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.