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Taking on bigotry, the Air Force got it right this time

A rabbi and former Air Force chaplain cheers the strong anti-bigotry message delivered at the U.S. Air Force Academy last week, and remembers a similar message delivered at an air base in Japan some 40 years ago.

The Jewish chaplain insignia used in the U.S. military.  Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force/Lance Cheung

(RNS) — “Go Home N—-r.”

In late September, five African-American students in the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Preparatory School, located on the academy’s Colorado Springs, Colo., campus, confronted those three words on their dormitory message boards.

When he learned of the obscene message, Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria was furious. Silveria, a combat jet pilot who grew up in an Air Force family, quickly summoned the school’s 4,000 cadets and 1,500 staff members to hear him deliver a powerful lecture on the evils of prejudice and racism.

“If you’re outraged by those words, then you’re in the right place,” Silveria said. “That kind of behavior has no place at the prep school, has no place at USAFA (the Air Force Academy) and has no place in the United States Air Force. We would all be naive to think that everything is perfect here. We would be naive to think that we shouldn’t discuss this topic. We would also be tone deaf not to think about the backdrop of what’s going on in our country. Things like Charlottesville and Ferguson, the protests in the NFL.”

The superintendent urged the military audience to record his concluding remarks on their cell phones: “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out.”

Established in 1955, eight years after the Air Force became a separate service, a chief feature of the Academy’s Rocky Mountains campus is its magnificent chapel building — declared a National Historic Landmark in 2004 — that reflects the school’s multireligious diversity.

But despite the superb architecture, this was not the academy’s first public scandal.

Beginning in 1965, the academy suffered a series of cadet cheating scandals, and in 2003 another crisis erupted when some female cadets reported being sexually assaulted by male classmates.

In 2005 there were reports of religious bullying and intimidation aimed at non-evangelical Christian cadets, including Catholics, members of mainline Protestant churches and Jews.

During that controversy there were 117 official complaints from people at the academy who reported they had been coerced to convert to evangelical Christianity or were victims of religious discrimination.

Air Force officials responded to the complaints and began a task force investigation after a Yale Divinity School team had been asked to observe the academy’s basic training program. The Yale report was leaked to the media. The study reported the presence of “stridently evangelical themes” that foster religious differences rather than building mutual respect and understanding.

In June 2005 the Air Force released its own findings indicating there was no evidence of religious “discrimination” at the academy, but it admitted there was a prevalent “insensitivity” directed toward cadets who were not evangelical Christians.

As a former Air Force chaplain who served in Japan and Korea, I was not pleased the task force report placed much of the blame on the immaturity of the 18-to-22-year-old cadets.  Everyone who has served in the military knows that the leadership corps, not those down the command chain, always sets attitude and creates the atmosphere and climate on any base, post or ship.

All the academy scandals have occurred at a publicly funded educational institution supported by American taxpayers, a large diverse group reflecting our nation’s extraordinary religious, racial and ethnic pluralism.

That is why I was especially pleased by General Silveria’s unambiguous remarks that repudiated all forms of bigotry and affirmed the dignity of all human beings.

His strong words reminded me of another Air Force officer who expressed similar views to me, albeit with less eloquence, than the academy superintendent.

On my second day of duty at Itazuke Air Base in Japan back in the 1960s, I was presented to Col. William A. Daniel, the wing commander, a normal procedure when chaplains arrive at a new base. I was warned the colonel was a “tough-talking, John Wayne-type flyboy.”

The commander, who had been a combat pilot in World War II and Korea, never looked up from his desk when he spoke to me. I could barely see his face, but I clearly heard his voice:

“Chaplain, welcome to Itazuke. Here in the Air Force we dispense religion like toothpaste. We think everyone should have some of both, and I don’t care what brand of toothpaste or what kind of religion a person chooses. That’s a private choice that we respect. It’s bad for people’s teeth and souls if they don’t use them, but the Air Force doesn’t pressure anyone. What counts is not the toothpaste or the religion. It’s doing our mission. It’s not who you are, it’s what you do to support the mission. Thank you for stopping by, Chaplain, and good luck.”

Thank you, Colonel Daniel.

Thank you, General Silveria.

I salute you both.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. His latest book is “Pillar of Fire: The Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service)

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