Behind the Hazing Practice That Just Got 2 Air Force Commanders Fired

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 354th Fighter Wing, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, conducts a training mission over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex June 16, 2015, during Exercise Northern Edge 15. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Suzanne Dickson)
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 354th Fighter Wing, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, conducts a training mission over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex June 16, 2015, during Exercise Northern Edge 15. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Suzanne Dickson)

A few airmen walk into a room, positioning themselves between you and the exit. As the "new guy" in the squadron, you likely know exactly what's about to happen. You have to outsmart or elude them to avoid getting bound up and immobilized by rolls of duct tape.

Welcome to the tradition of "rolling-up," or "roll-ups," a practice that is often viewed as a game or initiation ritual in the U.S. Air Force.

But there are always those who take it too far.

Last week, Col. Benjamin Bishop, the 354th Fighter Wing commander, relieved Lt. Col. Robb Fiechtner, 3rd Air Support Operations Squadron, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; and Lt. Col. Joshua Cates, 5th Air Support Operations Squadron, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, from their posts after a command-directed investigation revealed that both squadrons were engaging in the hazing practice of "roll-ups," said Capt. Kay Magdalena Nissen, spokeswoman for the 354th Fighter Wing.

While there were no complaints or reports made by victims of the hazing, the investigation showed that "roll-ups" -- or binding airmen's hands and feet, and sometimes their entire bodies, with tape -- was prevalent in those units, Nissen said in an email this week.

It "appear[s] to be a known hazing ritual within the Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) community," she said.

A TACP airman familiar with the tradition who spoke with Military.com said it's not all bad, though.

"It has not been the means of humiliating or harming someone; it's [supposed to be] the opposite," the airman said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press in an official capacity, he said he's been in the community for eight years, but could not explain where the tradition came from or how long it has been in practice.

The TACP said he has been rolled up a few times, most often on his birthday by someone calling him into an office for what he thought was a formal meeting or ambushing him in a hallway. He said the point was to try to outwit his fellow airmen, much like a game. The consequence of losing: having his body bound with tape and immobilized, then carried off by airmen to be placed at locations around base for goofy photo ops before being set free.

"When I came into the community, it was just there," he said, adding, "I've been in more than one unit and have had more than one birthday."

Hazing Crackdown

Last year, the Pentagon released a new policy -- DoD Instruction 1020.03 Harassment Prevention And Response in the Armed Forces -- aimed to deter misconduct and harassment among service members.

RELATED: With 'Tacking-On' Ritual Banned, Air Force Aims to Create New Traditions

The policy reaffirmed that the Defense Department does not tolerate any kind of harassment by any service member, either in person or online.

In line with the Defense Department, the Air Force has a zero-tolerance hazing policy.

"The Air Force does not condone hazing in any form," spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said Wednesday. "We expect our airmen to adhere to our core values at all times and treat their fellow service members with the highest degree of dignity and respect."

The TACP said he agrees with the Defense Department's policy.

"Hazing is as much about what the particulars of the event were and the creation of a feeling of being hazed," the TACP said.

It's why "rolling-up" shouldn't be standard across the Air Force, even if its original intention was meant to be playful, he said.

"It's not something we need to continue because it's not a professionalized practice," he said. "We should go do ... things that are productive and constructive that doesn't potentially create the hazing issues."

The TACP explained the concept behind the tradition.

When done right, the goal is never to pose a risk to a fellow airman who will work -- and potentially fight -- alongside you, he said.

"The intention of this is not to inflict pain," he said. "Think of it like 'capture the flag,' or 'Can you subdue a combative person without causing them harm?'"

In a sport like rugby, for example, "one minute [there's contact] but, by the end of the game, you're hanging out and you're friends," he said. "If you're not laughing while you're being rolled up, you're doing it wrong."

It has also been a way to vent pent-up energy for troops in a high-stress career field, the TACP said.

"When you take a whole group of very aggressive, Type-A people whose purpose is to go do violence unto others, the way you show affection, it gets shifted by the culture -- we don't necessarily go around and give each other hugs, although we do that too," he said.

He added, "It's both an outlet [to let] out steam … and for people to bond together" in what has become a "normalized way."

"Rolling-up" hasn't only been spotted in the Air Force. Videos and photos on social media that have quickly become memes have shown soldiers duct-taped to their cots, or bound with tape and left outside.

Some of those videos have shown the practice going too far, though, and not only within the special operations community. One source familiar with the tradition told Military.com it has been observed in other Air Force career fields, including nuclear operations and aircraft maintenance.

For example, airmen were shown in a 2005 YouTube video smearing chocolate syrup on a bound airman, then dusting him with powdered sugar before dousing him with a garbage pail of dirty water. The incident apparently happened at Kadena Air Base, Japan.

The airman who spoke with Military.com said roll-up events sometimes happen out of sheer boredom while troops are killing time. And it's easy to cross a line and have things get out of control.

"It's counterproductive to everything we do: It doesn't make an airman want to stay in the Air Force, it doesn't make airmen want to go do their job. It's beyond the right and wrong of morality, and it's just bad for the mission," the TACP said.

He continued, "That's the problem with the normalization of it. It becomes that [time] could be spent in a much more productive way."

He suggested developing a new tradition that fosters bonding and supports readiness, rather than one with the earmarks of hazing.

"There needs to be a competitive spirit" for stress to be relieved, the TACP said. "So replace it with [something] that's tied to a real-world mission."

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

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