The former commander of the 52nd Operations Group at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany was disciplined after an investigation into accusations that he rubbed his crotch against the rear end of a lieutenant colonel’s wife at a dinner last year.
Col. Anthony Retka, who retired earlier this month, was accused of abusive sexual contact against Jordana Kennedy, the wife of Lt. Col. Patrick Kennedy, at an off-base going away party in May 2019. At the time, Lt. Col. Kennedy was director of staff for the 52nd Fighter Wing. Two months later, he took command of Spangdahlem’s 480th Fighter Squadron, under Retka’s command.
Wing Commander Col. David Epperson took administrative action against Retka after the Office of Special Investigations completed its investigation last September, Gabe Myers, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, said Tuesday. Criminal charges were not filed against Retka, Myers said.
USAFE would not say which administrative action was taken against Retka, citing the Privacy Act. But administrative actions can include letters of reprimand, admonishment or counseling.
USAFE said Retka chose to retire several months earlier than expected. Retka declined to comment, according to USAFE.
Witnesses interviewed by OSI also described a history of “unprofessional, sexist and misogynistic comments” and inappropriate behavior on Retka’s part, including an inappropriate comment after an anti-sexual harassment skit. Witnesses also revealed that in 2004, while he was a captain deployed to Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, Retka engaged in a prank called “steamrolling,” barging naked into sleeping pilots’ dorm rooms and rolling over them in bed until they woke up.
Witnesses also told OSI investigators that while at Kunsan, Retka once placed a much smaller pilot — who became extremely intoxicated as part of a squadron initiation rite and drunkenly tackled Retka — in a chokehold and refused to let go. Witnesses said Retka’s chokehold was a “full asphyxiation” that caused the drunk pilot to lose consciousness and soil himself. The squadron commander was the only person strong enough to break Retka’s hold on the pilot, witnesses said.
Myers said the administrative action was taken only in response to the dinner incident, not the other incidents described to OSI.
Jordana Kennedy provided a copy of the investigation report to Air Force Times, which corroborated the report provided by another source. She spoke with Air Force Times Jan. 9 and agreed to be identified by name.
According to the report, Retka, the Kennedys and other staff and family from the 52nd attended a farewell dinner for the former vice wing commander at the Schloss Neiderweiss restaurant on May 3. Several witnesses told OSI the event was “somewhat crowded, but relatively easy to navigate” without bumping into other people.
Shortly after the Kennedys arrived and began chatting with other guests in the center aisle of the dining room, the report said, Retka walked up to the group and pinched or touched a male colonel’s rear end. Immediately afterward, Kennedy told investigators and Air Force Times, she felt a man forcefully rub against her buttocks. She turned her head and saw it was Retka, who walked away.
The colonel asked the group, “Did somebody just touch my butt?” and Kennedy replied, “Yeah, mine too,” the report said.
“I felt his pelvis, his privates, his everything into my backside,” she told Air Force Times. “It thrust me forward.”
Her husband told investigators that Retka approached the group directly behind his wife and stood “crowded subway close” to her, which he described as awkward.
She told investigators that about 30 people had previously passed through the center aisle without any physical contact, and that there was eight to 10 feet of open space behind her.
Kennedy told investigators she was in shock and disbelief at what had just happened and felt numb, upset and uncomfortable. However, she didn’t want to make a scene and ruin the evening, as she and her husband had gotten a babysitter to be able to go out for the night.
“I didn’t want to make a big deal of it because the night had just started and I wanted to honor these nice people,” Kennedy told Air Force Times. “But at the same time, I wish I had [said] ‘Tony, what is your goal? Why would you put your privates beside my body?’”
She told investigators that Retka came up to her a few minutes later, apologized, and asked if they were OK, to which she responded “Yeah, Tony, we’re good.” The report quoted Kennedy as saying Retka then replied, “Okay, good, because you were [indistinguishable] target.” Kennedy told Air Force Times that Retka said she was “the non-intentional target.”
In a written statement to OSI, Retka denied he inappropriately touched Kennedy and that any contact was incidental and not done with the intent to abuse, humiliate or degrade her or for his own gratification. The venue was crowded, he said, and he turned his body sideways to move through a group of people. Retka said he was also carrying a tall glass of beer in front of him, and told someone else that Kennedy may have felt the glass against her.
Things soon became even more uncomfortable for the Kennedys, Jordana said. As the wing’s director of staff, Lt. Col. Kennedy had been working directly for former wing Commander Col. Jason Bailey. But on July 3, exactly two months after the incident at the dinner, Kennedy took command of the 480th Fighter Squadron. He was now working directly for Retka.
Jordana Kennedy said having to be around Retka and his wife was “crushing” and “super-stressful.” She began to skip group events with spouses to avoid running into the Retkas, and said she recently had a panic attack when she thought they might show up.
OSI investigators also uncovered reports of more questionable activity by Retka over the years, particularly while he was deployed to Kunsan around 2004. Several witnesses said Retka then regularly engaged in the steamrolling pranks, sometimes while naked, the report said.
Other pilots also engaged in steamrolling at the Kunsan dorms in the early 2000s, witnesses said, describing a frathouse-like atmosphere rife with pranks and heavy alcohol use that was more tolerated in the Air Force at the time.
Retka returned to Kunsan in 2012 as a squadron commander. During that assignment, he was chastised by his wing commander for making an inappropriate joke after a skit on sexual harassment. A female officer acting in the skit played the part of a harasser who was badgering a junior male airman for a date and offering her number. Retka reportedly said, “Yeah, what’s your number?” but apologized after being corrected by his wing commander.
By the time Retka returned to Spangdahlem as a group commander, he was viewed by some as a bully who had a tendency to mock, disparage or undermine his subordinates.
A female officer at Spangdahlem told investigators that in October 2018, Retka tried to sidestep her authority by saying he would solve a particular issue with another male officer, and said, “We will talk about this as men later, over cigars and scotch.”
Before the investigation concluded, Retka decided to retire several months earlier than originally planned, Myers said. His retirement ceremony was held Jan. 6 at Spangdahlem. Myers said retiring was Retka’s choice, and that he was not ordered or pressured to retire early.
His retirement leaves the operations group without a permanent commander until June, when his official replacement will assume command. Lt. Col. Michael Driscoll, who was deputy commander under Retka, is now the group’s acting commander.
Retka, who took over the operations group in August 2017, was in his third year in command, and had already been planning to retire at Spangdahlem, Myers said. Operations group commanders typically serve two-year stints, Myers said, but Retka last year volunteered to extend his time in charge of the 52nd.
In late September, Jordana Kennedy said in a memo to reviewing authorities that Retka should not be retained on active duty, and should be removed from command and leave the service.
Kennedy said she is satisfied with how the investigation proceeded. She hopes that by sharing her story, she can help do away with the remnants of a culture that tolerated such behavior by leaders.
“I would like to get my voice back,” Kennedy said. “I really hope that the Air Force can grow and move forward in a more positive environment. And the time when it was OK to pinch someone’s butt or rub up against someone or make a derogatory or misogynistic comment, I really want to see those days go away and be behind us.”
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.