Travis Gruber’s day off
A local member of the California National Guard gets taken out of context, and perhaps out of a job
It’s been said that comedy is not pretty. For California National Guard Senior Airman Travis Gruber, it couldn’t get much uglier. Comedy had been cruel to the 27-year-old Sacramento resident. In fact, it just might cost him his job.
“I’ve had people say that I should kill myself,” Gruber lamented over a latte at a North Natomas coffee shop. “That I should go to Iraq and die. Or be locked up in Guantanamo.”
Gruber is, for the time being, the enlisted aide to Maj. Gen. William Wade, the head of the California National Guard. Gruber’s duties include chauffeuring Wade wherever he needs to go and assisting the general’s aide-de-camp. But Gruber has a double-life. By day he serves the general; on his own time, he anonymously operates www.HowToKillPeople.com, a Web site featuring an edgy and occasionally crude critique of culture and politics.
However, according to a story published by the Contra Costa Times in late August, Gruber’s dubiously named Web site literally “advocates mass violence.” The Guard, after being confronted with the allegation by Times investigative reporter Thomas Peele, placed Gruber on paid administrative leave pending an investigation of his Web site’s content. The story caught fire and was picked up by the Associated Press, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, CNN, various local TV news outlets and the left and right wings of the blogosphere.
At the time the story broke, Gruber issued only a written statement through the public-affairs office, apologizing for any harm he may have inadvertently caused the Guard or anyone else through the site. Now that the gravity of the situation has sunk in, he’s speaking out on his own behalf. Even though he’s been given a clean bill of health via a CHP threat assessment, he’s still considered a security risk. Because a condition of his administrative leave requires him to remain at least one mile away from the Capitol, he requested to meet with SN&R in North Natomas, well outside the limit.
“I knew it was going to be bad,” Gruber said, recalling the afternoon the Times contacted him to comment for the story, seven hours before it was first published on the Internet. “I didn’t know how bad, but I knew it wasn’t going to be pleasant.”
The story’s impact turned out to be far worse than he imagined.
“My Web site is politically incorrect, but Peele made it look like I was a hate monger,” Gruber said. “What he did was take the beginning of a joke and leave the rest of it out. If you leave the rest of the joke out, it looks like I’m going to do a Columbine.”
For example, Peele deduces that the site “advocates mass violence” from a sentence in a post titled, “My New Branch of Government.” The goal of the Gruber’s new branch, dubbed the Department of Euthanization, would be to “cut the dead weight” from society. That sounds fairly Hitlerian, until Gruber proclaims he’ll start by eliminating parents who defend their children for being fat, people who think bacon is a diet food and fans of Napoleon Dynamite. Peele quotes one sentence out of context and misses the punchline. It’s a pattern that repeats itself often in the story.
“Gruber also posted a fake Internet conversation with the governor in which he uses profanity to describe Schwarzenegger,” Peele writes, adding that the airman “trashes” the governor. A less-biased observer might note that the profanity is mild, and the phony Internet conversation, in which Arnold confuses his roles in Junior, Kindergarten Cop and Predator with real life, is meant humorously, not contemptuously, as Peele would have readers believe.
Gruber is the first to admit that his humor can go over the top. “Anybody’s a target,” he confessed. “I make fun of everyone and I’m my biggest target. I make fun of myself more than anyone else.” But Peele describes something more akin to the online version of Mein Kampf.
“In other postings and in a related blog, Gruber denigrates African-Americans, Jews, Asians, women, gays, and people with physical handicaps,” Peele writes. However, such mentions are few and far in between and hardly define the site’s overall content, which focuses on pop culture and politics through Gruber’s somewhat distorted libertarian socioeconomic lens. Peele doesn’t mention that the site is intended in jest until nearly halfway through the 26-paragraph story.
Although the Times takes credit for bringing the Web site to the Guard’s attention, Gruber said his superiors have in fact inspected and approved the content of his Web site on three previous occasions: In 2003, when he first joined the California National Guard; in 2004, when he applied for a top secret security clearance in order to serve as Wade’s enlisted assistant; and last year during an internal investigation. The site passed muster all three times.
“To the best of my recollection, they said it wasn’t their kind of humor, but it wasn’t against the regulations,” Gruber said.
California National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Jon Siepmann confirmed that the content of Gruber’s Web site was investigated last year. “There was no legally actionable misconduct that resulted from the investigation,” Siepmann said.
The Contra Costa Times story does not mention any of the prior investigations. Peele refused to comment for this story and referred SN&R to executive editor Kevin Keane. “I thought the story spoke for itself,” Keane said. “It was a fair story.”
Gruber thinks it was anything but fair.
“Oh, look, you’re a psychopath,” a friend told him after the story was first posted on the Net. Hate mail began rolling in, both to the Times and his own Web site. “The hate mail is great,” Gruber chuckled, perhaps realizing he’s being served the same sort of medicine he regularly dishes up on his Web site. “The article bothered me a lot, but the repercussions were even worse. The venom and bile that came back hurt.”
It remains to be seen whether some of the remarks about elected public officials on the Web site can be considered “contemptuous” in accordance with military regulations, as suggested by Peele. In one crude photoillustration, Gruber depicts Sen. Barbara Boxer in bondage and refers to her as a “raging cunt.” Is Boxer among the public officials Gruber is prohibited from commenting upon as an enlisted man by the Uniform Code of Military Justice? The post passed the Guard’s muster last year, and the regulations haven’t changed since then.
In another post seeking to explain why he, Gruber, is qualified to be governor, the airman reprints the famous photo of a bare-breasted woman straddling a young Arnold Schwarzenegger’s neck. Is posting a photo of a public official that can be found all over the Internet contemptuous, as suggested by Peele? Once again, the post passed the Guard’s muster last year.
“The current investigation will not be limited to the content of the Web site,” Siepmann said. “Our soldiers in California have been expressing themselves for over 150 years, and they will continue to do so. This is just a new form of communication. We take the airman’s rights as a citizen very seriously. He will be treated fairly, in accordance with the laws and regulations.”
The Guard expects to conclude the investigation within the next several weeks. In the meantime, Gruber will keep his distance from the Capitol. “I think it was naive for me to think I could do this anonymously, as long as I didn’t say what I did or who I worked for, I’d be OK,” he admits. He loves his job, and if there’s a problem with the site, he’s perfectly willing to change it.
“There’s a saying in the Army,” he said. “Stay Gumby. Always remain flexible.” In other words, he’s willing to bend whichever way the wind blows. If he doesn’t break.