They were drawn to see how funny, creative and artistic people could be; they gave the crew something to laugh at and keep morale high,” the report summarized that witness’ perspective. “The drawings were viewed by many as ‘art’ [redacted], it would not have happened if anybody was offended.”
Goossen is not alleged to have drawn any pictures. In fact, he tried to put the kibosh on the crude drawings. In the first month of the 69th’s deployment, Goossen was alerted to “inappropriate penis drawings” and “culturally insensitive phrases” that had been written on aircraft munitions.
Phallic drawings were also made throughout Al Udeid, the report said, including in dorms, vehicles, public restrooms and on dusty surfaces.
Goossen wrote “Stop drawing d!#ks” on a whiteboard situated where everyone passing through the operations building would see it, the report said, and listed places where they had been showing up. But Goossen did not specifically tell his airmen not to make crude drawings in or on aircraft — and they apparently exploited that loophole, drawing phalli in built-up soot and on screens in the cockpits.
Other unnamed squadron officials saw computer-drawn cartoons including an endowed Santa, and a “knight with a sun and a phallic symbol.”
Goossen knew airmen were drawing cartoons to one another, and the report said that he saw one heart-themed phallic drawing on a screen around Valentine’s Day. Goossen ignored that picture and quickly changed the screen to the map and communications displays, and told investigators he was instead focused on the mission and unspecified new threats.
But he didn’t know “the depth or detailed content” of the cartoons until a roll-call meeting at the end of the deployment, when about 10 of the crude drawings were included in a slideshow, alongside other photographs from the deployment of personnel and jet art. Goossen told the investigator he gauged the room to see if anybody was uncomfortable. There were three women in the room, he said, two of whom were laughing. One woman — it’s unclear whether she was one of the laughing women, or the third woman — said “that’s mine” when one particular drawing came up.
The report said halfway through the slideshow, Goossen was taken aback by how many drawings were there. But he said he felt “halfway relieved” that his airmen chose that avenue to relieve stress, as opposed to more serious misconduct.
An unnamed squadron member who organized the slideshow told attendees beforehand that the drawings were to be shown, and “nobody seemed offended, uncomfortable or upset," the report said.
But in unusually pointed — and at one point, underscored — language, the investigation report blasted Goossen for not doing more to stop the penis drawings during sorties, and for not stopping the slide show during the roll call.
“Lt. Col. Goossen failed to be above reproach ... to display exemplary conduct, did not show himself as a good example of virtue, failed to be vigilant in inspecting the conduct of all persons who are placed under their command, failed to guard against and suppress all dissolute and immoral [underline in original] practices, and to correct, according to the laws and regulations of the Air Force, all persons who are guilty of them," the report said.
“Virtue is excellence that is not only an exterior appearance, but an interior reality that manifests itself in one’s subordinates and their character,” the report continued. “This negligence can be a marker of leadership immaturity or lack of basic awareness to thwart any disrespectful and vulgar practices of those one has been given the duty of guiding towards professionalism and excellence.”
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.