Air Force songbook again cited, this time in sex assault lawsuit

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Jennifer Smith displays copies of the controversial unofficial Air Force song book as she speaks at a press conference in Washington, D.C., March 31, 2015. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
From Stripes.com
Jennifer Smith displays copies of the controversial unofficial Air Force song book as she speaks at a press conference in Washington, D.C., March 31, 2015. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

Air Force songbook again cited, this time in sex assault lawsuit

by: Travis J. Tritten | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: April 01, 2015

WASHINGTON — Sex assault victim advocates on Tuesday again pointed to an unofficial Air Force songbook with derogatory lyrics about women and gay airmen as a reason for filing a new lawsuit against the Defense Department.

The 130-page book was originally made public by an assault victim in 2012 and is stamped with the playing-cards logo of the 77th Fighter Squadron, which is known as the Gamblers and based at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. Despite an Air Force crackdown, advocates claimed too little was done and such songbooks are still being used by officers and commanders.

The lawsuit by sexual assault victims was filed in a Virginia federal court and calls for the DOD to stop using convening authorities to judge whether such cases go to court martial. As the military struggles with an epidemic of sex assaults, the use of such authorities has brought widespread scrutiny from the public and some on Capitol Hill who say the practice is biased toward perpetrators.

The songbook is part of a continuing culture in the Air Force and military that glorifies sexual violence, said retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military sex assault victims.

“This is something that is used by Air Force officers today,” Christensen said. “These are the commanders who sing songs about raping women as fun.”

The book is professionally printed and bound to mimic an official Air Force publication. The bottom of its pages are labeled “For Unofficial Use Only.”

It includes about 70 pornographic songs — many with obscene titles — as well as some drinking toasts. Titles include Pubic Hair, The Kotex Song, Will You Suck Me Tomorrow, The Hair on Her Diki-Di-Doo, and Bestiality.

Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Brooke Brzozowske said Tuesday that the service is looking into the issue but could not immediately comment on the lawsuit.

Military cadences and songs are a long-established part of its culture and tradition, though such sexist and obscene imagery is not publicly endorsed by the services.

The book caused public outrage when it was released amid a growing debate over sex assault and culture within the service. In 2012, the Air Force began what it calls health and welfare inspections to identify toxic work environments and make reforms to ensure all airmen feel comfortable and respected in the their units, Brzozowske said.

The six-month investigation substantiated 16 allegations against eight officers at Shaw Air Force Base who failed to prevent or investigate sexual harassment, condoned or refused to remove sexually offensive material and tolerated on-duty alcohol consumption.

The unit songbook was originally brought the Air Force’s attention by former Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Smith, who again appeared with other victims and advocates during a lawsuit press conference in Washington on Tuesday morning.

Smith said she was sexually assaulted by a fellow airman in Iraq and found copies of the book when she returned to the U.S. Initially there was no response after she notified Air Force officials but eventually Smith said she was contacted twice by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, who promised action.

“Gen. Welsh said he thought the traditions had died,” she said.

The punished officers — all in command or supervisory positions — were given “paper” reprimands but were able to keep their positions, which means they could become convening authorities in sex assault cases, Smith said.

“They will oversee rape and sexual assault claims and file decisions on whether the case will be prosecuted,” she said.

The sex assault lawsuit filed by Smith and others aims at key reforms also proposed by Congress. But the Defense Department has successfully challenged such lawsuits in the past.

Susan Burke, a Baltimore attorney and lead counsel in the suit, said the Supreme Court has sided with the department and has set a difficult hurdle, which will likely play out over the next six months.

“We are going to try to overcome the likely DOD defense,” Burke said. “If we survive that, we are in very good shape.”

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten