News

    US Air Force Cadets Work on Religious Tolerance Issue

    Al Pessin

    At the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, the hot topics of discussion during the academic year that just ended included what classes the students were taking, what assignments they were hoping for in their future careers as officers and how the war in Iraq and the global war on terrorism would affect them. But another topic was also high on the agenda this year, religious tolerance. Ever since allegations arose last year of proselytizing by Christian officers and insults aimed at non-Christian cadets, the issue has received a lot of attention, and was the subject of mandatory 50-minute training sessions for all the cadets. VOA Defense Department correspondent Al Pessin visited the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where he spoke to cadets and officers about the issue.

    The Air Force Academy is a complex of a dozen long, low white buildings surrounding a grassy field, nestled along the edge of the Rocky Mountains.

    The campus's low-rise design appears designed to accentuate the dramatic rise of its centerpiece building, the chapel. Its 17 parallel A-frame spires rise high above the campus, separated by stained glass windows, with a huge silver-colored cross hung above the altar. A sign identifies the huge main sanctuary as a Protestant chapel. There are worship rooms for other religions downstairs.

    The chapel stands as a symbol of the link between faith and service for many cadets. But not for Cadet Cameron Radon, a graduating senior from Arizona.

    "When we start off some of the most important nights of my cadet career with a religious invocation, I completely disagree with that. I don't think there should be any religious involvement in military activities or ceremonies of any nature like that," he said.

    Cadet Radon, who is preparing for pilot training, must have been cringing a few days later as his graduation ceremony began, when Colonel Michael Whittington, the Air Force Academy's senior chaplain, said: "Righteous and holy God, whose providential care has protected this great nation throughout its history, we ask your blessing this day on these graduates. And what a great day it is, Lord, a day none of us will ever forget.,"

    Colonel Whittington's prayer was not specific to any religion. Still, it was not something graduating Cadet Radon wanted to hear. And he says he has been forced to sit through more specifically Christian prayers and other statements during his four years at the Academy.

    "Sir, I'm an atheist," said Cadet Radon. "So, to have my leadership come up to me and say, 'well, my motivation comes from Jesus Christ, God Almighty,' these kind of things, and 'this is the path that I have taken,' it makes me feel kind of ostracized and being like, well, I don't follow the same path, so, I mean, how are we going to meet the same goals here."

    Cadet, now 2nd Lieutenant, Radon was fairly unique at the Air Force Academy, where the vast majority of students are Christians, and most of the rest follow other mainstream religions such as Judaism and Islam. But although Lieutenant Radon's religious views are rare at the Academy, his complaint is less rare.

    A chaplain at the Academy, Captain MeLinda Morton, has described a "systemic and pervasive" problem of religious proselytizing. And she says a training program designed to address the issue was watered down when senior Christian officers found it offensive. In addition, the Washington-based private advocacy group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State issued a report in April, detailing allegations that non-Christian cadets were referred to as "heathens" and accusing some senior officers of promoting Christianity among the cadets, something the Air Force calls an abuse of authority.

    The head of the new religious-tolerance training program at the Air Force Academy, Lieutenant Colonel Vicki Rast, says the program is designed to convey that such conduct offends people, hurts the effectiveness of the force, and is illegal.

    "Our goal right now in the first phase of this process is two-fold," she said. "One is to raise everyone's awareness as to the nature of the problem, and the fact that we have a problem. It exists. It's real. And the other is to make sure that people understand the constitutional mandates that we operate within, and also the Department of Defense directives and Air Force instructions."

    Lieutenant Colonel Rast says the religious tolerance training program tells the cadets, and the academy's faculty and staff, that religious discrimination and proselytizing by commanders run counter to the U.S. Constitution, which the cadets have sworn to support and defend.

    Cadet Vanessa Muza Teskey, who identifies herself as a Christian, says at least her generation has gotten the message. The aspiring manpower specialist analyzes the problem with the mind of a future Air Force officer.

    "Our Air Force is getting a lot more diverse and a lot more culturally exposed and religiously exposed, which is excellent," she said. "And I think it makes it an additional challenge for a commander. But it's not something that, at least, anyone graduating from here can't handle."

    Cadet Muza Teskey says that in her three years at the academy she has seen no incidents of religious intolerance, although she has heard about some.

    Graduating Cadet Adam Brown, a future missile officer who calls himself a committed Christian, says he often has to make compromises in a society that is not as religious as he is. And he thinks cadets who want less religion in official ceremonies, like Cameron Radon, need to make some accommodations, too.

    "Sometimes, I think that it's a necessary evil that you've got to go through," he said. "I live in a secular world that doesn't always believe religion should be in the forefront of everything, as it is in my life. So there are areas that I back off on. And I think there are areas that other people should tolerate me, also."

    As the cadets spoke one recent late afternoon, they were interrupted by loudspeakers broadcasting "retreat," signaling the end of the duty day. The cadets turned toward a distant flagpole and stood at attention as the U.S. flag was lowered. They emphasized that it is the duty symbolized by the flag that is their main focus.

    But at one of the training sessions, Chaplain and Air Force Captain John Tillery, said issues of religion can not be separated from that duty.

    "Success on the battlefield depends on every individual, regardless of their background, race, gender or religion," he said. "Every individual, operating at peak performance, is what the Air Force needs in order to have success."

    That is why Chaplain Tillery and other officers are conducting the training on religious tolerance.

    The cadets have varying views of the training program, and the extent of the problem, but the training and the publicity about the issue sparked a lot of discussion among the future officers on campus about how to forge a unified, effective fighting force from an increasingly diverse population.

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clownsi
    X
    February 09, 2016 8:04 PM
    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay Prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Middle East Affairs and national security.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.