Federal Lawsuit Threatened over Fighter Pilot Songs, Traditions

Most recent articles on the high visibility sexual scandals in the Air Force have focused on charges of sexual assault, largely with reference to the Lackland basic training incidents.  Despite a fairly thorough article at the New York Times (which included that topic), almost no one has been talking about Air Force Technical Sergeant Jennifer Smith — who is threatening to sue the US Air Force over the sexually-charged atmosphere in the fighter pilot world.  (The Air Force Times picked up on the story just days ago.)

This is particularly notable in light of the recent “health and welfare inspection” ordered by Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen Mark Welsh, since the inspection seems to precisely target some of TSgt’s Smith’s allegations (yet the media continues to connect it to other accusations).   Notably, there are reports Shaw AFB — where TSgt Smith reportedly lodged the complaint – did a “health and welfare” inspection weeks before Gen Welsh ordered it Air Force wide.  The organization representing TSgt Smith, “Protecting our Defenders,” certainly made the connection.

As noted in the New York Times more than a month ago, TSgt Smith has filed an “administrative complaint” (PDF, with attachments) that reads much like a primer on the vices of the fighter pilot world.  She seeks 

a remedy for systemic and intentional sexual discrimination

during her service.  She has apparently served in administrative positions in fighter squadrons, giving her, as an outsider, both unique exposure and access to a swath of the fighter pilot culture.  The filing notes she is willing to pursue “remedies” in federal court if her complaint is not adequately addressed.

TSgt Smith’s complaint brings to light some legitimately questionable “cultural traditions” within the fighter pilot community, as has previously been discussed here in many places and many times.  For example, her complaint specifically cites fighter pilot songs (in great detail, thanks to a photocopy of a lyric book) and Doofer BooksDos Gringos even gets called out by name (sort of).

In that respect, it will be fascinating to see if her complaint gets more direct response (beyond General Welsh’s inspection order).  If so, it could have a significant impact on the overall culture of the Air Force fighter pilot — potentially for the better.

Unfortunately, the format of the complaint suffers from a flaw common to similar lawsuits: the “while I’ve got your attention, let me say…” theme.  For example, she takes issue with fighter pilot bars, but there is no real connection between the bars and her discrimination complaint.  That disconnected tone, combined with a lack of detail in some legitimate complaints, makes her filing seem more an indictment of fighter pilot behavior in general than anything else.  In other words, her complaint places more emphasis on fighter pilots behaving badly than it does her claims she was the victim of any specific sexual discrimination.

Again, the behavior of fighter pilots with respect to some “traditions” is certainly a legitimate issue, but the seemingly unrelated ‘blanket indictments’ detract from her claims of discrimination by becoming the focal point, rather than supporting documentation.

The issues described in the complaint are offensive to a great many people. In a similar vein, nothing in the complaint about fighter pilots is “new.”  A reasonable question, then, is why no one has complained before – including female fighter pilots, Christians, or others of a moral belief that found such activities offensive.  To conclude that no one has complained is unfounded, of course; certainly, people have, though it likely stayed local.  On the whole, it seems most have been willing to “live and let live,” thinking that their fellow fighter pilots are free to participate in their “debauchery” so long as they keep it to themselves.  For the most part, they do.

As noted, it will be interesting to see all the effects this may ultimately have.  After all, General Welsh’s inspection order may eliminate dirty songs from the squadron computer network, but does that mean pilots can’t shut the door on Friday afternoon and sing them anyway?  Is the concern that fighter pilot songbooks are on the squadron network, or that fighter pilots sing those songs at all?  In other words, is the fighter pilot culture (the Air Force culture?) the target, or simply the public observations of it?

For what its worth, it is unlikely General Welsh ordered his inspection in a vacuum.  It is also worth noting that he is likely very aware of what the fighter pilot culture contains.  After all, Gen Welsh was an A-10 and F-16 pilot, has a callsign (“Boomer“), and served as the commander of F-16 fighter units, including a squadron at Hill AFB and the wing at Kunsan Air Base, Korea — which, due to its remote assignment and history, is probably the Mecca of fighter pilot traditions.

In fact, TSgt Smith was assigned to Kunsan (which generated a complaint in her filing) just three years after Gen Welsh was the wing commander there.