Exclusive: Civilian Assaulted in Air Force Video Speaks Out

Senior Master Sergeant Oscar Rodriguez, USAF (ret.)

Last week, we brought you a disturbing video from a retirement ceremony at Travis Air Force Base in which a group of uniformed Air Force personnel physically detained and forcibly removed a civilian from a retirement ceremony.

The clip:

In that original story and in a follow-up a few days later, we reported that the civilian in the video, retired Senior Master Sergeant Oscar Rodriguez, had been invited to participate in the ceremony by the honoree, Master Sergeant Chuck Roberson.

Roberson wanted Rodriguez, a former member of the Travis Honor Guard and respected member of the base community, to recite a special script to accompany the folding of a flag at the informal tribute following the formal reading of Roberson’s retirement order. This sequence — a structured formal ceremony followed by a tribute session designed and determined by the retiree — is traditional practice across the Air Force, and has been for as long as anyone can recall.

But in the case of Roberson’s retirement, the chain of command injected itself into the tribute portion of the ceremony and essentially tried to “lay down the law,” with Roberson’s leadership first trying to bar Rodriguez from attending and then, after conceding they lacked the power to exclude him, decreeing that he was forbidden from directly participating. Roberson informed Rodriguez of his commanders’ unusual and baseless “order,” but conveyed that he still wanted Oscar’s recital to be part of his retirement. He left Rodriguez the option of performing the script if he was comfortable doing so.

What happened when Rodriguez stood and prepared to honor Roberson shocked and disgusted those in attendance and mortified Roberson and his family. It ruined their last moments in the Air Force — something for which no one in the chain of command has yet apologized.

Now, Oscar Rodriguez himself is speaking out.

Reached by phone for an interview, Rodriguez expressed to me a combined sense of outrage and victimization. He was humiliated and traumatized by what unfolded publicly, and says that even after he was expelled from the ceremony, the bullying continued outside, with base-assigned law enforcement officers ignoring his complaint of assault and ordering him to leave the area. After he was gone, according to Rodriguez, commanders held briefings where they made defamatory statements further maligning his character and injuring his reputation — something he holds dear.

But while traumatized by the incident and its very public aftermath, Rodriguez believes it’s an important episode illustrating abuse of power by involved commanders. He has no intention of letting the public embarrassment inflicted upon him cow him into silence.

“They’re taking away something … what power do they have to do this?” … he asked rhetorically during our conversation, referring to the order from Roberson’s commander limiting — unreasonably and unlawfully, in Rodriguez’s view — the allowable components of Roberson’s retirement ceremony. He believes commanders grossly overestimated their authority in issuing such an order, and he’s certain those who enforced the unlawful directive with physical violence overextended themselves morally as well as legally.

This begs the question … what about Rodriguez’s role in the ceremony could trigger such a bizarre and reckless approach by commanders as well as such mindless and lawless thuggery from NCOs? Here, Rodriguez sheds light on two possible motives, and suspects both played a role in the incident.

The first, discussed in our previous coverage, is the desire to squelch “unauthorized” expressions of patriotism and insist upon a single “authorized” script to be used whenever a flag is folded. When Rodriguez asks “what power” commanders have to do this, he rightly illuminates that they have far less than they believe. The idea of a specified, controlled collection of words to accompany the informal folding of a flag is pure invention by the Air Force, with no underlying statutory or Constitutional basis.

In fact, once the formal part of a retirement (or any other) ceremony concludes, commanders have very little to say about what follows, whether or not it involves a folded flag. Unless what occurs poses a threat to public safety or involves a criminal act, it’s inappropriate for the chain of command to attempt limitations of any sort. And of course, it goes without saying that even if commanders can’t find within themselves the restraint to let retiring airmen self-determine the content of their own tributes, the ordering and use of physical force as a response is stupid, wrong, and indeed facially unlawful.

But obedience culture wasn’t the only thing at work in this incident according to Oscar Rodriguez. He says what happened on April 3rd was a result of “bad blood” arising from previous interpersonal clashes with the members of the chain of command, to include 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander Lt. Col. Michael A. Sovitsky. Rodriguez, in an account corroborated by current and former members of the Travis aircraft maintenance community, says he was known during his time on active duty for speaking the truth up and down the chain of command and taking moral stands when it was appropriate to do so. He believes his faithfulness to doing the right thing as a shop chief over the course of many years created resentment with officers like Sovitsky — resentment that has continued to plague their relationship now that he is a retired member of the community.

It’s fair to wonder whether attempts to screen Rodriguez and his famous flag recital out of Travis retirement ceremonies is really just a petty harassment tactic rooted in old feuds. But no matter the motive, Rodriguez sees it as an unacceptable infringement. He believes it’s also partially driven by political correctness — a desire to remove all religious references from all public events by censoring a script that contains the word “God.” To the extent he’s right, the actions of Travis commanders and their NCO enforcers might well have First Amendment implications to go along with the civil and criminal liability likely established in the video footage of the ceremony.

Whatever the meaning behind it all, Rodriguez isn’t taking it lying down. He knows with certainty that his rights were violated and that he was subjected to an unlawful physical assault by uniformed military personnel. He has lodged a complaint with Travis Air Force Base officials, demanding that charges be brought against those who put their hands on him without invitation.

“This was a traumatic and disturbing experience for me to have my own Air Force family brutalize me in this manner,” his complaint reads. He’s also seeking representation to explore his other legal options, and intends to pursue remedies for both the physical violation he suffered as well as infringement of his civil rights.

This leaves the Air Force with some explaining to do. Not only does it appear from Rodriguez’s complaint that base-assigned law enforcement officers ignored a credible complaint of physical assault, but the video clearly shows Rodriguez being removed before he’d even begun speaking — a fact supported by both Roberson and Rodriguez as well as several others in attendance. This is an important fact, and here’s why.

Oscar Rodriguez is a civilian, and therefore not subject to Air Force Instructions that place novel limits on public expression. But even if he were, commanders didn’t have the power to preempt his speech — only to seek an accounting for it after the fact if it broke some rule they claim governed his actions. The fact that he was prevented from speaking because he might violate some policy they thought limited him … constitutes a prior restrain on Rodriguez’s speech. This is a violation of Constitutional rights. The fact the violation was carried out by force of arms on the basis of an unlawful order makes it more grotesque and alarming.

I reached out to Air Force officials and inquired about their response to Rodriguez’s complaint and the status of the investigation they claimed last week had been initiated. As of press time, no response had been received.

Given what has been placed at stake in this matter, officials would be well advised to stop stonewalling and begin transparently explaining themselves. They owe it to Oscar Rodriguez to hold themselves accountable for what was done to him … and they owe it to the entire Air Force family to internalize the lessons necessary to make sure this never happens again. An organization that treats anyone this way — much less a member of the Air Force family — is unworthy of the flag at the center of this controversy … and those who voluntarily serve in defense of what it represents.

Updated April 12th 2016 at 19:40 EST: spokesman Lt. Col. Robert Couse-Baker issued the following statement on behalf of Travis officials:

The 60th Security Forces Squadron is conducting a formal investigation into the events at Master Sgt. Charles Roberson’s April 3, 2016 retirement ceremony at the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. The investigator has communicated with retired Senior Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez. There is not yet an estimated time of completion for this investigation.”

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