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Report details how officers tolerated hostile workplace

Nov. 4, 2013 - 08:48PM   |  
Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Smith's complaints about pornographic content on a computer at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., led to disciplinary action against six officers.
Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Smith's complaints about pornographic content on a computer at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., led to disciplinary action against six officers. (Courtesy of Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Smith)
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A pair of yellow women’s panties hung for months in the mouth of a mounted tiger inside the 79th Fighter Squadron heritage room at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. Pornographic magazines were kept in a drawer in the 77th Fighter Squadron bar and offered as gifts during roll call in the 55th Fighter Squadron.

Pictures of scantily clad women showed up on briefing slides there, and offensive images and song lyrics remained on a shared network accessible to hundreds of airmen despite repeated complaints, a command-directed investigation into misconduct within the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw found.

The service’s six-month investigation, completed in May, substantiated 16 allegations against eight officers — two colonels, five lieutenant colonels and a captain, none of whom are named. The officers failed to prevent or investigate sexual harassment, condoned or refused to remove sexually offensive material and tolerated drinking alcohol during debriefs and academics, the report found.

Six of the officers who were assigned to the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw have received disciplinary action, including letters of admonishment or counseling and removal from assignments, according to Air Combat Command. The case against a seventh officer is pending. One lieutenant colonel left active duty before the investigation was completed. The report does not name the officers, and Air Combat Command, citing privacy issues, also would not name them.

The 328-page report, released by the Air Force on Oct. 25, stems from a highly publicized Inspector General complaint filed last year by Tech.Sgt. Jennifer Smith, an aviation resource management specialist at Shaw. Smith told Air Force Times in a December interview that she had quietly endured sexual harassment and assault during her 17-year Air Force career because victims who speak out often are retaliated against while their perpetrators go unpunished.

Smith said a series of events prompted an end to her silence: A terrifying assault outside a base gym when she was deployed to Iraq in 2010 and, upon her return to Shaw, the refusal of leadership to take seriously her numerous complaints about pages of violent, degrading and sexually explicit content she found on an operations group computer server at the base.

Smith’s complaint, as well as much of the content from the server, was published online by Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of military sexual assault. Lawmakers, including Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., called on the Air Force to investigate Smith’s claims.

Smith declined an interview request but in an email statement said she was “cautiously optimistic about the Air Force’s substantiation of the allegations. It remains to be seen whether change — cultural or within the military justice system — will occur at Shaw Air Force Base or elsewhere. The misconduct I alleged went on for years with indifference and inaction by base commanders. This investigation has not been easy, but I remain dedicated to the Air Force and to military service and hope my action will lead to real and lasting change here and elsewhere. The military can and must do better when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

Smith’s 2012 complaint was at least partially responsible for December’s servicewide health and welfare inspection, a sweep of all workspaces and public areas for images, calendars, magazines and other materials that objectify women.

“If we’re going to get serious about things like sexual assault, we have to get serious about an environment that could lead to sexual harassment,” Welsh told Air Force Times just before he ordered the sweep. He said he did not believe such content was limited to certain bases and squadrons.

Inaction by commanders

Squadron commanders and at least one group commander at Shaw gave the appearance they tolerated offensive materials in the workplace, the investigating officer concluded. The officers either looked the other way or did not take a strong enough stance against such content, which 44 percent of the 205 people interviewed for the investigation said they had seen.

An officer identified only as the operations group commander in the summer of 2012 took preventative steps, such as hosting a commander’s call within a month of coming on the job. He admonished airmen not to do anything they wouldn’t do in front of their mother. But the commander never used the term “sexual harassment” and did not remind airmen of the military’s zero-tolerance for the behavior.

Had his message been stronger, the investigating officer wrote, it’s possible the yellow panties and the pornographic magazines would have been removed from the squadrons’ heritage rooms, or bars, much earlier. The “attempt at subtlety ... watered down a clear message of zero tolerance.”

The commander also did nothing to resolve Smith’s complaint, such as asking for more information about where the offensive content was kept.

“Critically, he never even asked to meet with her,” the investigating officer wrote.

Other commanders made no effort to dissuade offensive materials in the workplace, the report said. That was the case for the 55th Fighter Squadron commander from March 2009 to October 2010, who was aware of the images used during briefings, as well as pornographic magazines offered as gifts during roll calls.

“By establishing an indifferent attitude toward gratuitous pictures of women while on-duty, airmen first arriving at the 55th Fighter Squadron could feel intimidated to object to such an environment,” the investigator wrote. “Tacit approval allows a sexually permissive environment to fester and erode the professional and officership expected in any Air Force organization.”

The 77th Fighter Squadron commander from June 2011 to October 2011 also “gave no indication he disapproved” of offering pornographic magazines as rewards. His “noticeably indifferent attitude” empowered airmen to “display even more vulgar and blatantly offensive materials.”

Of the 102 enlisted members interviewed, 25 percent said they saw inappropriate content on network drives. But images displayed during academic briefings at Shaw and in mission materials while on deployment was most frequently reported during the investigation.

“It is not unreasonable to conclude these images contributed to an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment in the 20th Operations Group,” the report said.

Drinking on duty

Despite a regulation against it, officers within the 55th Fighter Squadron sometimes drank during regular duty hours, a practice witnessed by most of the enlisted airmen interviewed.

While Smith’s complaint centered on the 55th, all three fighter squadrons have bars that operate similarly.

Smith said enlisted airmen would sometimes have to clean up after drunken pilots.

“Beer lights” turn on after the last jet takes off or lands, according to the findings. Pilots ate popcorn and drank beer during academic sessions. But there was no evidence “pilots remained in a perpetual state of drunkenness,” and most were responsible about it.

One witness, however, said it set a bad example for young airmen told not to drink at work.

“I’ve never seen as lax a professional situation as I have here,” the witness said.

Having a drink during a debrief has a long history among fighter squadrons, and heritage rooms are valuable places where pilots can learn from each other — and should continue, the investigating officer wrote.

Since Smith’s complaint went public, Shaw has cracked down on the use of alcohol in duty locations and within the squadron, the report said.

Advocates want more

Susan Burke, a private attorney who has filed multiple lawsuits against military leaders on behalf of victims of sexual assault, said in a statement she is pleased the Air Force finally investigated Smith’s allegations and took action.

“Far too many good service members like Jennifer face hostile and dangerous conditions at military installations,” Burke wrote. “Their troubling complaints about misconduct are pursued through the proper channels, but they too often face retaliation, damage to their careers, or worse. Against great odds, Jennifer prevailed, and she deserves to be recognized for her courage.”

Jeff Schogol contributed to this story.

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