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California Air National Guard removes commander over threats against whistleblowers in 'pissgate' scandal
A third high-ranking officer in the California Air National Guard has been removed from his position because of complaints he made whistleblowers feel threatened at the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno.
Col. Victor Sikora was relieved of command after engaging in "conduct unbecoming of an officer" by addressing a gathering of Guard members in a manner some found intimidating and humiliating, according to a report released Friday.
An internal inquiry also determined that Sikora improperly "excoriated" a retired pilot for speaking to The Times, the report said.
Sikora did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Last week, Maj. Gen. Clay L. Garrison and Col. Dan Kelly were removed in the wake of a Times investigation that detailed the whistleblower complaints and allegations that officers covered up an incident in which someone urinated in a female Guard member's boots.
Garrison was the top commander of the air guard, and Kelly headed the 144th wing.
Friday's report said that Sikora's "conduct also had a chilling effect" on Guard members by discouraging them from exercising their rights to seek redress through the organization's inspector general, their representatives in Congress or the news media. It said Sikora used insulting and defamatory language in remarks to subordinates.
The report was prepared by Brig. Gen. Tim Rieger, who was tasked by Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, head of the California Military Department, with investigating Sikora's actions.
Sikora was suspended as the wing's Operations Group leader in December. Three days later, the report said, he called a mandatory meeting of his subordinates to discuss his suspension.
At least one person recorded the briefing, where Sikora said anyone filing complaints was causing problems for the wing, according to the report.
"The vast majority of you are good people who are killing it in a high ops tempo year, you're very honorable, red-blooded Americans," Sikora said at the meeting, according to the report. "The vast majority means all of you, except for a couple of you, and they know who they are so we don't need to call them out. But everybody else."
Several Guard members took Sikora's remarks as a criticism of people who had filed complaints with the inspector general.
Sikora's briefing came after The Times began asking questions about alleged retaliation against whistleblowers and the incident in which Staff Sgt. Jennifer Pineda found that someone at the Fresno base had urinated in the boots she had left in a bathroom overnight.
At least five Guard members, including a pilot who was killed in October in a crash during a training mission in Ukraine, from the 144th wing filed formal complaints. Two of those were related to the urine incident, including one filed by Pineda.
She said in her complaint she feared she'd be forced out of the military because some had speculated that she urinated in her own boots "for attention."
A 144th pilot, Lt. Col. Rob Swertfager, also filed a complaint alleging that commanders punished him — including by withholding his pay on occasion — for speaking up for Pineda.
Both of them, along with others, felt targeted by Sikora's remarks, the report said.
"This clearly means that anyone exercising their right to speak with the IG or the press is not honorable, not a good person, and implies they are not a red-blooded American," the report quotes Swertfager as saying. "... The speech was clearly directed at me and a few other people that have pursued justice through the IG."
Swertfager could not be reached for comment. Pineda declined to comment.
Rieger recommended in his report that Sikora receive a memorandum of reprimand and be relieved of command due to the "loss of faith" in him as a 144th leader.
He also recommended "close monitoring" of any unfavorable personnel actions against complainants or witnesses in the 144th as possible reprisal.
Garrison was removed because the California Military Department, which oversees the air and army branches of the Guard, had lost "faith, trust and confidence" in his ability to lead, a spokesman said.
In a report released after the ousters of Garrison and Kelly, the Military Department inspector general cited findings of the Times investigation two months ago.
"Based on this article, and in addition to other evidence collected, it would appear that there is a culture of reprisal, or at a minimum the perception of reprisal, that has a long stemmed history within the 144th," the inspector general report states.
©2019 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO — A Navy SEAL sniper on Wednesday contradicted earlier testimony of fellow SEALs who claimed he had fired warning shots to scare away civilian non-combatants before Chief Eddie Gallagher shot them during their 2017 deployment to Mosul, and said he would not want to deploy again with one of the prosecution's star witnesses.
Special Operator 1st Class Joshua Graffam originally invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege before Navy Judge Capt. Aaron Rugh gave him immunity in order to compel his testimony.
Graffam testified that Gallagher was essentially justified in the shooting of a man he is accused of unlawfully targeting, stating that "based off everything i had seen so far ... in my opinion, they were two shitheads moving from one side of the road to the other."
Spotting for Gallagher in the tower that day, Graffam said, he called out the target to him and he fired. He said the man was hit in the upper torso and ran away.
Graffam, who joined the Navy in 2010 and has been assigned to SEAL Team 7's Alpha Platoon since September 2015, deployed alongside Gallagher to Mosul in 2017, occasionally acting as a spotter for Gallagher when the SEALs were tasked with providing sniper support for Iraqi forces from two towers east of the Tigris River.
Another SEAL, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Dalton Tolbert, had previously testified under direct examination by prosecutors that, while stationed in the south tower of a bombed-out building in June 2017, he had observed Gallagher shoot and kill an elderly civilian.
"He ran north to south across the road," Tolbert testified on Friday. "That's when I saw the red mark on his back and I saw him fall for the first time. Blood started to pool and I knew it was a square hit in the back." Over the radio, he said he heard Gallagher tell the other snipers, "you guys missed him but I got him."
Former SO1 Dylan Dille, who was also in the south tower that day, testified last week that he watched an old man die from a sniper shot on Father's Day. He said the date stuck out in his mind because he thought the man was probably a father.
Later that day, after the mission, Graffam said he spoke with Dille about the shooting and they disagreed about the circumstances. Dille, he said, believed the man was a noncombatant.
"I, on the other hand, was confident that the right shot was taken," Graffam said, although he said later under cross-examination that the man was unarmed. Dille previously testified that the SEALs were authorized to shoot unarmed personnel if they first received signals intelligence or other targeting information.
Graffam described the man as a male between 40 and 50 years old wearing black clothing, giving him the impression of an ISIS fighter who was moving in a "tactical" manner. He testified that he did not see anything like Dille had described.
Graffam further testified that he didn't see Gallagher take any shots that he shouldn't have on that day or any other.
Although Graffam said he did not hear of allegations that Gallagher had stabbed a wounded ISIS fighter on deployment, he testified that he started to hear rumblings in early 2018. Chief Craig Miller, he said, asked him at one point whether he would "cooperate" with others in reporting him.
When asked whether he would like to serve with Miller again in a SEAL platoon, Graffam said, "I don't feel as confident about it." A member of the jury later asked him why he'd feel uncomfortable deploying with Miller and he responded, "I just wouldn't."
Graffam said he would serve with Gallagher again if given the chance.
Under cross examination by prosecutors, Graffam said he couldn't say whether there were warning shots fired that day, though Dille and Tolbert both said happened. "There were multiple shots throughout the day," Graffam said.
Prosecutors also asked him about his previous statements to NCIS, in which Graffam said of Miller that "he has good character" and was "a good guy." Graffam confirmed he said just that.
Defense attorney Tim Parlatore, however, said those statements were back in January and "a lot had happened since then." Parlatore said Graffam had also said at the time that Gallagher was a good leader.
"That part remains unchanged, correct?" Parlatore asked.
"Yes," Graffam said.
The defense is expected to call more witnesses in the case, which continues on Thursday.
US troops are using dating apps more and condoms less as sexually transmitted infections surge within the ranks
The U.S. military is seeing an increase in sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis in part due to dating apps, according to the Military Health System.
"There appears to be an increase in high-risk behaviors among service members; that is, having sex without a condom or having more than one sexual partner," Air Force physician Maj. Dianne Frankel said in a news release.
Three Marines killed in a December plane crash are finally coming home.
Five Marines aboard a KC-130J Hercules and one Marine on an F/A-18 Hornet were killed when both planes went down about 200 miles off the Japanese coast.
A recent salvage operation of the KC-130J crash site recovered the remains of three of the Marines, who were later identified, Corps officials said.
The Air Force is investigating an airman after he posted a video on YouTube rife with homophobic slurs and insults.
A man in an Air Force uniform, identified only by the YouTube username "Baptist Dave 1611" ranted in a recent video, calling gay people "sodomites," "vermin scum," and "roaches" among other slurs, according to Air Force Times, which first reported the story Wednesday.
"The specifics of the situation are being reviewed by the airman's command team," said service spokesman Maj Nick Mercurio, confirming the incident. Mercurio did not provide any identifying details about the airman.
Two U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday, defense officials have announced.
Operation Resolute Support issued a terse news release announcing the latest casualties that did not include any information about the circumstances of their deaths.