Commander Who Fired Female Pilot Has His Own Checkered History
In February, the Air Force fired Captain Zoe Kotnik, who had been hyped (some would say over-hyped) as “the first woman to lead one of the flying force’s demonstration teams.” She’d led the team for two weeks.
While no reason was ever given for the move, US Air Force Col Derek “Maestro” O’Malley, who fired her, said in part
We have thousands of Airmen across our Air Force serving our country, and not one of them is perfect. As good people, like Capt. Kotnik make mistakes, I want them to have the opportunity to learn from them without being under public scrutiny, and to continue to be a part of this great service. They’ll be better for the experience, and in turn, we’ll be better as an Air Force.
The unusually long statement, as well as the concept of recovering from a mistake (one so egregious it led to a public removal), attracted particular attention because Col O’Malley is well-known in the Air Force’s F-16 community, and beyond, as the “Gold Bond guy.”
In 2004, then-Captain O’Malley made a spoof comedy video about Gold Bond powder that was, to put it lightly, rather crude. In fact, given today’s “Me Too” mentality, O’Malley would likely have been crucified had his video about male genitalia (featuring a female squadron member, by the way) come out today. The video “went viral” even before social media was a thing (YouTube wasn’t created until 2005), such that an entire generation in the Air Force knows about “the Gold Bond guy,” even if they don’t know who he is.
O’Malley seems to have done particularly well in his Air Force career, despite that apparent failure in judgment 15 years ago. The spectre of a man making such an egregious “mistake” and yet surviving to fire another Air Force officer who made a “mistake” drew significant attention. That renewed attention — as well as comments from other Airmen about potential unequal treatment — resulted in O’Malley giving an interview to The Drive, and he said this about the video:
It doesn’t represent the Air Force the way I want to represent the Air Force, it doesn’t represent me the way I want to represent myself. As they should have, the Air Force looked into it, they weren’t happy with the video, and I definitely got in some trouble. I won’t go specifically into the punishment that I received, but I definitely got in trouble, to the point where I had to work hard to recover.
That’s all O’Malley says. Importantly, he wasn’t fired, and he stayed on the fast track he appeared to have been on. He retained his next assignment, which was a career-progressing premier position as an instructor at the Weapons School. All in all, at least from an outside point of view, O’Malley seems to have done pretty well. Some of his ease appears to be because, despite O’Malley’s notoriety inside certain Air Force communities, the video has largely stayed out of the public eye — because he’s kept it that way:
I did some research on copyright and realized that I had grounds to have it copyrighted…For the past fourteen years, every month, maybe twice a month, I go through the internet and I do ‘Gold Bond cleanings.’ I find the video and I reach out with the DMCA notices and I have it taken down. This thing pops up probably every month, I’ll see at least one, and I just snipe it. I’ve spent hundreds of hours over the past 14 years suppressing this video!
… People think the government is doing this and the Air Force is somehow involved in this big conspiracy to keep ‘Gold Bond’ off the internet. Little do they know it’s just little old me. I don’t do this because of my Air Force career, I received my punishment and I had the opportunity to recover. It’s never been about preserving my career, and I always knew eventually it could come out as it did this week, but I had a young son at the time, he’s 18 now, and I challenged myself thinking “I don’t want him to come across this.”
It would seem Maestro has been hard at work the past decade:
O’Malley may say he didn’t do it for his career, but there is little doubt there is a connection. Do you think his career progression would have been different if the local paper had covered his change of command ceremony — and included a screen shot of him playing with a puppet of male genitalia?
Further, now that the story is out in public, do you think Col O’Malley will soon be General O’Malley, the Gold Bond General?
Ironically, if Col O’Malley’s career now stalls — now that he’s been more publicly associated with the crude video — it would seem to disprove his narrative that he ‘did his time and recovered.’ Instead, it would appear he had benefited from insignificant repercussions, benefactors, and an aggressive effort to manage his public reputation — something now undone by his decision to fire Capt Kotnik.
On one hand, the Air Force (and the military in general) can sometimes give the perception that its “fast burners” can do no wrong, but for everyone else, it’s a one-mistake Air Force. Anecdotes of senior leaders with shenanigans in their past, while young officers’ and Airmen’s careers stall or end over similar or more benign offenses, only serve to strengthen that perception.
The public may never know why Capt Kotnik was fired, and it doesn’t need to — but that makes it difficult to fight the perception a Captain was removed from a position for a “mistake” by a man who suffered no apparent repercussions for his own mistake as a Captain. The genders involved, and the sexuality of O’Malley’s video, only add to the sensationalism. And, given the totality of circumstances, it is disingenuous to pretend that O’Malley simply ‘did his time and [his career] recovered.’ While there’s no proof, it seems entirely likely O’Malley benefited from the aid of a few benefactors — and an intentional “scrubbing” of his “mistake” from the internet.
Think, too, of all the military members who were accused of wrong, yet ultimately vindicated — and yet their careers appeared to have ended as a result. The US military has a perception of being unforgiving when it comes to public wrongdoing — or, apparently, mere accusations of it. This is something Michael “Mikey” Weinstein knows well, which is why he makes such loud and repeated cries against Christians in the military. (The MRFF has also reveled in his victims’ apparent misfortunes, as they did when they were nearly giddy when one was assigned to a desk at the Pentagon. Apparently the MRFF doesn’t think much of the 23,000 people who work at the Pentagon.).
If Col O’Malley continues on in his Air Force career — and if Capt Kotnik hers as well — more the better. Perhaps that will bode well for those who follow in the footsteps of Chaplain Wes Modder, Col Leland Bohannon, and others like them who have faced false accusations and yet suffered as if they were criminals.
As to the video itself, the interviewer appropriately asked O’Malley if he intended to continue issuing copyright notices and pulling it down — particularly since he has now publicly admitted to it. Also, he’s now a senior officer, essentially a public figure. That makes the video of “public interest,” which may override his personal claims to the publicly available video. Further, O’Malley said himself he did it because of his son — a now-adult who O’Malley says he’s shown the video. Thus, Maestro’s stated reason for “scrubbing” is no longer valid.
If you ever want a copy of the video, you just need to ask. Despite O’Malley’s efforts, it’s still out there, and now including it with his discussions of it likely falls into “fair use” of the copyrighted bit (as published by the same site that interviewed him).