IG: Retiree Removed from Ceremony for Disobedience, Not Religion

Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez is demanding an apology from the Air Force for after he was removed from another airman’s retirement ceremony in April. (Photo: First Liberty Institute)
Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez is demanding an apology from the Air Force for after he was removed from another airman’s retirement ceremony in April. (Photo: First Liberty Institute)

A retired airman was kicked out of an acquaintance's retirement ceremony because he didn't follow a commander's order to avoid participating in the event -- not because he referenced religion in his remarks, according to a new report.

Retired Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez was forcibly removed from Master Sgt. Charles Roberson's retirement ceremony April 3 at Travis Air Force Base, California. The incident was captured on video and spurred an investigation by the Air Force Inspector General's Office.

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In its report released Friday, the IG concluded Rodriguez was "not removed from the ceremony because he intended to use a script with religious content. Evidence indicated that Mr. Rodriguez was removed by members of the squadron because he attempted to participate in the ceremony even though his participation had been disapproved by the hosting squadron commander."

Lt. Col. Michael A. Sovitsky, commander of the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, allowed Rodriguez to attend Roberson's ceremony as a guest but not as a participant apparently because of the circumstances in which Rodriguez left the Travis Honor Guard, a ceremonial unit at the base.

One witness told investigators, "The only thing that came up was … he was fired from the Honor Guard … and he is not to perform in that ceremony."

Roberson said he invited Rodriquez to speak at his retirement ceremony after seeing him deliver an inspirational speech a month earlier.

"He has so much passion for the flag and country, and that is what I wanted to be a part of my own ceremony," Roberson has said. "That the Air Force would do this to myself, as it was my retirement … I was very embarrassed and humiliated in front of all my family and friends."

Even so, the IG report said Roberson warned Rodriguez ahead of time that Sovitsky had nixed his request for Rodriguez to participate in folding the flag during the event.

Afterward, Rodriguez argued he was removed as he began making a flag folding speech that referenced God several times. Represented by attorneys with the First Liberty Institute, Rodriguez alleged he was assaulted by fellow Air Force members and that his 1st, 4th and 5th amendment rights were violated.

The IG concluded, "The inquiry found no evidence that the NCOs were motivated to impair Mr. Rodriguez's constitutional rights of freedom of speech or religion."

Witness testimony provided to the IG said Rodriguez was removed because it became clear he was "act[ing] inconsistent with the commander's restrictions." One witness testified, "We had a chaplain there. … It has nothing to do with the religion, sir."

The Air Force removed religious references to its official flag folding script in 2005 but allowed personnel to continue using a religious script for retirement ceremonies if they wished. As a result of this incident, which highlighted confusion over whether airmen could recite their own scripts or had to stick to the official procedure, the service rescinded the official language altogether.

"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 service said in a statement in June.

-- Bryant Jordan contributed to this article.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@Oriana0214.

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