Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has directed the Air Force Inspector General to conduct an independent investigation into an April incident at Travis Air Force Base, California, may incur lawsuit from a former career enlisted airman, an Air Force spokesperson has told Task & Purpose.
Oscar Rodriguez, a 33-year Air Force veteran, is demanding an apology or he will sue his former branch after being forcibly removed from a retirement ceremony on April 3, 2016.
A demand letter sent by lawyers with the First Liberty Institute to two Air Force commanders on behalf of Rodriguez claims that Master Sgt. Charles Roberson asked him to speak during the flag-folding portion of his retirement ceremony from the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, after seeing him give a speech at another retirement ceremony one month earlier.
According to the demand letter, the squadron’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Michael Sovitsky, was familiar with the speech Rodriquez had given at previous ceremonies and its references to “God” and did not want him attending or participating in Roberson’s ceremony for this specific reason.
In the days leading up to the ceremony, the demand letter claims that Rodriguez and Roberson tried to work with the command to resolve any issues with Rodriguez speaking and even placed signs around the venue warning that the word “God” would be used in the ceremony.
While no statement has been released by the Air Force to confirm that Sovitsky tried to prevent Rodriguez from speaking, a video taking during the ceremony shows Rodriguez standing behind the men folding the flag, with a battle dress uniform-clad service member behind him, trying to usher him away from the stage.
In the video, Rodriguez ignores the soft attempt to return him to his seat and begins his speech, but three more uniformed men stand and forcibly escort him from the stage and out of the auditorium as he continues to speak.
The demand letter claims that either Sovitsky issued an order to assault Rodriguez, or the four men who removed him conspired to do it on their own.
In order to get a clearer picture of the events leading up to the incident, Task & Purpose reached out to the Air Force Public Affairs Office for a comment.
According to Air Force spokesperson Capt. Brooke Brzozowske, “The Air Force greatly values the rights of its personnel in matters of religion and facilitates the free exercise of religion by its members as well as the right to observe no religion at all.”
Several publications, including The Washington Times and Breitbart, have suggested that Rodriquez’ use of the word “God” is the reason that he was escorted out. However, the circumstances surrounding his removal remain largely unclear, and the Air Force has given no indication one way or the other. Other sources have yet to discuss alternate possibilities for Rodriguez’ removal aside from his inclusion of religious references.
“Regarding the Air Force policy on retirement ceremonies, Air Force personnel may use a flag folding ceremony script that is religious for retirement ceremonies,” Brzozowske said. “Since retirement ceremonies are personal in nature, the script preference for a flag folding ceremony is at the discretion of the individual being honored and represents the member’s views, not those of the Air Force.”
The Air Force has not clarified when the results of the investigation will be released.