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Mustache March ends, but controversy lingers

Mar. 30, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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The women from the Secretary of the Air Force acquisition program office show they can 'grow' mustaches.
The women from the Secretary of the Air Force acquisition program office show they can 'grow' mustaches. (Gen. Welsh's Facebook page)
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Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James poses with mustached Gen. Mark Welsh and members of the Air Force Band. (Gen. Welsh's Facebook page)

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Whether you participated in Mustache March with your unit or under Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh’s Air Force-wide challenge, the month has ended and your razors await.

In Welsh’s travels to various bases throughout the month, he found many embracing the activity, from uniformed airmen, to pregnant spouses with mustaches painted on their stomachs, to airmen who had written songs about Mustache March.

“That’s the whole point, gang, reminding ourselves we can have a little fun while we accomplish the mission,” Welsh wrote on his official Facebook page, where he also posted photos sent to him of airmen — and others — with mustaches real and fake. Welsh plans to announce the winners, nominated by major commands, via social media on Tuesday or Wednesday, said Megan Schafer, his communications adviser.

At an event at the end of the month, Welsh joked that his wife, Betty, gave up kissing him for Lent.

He also acknowledged that all feedback was not positive.

“The only emails I’m getting are ripping me apart about mustaches,” he said.

Mustache March generated responses — both positive and negative — from Air Force Times readers.

Maj. Jennifer Holmes, a senior trial counsel stationed at Joint Base Andrews, Md., wrote an opinion piece, “In Mustache March, I lose,” which ran in Air Force Times’ March 24 issue. Her intent, she said, was to get dialogue started on the “boys club” tradition.

She did.

Her piece generated more than 140 comments on the Air Force Times Facebook page and more than 260 comments on the website.

A sampling:

“Oh, boo hoo. This is a fun time and if you’re offended as a woman, you aren’t looking at the big picture. I have fun with the guys each March!” Denise Ahrens Flory wrote on Facebook.

“[Mustache March] only pushes out women who feel they should be treated special because they are women. Women need to stop looking at it as men vs. women. We are one Air Force and all airmen,” wrote Crystal Mulkey.

But Erika Miller Sleger said, “I am so proud of Maj. Holmes for speaking up. As for those of you who think there isn’t discrimination, I will have you know that the examples that she lists can be matched by many women in the Air Force.”

Retired Navy Commander Sara Zak took her opinions to the top. In a complaint to the Air Force inspector general’s office, she asked that Welsh step down and rescind the challenge, saying the activity was “contrary to his Chief of Staff of the Air Force message to airmen he issued in January, [that] it perpetuated an environment conducive to sexual harassment, and that the Air Force should acknowledge [that] traditions that denigrate or fail to show proper respect to all airmen will not be accepted as part of the Air Force culture.”

She sent a similar complaint to the Defense Department inspector general’s office, but amended her complaint to ask that Welsh be temporarily relieved of his duties.

“The comments that were posted on the Mustache March articles made me feel like I was back on active-duty. ... Women have been in the military for so long and there are still feelings that, we’re not welcome,” Zak said in an interview with Air Force Times.

She received responses to her complaints about a week later from both offices: The Air Force IG told her to contact the DoD IG, and the DoD IG said it found insufficient basis to initiate a query.

Frustrated, Zak called other offices — among them, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity, and the Defense Advisory Committee to Women in the Services.

In each case, the answer was the complaint would be passed along.

Even if Mustache March was intended as a morale-boosting activity, Zak believes it undermines any progress against military sexual assault because she sees the mustache challenge as a sexist act.

“I think Mustache March is a sign of how casually [military leadership] is approaching a solution. Everyone [in the Defense Department] at this point is tasked to not tolerate, condone or ignore anything and everything that has to do with sexual assault or harassment. And then General Welsh ordered this Mustache March challenge, which I see as insubordinate,” Zak said.

“I would love to at least think that General Welsh wouldn’t do this again, but my guess is ... since it has existed for quite a long time, units will continue to do it,” she said.

Welsh did not respond to Air Force Times’ questions by press time, and his office said it’s too soon to say what will happen next year.

“A lot can happen between now and next year,” Schafer said.

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