Longform

BASE BEHAVIOR

part 1 of 2
The Colorado Air National Guard went to war against North Korea early on the morning of April 9. The hostilities came almost without warning and then quickly intensified; within hours of reporting for duty at Aurora's Buckley Field, Guard members were diving for cover and donning gas masks to protect themselves from an approaching cloud of airborne chemicals.

The second day of the mock war was canceled due to snow. But make no mistake about it: The Yanks won. "We always win," Captain Alison Ruttenberg says with a laugh.

But the Guard's other war, a legal battle in which the contestants are lobbing subpoenas instead of grenades, is very real. Last fall Ruttenberg and six fellow Guard members filed suit against the Colorado Air National Guard, the Guard's national administrative arm in Washington, D.C., Governor Roy Romer, the Department of the Air Force, Major General John France (who heads Colorado's Army and Air Guard units) and a blinding array of Colorado Air Guard brass.

The 111-page complaint accused Guard members from the top on down of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and myriad forms of fraud and waste. Buckley's 200th Airlift Squadron--which helps train Air Force Academy cadets in navigation and shuttles military personnel around the globe like a private airline--is singled out as the source of much of the trouble.

The suit, whose claims of lurid sexual hijinks and alleged coverups threaten to make it a miniature version of the Navy's Tailhook scandal, could even become a campaign issue in the gubernatorial election this fall. A source within the Republican Party says GOP spin doctors may attempt to take advantage of the fact that General France, whose $100,000 salary makes him the governor's highest-paid cabinet member, is under fire. The legal action also comes against a nationwide backdrop of similar accusations against National Guard outfits and other military units.

Nationally, the Tailhook debacle and other incidents prompted former Secretary of State Les Aspin to create an advisory board to assess how the Department of Defense conducts internal probes. That board may not be enough for U.S. Representative Pat Schroeder, a Denver Democrat, who, though she says she does not have enough information to comment specifically on the local lawsuit, says it is imperative that the military as a whole retool the process by which it investigates itself.

"We've done this before," Schroeder, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, says of the advisory board. "The investigations are frustrating in that we've been spending all this money for so long, and we get so little for it. I think the investigations have to be totally outside the system, much like the way the Government Accounting Office works. It has to be outside the command, because [investigators] see themselves as part of the team, and they believe they have to defend the team from anyone on the outside who's making charges. They're like junkyard dogs."

Meanwhile, many members of the once tight-knit 200th are now refusing to fly with each other or talk to each other. Whoever prevails in court, the skies over Buckley are likely to remain decidedly unfriendly for some time to come.

The 35-year-old Ruttenberg, an attorney formerly employed by the Holland & Hart law firm in Denver, is the suit's lead plaintiff. She became involved in the legal wrangle, she says, when disaffected guardsmen began approaching her through her part-time job as a staff attorney for three of the Colorado Air Guard's units. She became personally involved, she says, when Guard commanders retaliated against her for offering legal assistance to the guardsmen.

Joining Ruttenberg in the suit are: Jesus Quinonez, a Northwest Airlines pilot and captain in the Guard; former Guard pilot Captain Thomas Updyke; Master Sergeant Phil Pohanic, who served as a flight engineer until his firing last year; former flight attendant and Master Sergeant Kenneth Schaiterer; and former Technical Sergeant Terri Bruch, who also served as a flight attendant. Former 200th flight attendant and Master Sergeant Dorothy Haluska dropped out as a plaintiff late last month, after accepting an early retirement.

In their formal complaint, and in interviews, the plaintiffs paint a picture of the 200th as a military playground where passenger planes were used as globe-hopping "party barges," and upper-echelon officers quaffed beer and dined on steak at taxpayer expense.

The complaint alleges that the 200th's two passenger planes, which Phil Pohanic claims cost $3,000 per hour to operate, have been used to take officers, family members and handpicked crews on junkets to the Cayman Islands, Rio de Janeiro, Walt Disney World and the World's Fair in Vancouver, Canada. Crews are accused of staying in costly hotels when free military lodging was readily available. The plaintiffs have filed several Freedom of Information requests to the Air Force in the past two years in an attempt to get flight logs or other records that would document the trips, but the military has declined to respond. The Colorado Guard also declined Westword's request for those records.

In their suit, the plaintiffs claim that adultery and criminal fraternization--the military term for personal relationships between officers and enlisted members--are rampant. Their complaint cites eight individual cases of fraternization and lists 36 instances in which fourteen Guard members were subjected to fondling, lewd comments and come-ons from officers. The suit claims that in private conversations with subordinates, Colonel Ronald Rosson, the current commander of the 200th, rated his female subordinates in terms of their sexual desirability, and that Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Schjodt, a pilot with the 200th, said that the Guard's female flight attendants were "there to have sex with when he and other pilots could not make a pickup at the hotel bar."

In what the suit terms a "racial assault," Lieutenant Colonel Rick Gowthrop, who is white, is accused of attacking Jesus Quinonez, who is black, and attempting to throw him down a flight of stairs. The incident occurred about three months after Gowthrop allegedly attacked Technical Sergeant Joyce Alexander Bell, a black flight attendant.

Gowthrop, the plaintiffs note, was promoted not long after the alleged attacks, while Captain Quinonez, who filed numerous complaints about the incident, was suspended for two months.

The Guard declined to answer questions about the incident, in part because of the pending lawsuit. Gowthrop did not respond to questions.

Each of the suit's original seven plaintiffs have filed internal complaints in the past two years. Since then, six of them have been fired, refused re-enlistment or advised that they will soon be terminated. The Guard fired Pohanic from his full-time job for smoking aboard an airplane, even though other Guard members who admitted stealing government equipment have been permitted to stay. He still serves as a part-time "weekend warrior" but says he has been notified that he will lose that job later this year as part of an overall reduction in force.

Since the suit was filed, other present and former military personnel have come forward to report incidents similar to those outlined in the complaint. Former Guard employee Yolanda Brooks (who now works for the Air Force Reserve) says supervisors and superior officers sexually harassed her continually. Lieutenant Colonel William Lowrey, who is still with the Guard, has spoken out in defense of Quinonez. Retired Master Sergeant Sam Dewett echoes the plaintiffs' claims of travel fraud. And the Army's Office of Special Investigations conducted a probe of allegations that General France improperly received free medical care from Fitzsimons Army Medical Center. (A spokeswoman for the governor's office says the charges against France were unfounded but says she cannot divulge details about the investigation.)

The accusations have come as an embarrassment to many members of the Guard. "As a result of this suit," says Technical Sergeant Bell, "it will take years to heal the humiliation suffered by the distinguished members of the Colorado Air National Guard."

Ironically, the suit filed by Ruttenberg and the others claims that Bell herself was subjected to sexual harassment and twice was assaulted by Gowthrop, charges that have since been repeated in newspaper reports about the suit. But Bell says the complaint's allegations involving her "were neither true nor accurate." The incident mentioned in the suit, she says, "occurred nearly four years ago and was handled through the proper military channels to my satisfaction." The plaintiffs, she adds, "are exploiting this minor incident to their advantage." In addition, Bell notes, a large portion of the complaint was tossed out earlier this year.

On February 23, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch ordered that 110 paragraphs of the plaintiffs' complaint be stricken because they alleged "misconduct of persons who are not defendants in this action and involve persons who are not plaintiffs." Many of the paragraphs, the judge added, "allege criminal conduct, and many of them are scandalous."

An attorney for the defendants say Matsch's action means the plaintiffs are in trouble. Ruttenberg and the plaintiffs' attorney Denis Mark, however, contend that although the judge threw out the allegations, he was careful to note that the matters still might be brought forward at trial to support their overall claims.

Mark has since abridged and amended the complaint, removing three officers' names from the list of defendants and replacing them with the names of three other officers.

Retired Colonel Harold Smethills--an attorney and former State Judge Advocate General--is one of the officers named in the original complaint and then dropped as a defendant. The issues raised about him, he says, "were either untrue, trivial, or arose from a misunderstanding of military procedures and responsibilities."

According to Major Tom Schultz--who, as director of the Colorado Air National Guard's public affairs unit, has been given the task of shepherding media queries and responding on behalf of the defendants--the Guard previously investigated many of the complaints alleged in the suit and found them to be "almost entirely without merit." He terms the accusations "malicious gossip," a "vicious smear campaign" and "a transparent attempt by the plaintiffs to abuse the judicial system" and hang on to their jobs during a period of military downsizing.

Brigadier General Mason Whitney is the only current defendant who agreed to speak to a reporter, although he says it would be "inappropriate" for him to comment specifically on the lawsuit. However, he says, "Whenever we find cases of poor performance, lack of moral character or failure of personal integrity, we investigate it thoroughly and take corrective action."

"The Colorado National Guard," Whitney adds, "has a proud heritage, and we continue to take pride in our accomplishments in all areas of our missions."

The defendants, like the plaintiffs, have had supporters jump to their side. "There is no sexual harassment in the Guard," says one anonymous woman caller, who claims to be a member of the Guard stationed at Buckley. "[Ruttenberg] never deals with anybody with integrity, only malcontents. She's hurt a lot of respectable people, and it's costing taxpayers a tremendous amount of money. And in the long run, it will be found that there's no substance to any of these charges.

"This girl," she continues, "is doing more harm to women and women lawyers in the Guard than anybody."

The original mission of the 200th Airlift Squadron, which was formed in 1979, was to help teach Air Force Academy cadets their way around a plane's navigational equipment. As part of their training, dozens of cadets each year hop aboard one of the Guard's two T-43s (specially equipped 737s), helping to guide the planes from Colorado Springs to a myriad of destinations from Phoenix to Germany. The 200th also ferried Academy bigwigs to watch their football team perform at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. In October 1985, however, the Guard brought on two more 737s. Both were outfitted as passenger jets, and the 200th's mission was expanded to include providing a military airlift service. That created jobs for Inflight Passenger Specialists, or IPSs, who serve as flight attendants and baggage handlers. IPSs wait on passengers, cook for them and carry their bags.

Phil Pohanic signed on as a part-time IPS in 1979. "I tried to learn everything I could," he says. "I studied the systems and taught myself air navigation." Two years later he was given a full-time slot as a flight engineer, eventually making rank as a master sergeant. He was fired last year.

"They wanted me out of that unit big-time bad because I was an embarrassment to the unit," Pohanic says. "I knew too much."

Some of what Pohanic claims to know takes up a great many paragraphs in the 111-page complaint. For instance, Pohanic claims that in 1986 then-Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Germano authorized three different trips to Comox Royal Air Force Base in Canada, purportedly to arrange and then conduct a water-survival training course for members of the unit. The Guard members all could have fit into one plane, but the passenger manifest was doubled because Guard members were permitted to bring their spouses along. And each trip included a fun-filled excursion to the World's Fair, which was being held 100 miles from Comox, in Vancouver.

On each trip, the plane landed at Comox first, says Pohanic, and some of the Guard members disembarked for training. But because the base didn't have the equipment necessary to flush out the plane's toilets, the crew was instructed to fly on to Vancouver. The toilets could have been flushed out at Comox using portable equipment that was aboard the plane, says Pohanic. Instead, the crew conducted the ten-minute flushing procedure in Vancouver and the remainder of the passengers boarded buses for a day at the fair. The procedure, Pohanic says, was carried out the same way on the next trip to Canada.

That there might have been an ulterior motive for the trip occurred to Master Sergeant Dorothy Haluska on the second flight to Comox. On the first trip out, she says, she and another flight attendant used the Buckley-to-Comox air time to coordinate a mock, over-water emergency and give readiness briefings to the passengers.

"On the second trip, we weren't supposed to do the same thing to prepare the cabin," Haluska adds from her home in Texas. "We were told that it made the wives nervous." Haluska says the flight attendants were forced to wait until the spouses had disembarked in Canada before running through the emergency program a second time.

"I had thought [the trip] was for training, but that's when reality hit," she says. "The wives would party with us whenever we were not training, and they'd go to the World's Fair. I didn't think it was justifiable." Whether or not the trip would have been justifiable even without the tagalong spouses is something Haluska and Pohanic still wonder about--previous water-survival training had been carried out in Colorado Springs. Haluska also questioned the "entertainment" provided by Canadian military officers at a welcoming party. "Some Canadian got drunk and took off his flight suit," she says. "He was taking his private part and putting sunglasses and cigarettes on it, imitating people." (Among other personages, she says, the Canadian's penis was supposed to resemble Henry Kissinger.)

Haluska found the behavior of her own officers merely annoying. As she and other crew members floated on a raft in the Bay of Comox as part of their survival training, she says, they were accosted by Germano and two other officers who were surveying the scene from a small boat. "They were throwing beer on us," Haluska says of the threesome. "They were out having a good time."

A year later, Germano allegedly engineered another good-time trip, this time accompanied by his son, Scott.

The 200th was scheduled to take members of the Civil Air Patrol from Buckley to a meeting at Alabama's Maxwell Air Force Base. (Although it's a volunteer unit made up of civilians, the CAP is considered an auxiliary unit of the Air Force.) As a new CAP cadet, fifteen-year-old Scott Germano was permitted to fly with the group. The Guard crew, faced with the prospect of bunking in military housing at Maxwell while waiting for the meeting to end, had decided in advance that they'd prefer spending the four days in Florida, say Quinonez and Pohanic, who were along for the ride.

So, the two say, the crew dropped off the CAP members at Maxwell--all except Scott--and continued on to Florida, where they loaded up a military vehicle with beer and pop and headed for Orlando and Disney World. The crew members' expenses, Pohanic and Quinonez say, were offset by the per diem temporary-duty pay they received for each day of the trip.

After the crew returned to Denver with the CAP members, Scott Germano resigned from the organization. The boy's brief interest in the CAP, Pohanic suggests, was little more than an attempt to get a free Florida vacation.

Scott, now 22 and living in Aurora, does little to disabuse that notion. He says he "may have" joined the Civil Air Patrol solely to take advantage of the Florida trip, although he no longer remembers if he quit as soon as he returned home. "I know I never even went to meetings," he says. "Or maybe I went to a couple. I just wasn't interested."

Scott did not follow in his father's footsteps and make a career in the military. "Not a chance," he says. And the elder Germano is no longer with the Guard. He "was asked to retire" in early 1988, the plaintiffs say, following a year of complaints that accused him of sexual harassment and abuse of his office. The plaintiffs also claim in their suit that Colonel Ronald Germano was promoted and then permitted to retire even though Guard members had accused him of fraud, sexual harassment and theft. Tom Schultz declined to comment on that allegation. Germano, who was promoted to full colonel before his departure, could not be reached for comment.

end of part 1

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