A letter from an “Accidental Insurgent” at U.S. Air Force Academy


Recently reported accusations that the US Air Force Academy’s Dean of Faculty may have directed one of her department heads to conduct a counterinsurgency (COIN) analysis of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), using government personnel and assets, transcend typical adjectival descriptors like “amazing” or “shocking,” and drag the reader towards the truly bizarre, Orwellian conclusion that maybe, just maybe, the paranoia voiced by many over the last several years (largely shielded by the anonymity of blogs, internet forums, and laundered e-mail) is fully justified.

An easily accessible and clear definition for insurgency can be derived from definitions of “insurgent”:

A counter-insurgency or counterinsurgency[1] involves actions taken by the recognized government of a nation to contain or quell an insurgency taken up against it.[2] In the main, the insurgents seek to destroy or erase the political authority of the defending authorities in a population they seek to control, and the counter-insurgent forces seek to protect that authority and reduce or eliminate the supplanting authority of the insurgents.

To conduct a COIN analysis, then, the MRFF and its supporters within the USAFA staff, faculty, and Cadet Wing (student body) must be seen by the Dean as insurgents—those that seek to undermine the military and administrative authority of the USAFA senior leadership.  The COIN analysis would then seek to develop methods to neutralize the rebels within the USAFA staff and reassert the senior leadership’s own authority.

So, the key questions one must ask are:

1. Is it the goal of the MRFF and its supporters to undermine or supplant the authority of USAFA’s senior leaders?

2. What (if any) acts have the MRFF and its supporters taken to undermine this authority?

MRFF’s stated mission (http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org/about/our-mission/) begins with: “The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is dedicated to ensuring that all members of the United States Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom to which they and all Americans are entitled by virtue of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

The Oath of Office for commissioned service in the US Air Force includes the phrase “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.”

Certainly, these two goals seem to be in perfect harmony. Both organizations have as a primary mission to preserve liberty and freedoms as guaranteed by the Founding Fathers.

In addition to the Establishment Clause, the MRFF goes on to defend the rights of military members whose office and future might be threatened by those ignorant of the provision in Article Six of the Constitution that states: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” MRFF states in its mission: “No member of the United States Armed Forces may be compelled in any way to conform to a particular religion or religious philosophy.”

Far from seeking to exclude and restrict religious practice, MRFF also states “that religious faith is a Constitutionally guaranteed freedom that must never be compromised, except in the most limited of military circumstances, because of its fundamental importance to the preservation of the American nation and the American way of life.”

Therefore, if USAFA’s senior leaders are living up to their oath—as their office and authority require—then one cannot rationally conclude that MRFF seeks to undermine that authority. On the contrary, MRFF’s goal is to strengthen and support that authority’s ability to guarantee the rights and freedoms of those subordinate to USAFA authority.

Have MRFF and its supporters taken action against USAFA senior leadership, publically or privately? Certainly, they have.  MRFF boasts of several accomplishments pertaining to the Academy on its web page (http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org/achievements/). The latest and probably most highly publicized cases from 2011 include MRFF’s complaints that a proposed charity drive supposedly organized by cadets (Operation Christmas Child) constituted undue command influence upon cadets to contribute to a religious-centric charity pursuing an evangelic agenda in the developing world—the cadet chain-of-command used the Noon Meal (mandatory attendance) and global cadet e-Mail to announce and publicize the drive.  MRFF did not ask that the charity drive be canceled, but rather that it be run by the USAFA chaplains, as opposed to the cadet chain-of-command, thus reducing the likelihood that cadets who did not agree with the religious component of Operation Christmas Child would feel compelled (through squadron competition, for example) to contribute time and effort.  For example, asking a Muslim cadet to contribute to a Christian outreach program, whatever the charitable component, would be strictly against their beliefs—especially so if the targeted population was Muslim.

Earlier in the year, MRFF and it legal counsel filed suit on behalf of one named and four anonymous members of the USAFA staff who contended that promotional, base-wide e-mails sent from senior, commanding officers to publicize the National Prayer Luncheon held on-base, during duty hours, established a coercive environment—using undue command influence upon junior staff to participate in a distinctly religious event. The fact that the planned attendance of the Academy’s most senior leaders (Superintendent, Commandant, Dean of Faculty, and others) was advertised in subsequent e-mails solidified the sense of pressure to participate.

Several other concerns of varying degree were voiced through private channels directly to USAFA senior leadership throughout the year, consistent with a desire by MRFF and its supporters to solve problems at their lowest administrative level. Only when leadership proved unresponsive to these concerns was outside media notified.  In some cases, cadets and staff may have gone directly to MRFF for support, but that was only when they felt no other recourse, and even in these cases, MRFF staff would typically reach out to USAFA staff members to solve the problem internally.  At no time has MRFF or its supporters called for any member of the military or the USAFA community to disobey the lawful orders of commanders, violate established policy, or ignore the chain of command. MRFF has sought, in most cases, to save USAFA’s senior leaders from public embarrassment (and potential legal and military administrative action) by alerting them to concerns voiced by MRFF clients in a manner that protects the identity of the client and avoids a media explosion.

No better case of trying to prevent USAFA leaders from shooting themselves in the foot can be found than with interactions between MRFF, USAFA leadership, and General Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force (CSAF).

One could say that the CSAF’s direct involvement in religious freedom issues at USAFA began in the Fall of 2010 when MRFF confronted the Academy Superintendent, Lieutenant General Michael Gould, with written statements from a client that the client’s daughter, a 2010 USAFA graduate, had been “brain-washed” by a private, fundamentalist religious group named “Cadets for Christ.” This group, led by a civilian couple from Colorado Springs, held meetings during Academic Call to Quarters (reserved study time) on-base in the Academy’s Arnold Hall (the military academy equivalent to a civilian university’s student union).  At these meetings, the clients contend, the civilian leaders were promoting a brand of evangelic Christianity that ran counter to official US Air Force policy of equality and equal opportunity. One of their central premises was that women are but sheep to be herded by male leadership, and under their dominion. The result was that this female cadet (now lieutenant) and others were being matched with compatible marital partners chosen by the civilian and cadet leaders of the group (cult?), led to make career decisions based on a restrictive view of women’s roles, and alienated from family and friends who were not part of the Cadets for Christ orthodoxy.

MRFF’s response to these complaints centered on the fact that this group and their meetings carried USAFA’s imprimatur because they were held on-base, during scheduled cadet time, and that the group (Cadets for Christ) advocated roles and positions that were not consistent with established USAFA, Air Force, and Department of Defense policy on equal opportunity.  MRFF recognized the cadets’ rights to meet and conduct religious discussions and studies privately, among themselves, and especially if those meeting were off-base, during non-duty time (i.e., guarantees of free practice), but disapproved of the fact that USAFA chaplains endorsed and facilitated the group’s operation over a period of several years.

When USAFA leadership did not respond promptly to MRFF’s private requests for an inquiry, the CSAF stepped in and made a personal visit to the Academy.  During an “All Hands” meeting in the Arnold Hall Theater (mandatory attendance) on 27 October 2010, Gen Schwartz said that (paraphrased and reported in the Dean’s weekly e-mail to all faculty members):

“The Air Force Academy mission should be our only focus, and we should work to minimize distractions during the cadet duty day—our sole mission is to develop officers of character. If there are things that intrude on the mission, we need to scrutinize them carefully and dismiss them if they don’t contribute to the fundamental mission.”

“On faith matters, this is a public institution and the chaplaincy has the lead on faith related issues—we should not have “surrogates” acting in lieu of the chaplains.  The only faith we promote at the Air Force Academy is public service.  Regardless of our positions, we all must use care in promoting belief systems beyond integrity, service and excellence.”

He then tasked USAFA leadership to identify and evaluate all cadet activities during the duty week and scrub those that do not contribute to the mission.

Over the next few months, USAFA leadership morphed the CSAF’s direction into another something altogether different.  The result was not an elimination of distracting or counterproductive programs, but rather a schedule of calls (daily itinerary) that reserved a part of every day for independent, elective activity, unscheduled by leadership—a time (roughly two hours) when cadets were generally free to do whatever they wanted and meet with whomever they chose.  Meanwhile, access badges for off-base civilians were supposed to be scrutinized and possibly confiscated if the holder did not contribute directly to the mission.  Cadets for Christ moved off-base to hold their meetings on weekends at the home of the civilian leaders.

After a reasonably quiet summer at USAFA, but with the MRFF involved in several cases throughout the DoD that revolved around official, command-level support of categorically religious events and inclusion of religious (specifically, Christian) requirements, encouragement, and messages in official training, the CSAF acted by signing a very clear and concise message to commanders Air Force-wide, in which he stated (emphasis added by me):

“Leaders at all levels must balance Constitutional protections for an individual’s free exercise of religion or other personal beliefs and its prohibition against governmental establishment of religion. For example, they must avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion. Commanders or supervisors who engage in such behavior may cause members to doubt their impartiality and objectivity. The potential result is a degradation of the unit’s morale, good order, and discipline.”

Gen Schwartz signed his letter on 1 Sep 2011 and his staff distributed it to all major commands and direct reporting units (of which USAFA is one) on 13 Sep 2011 in PDF form via e-mail.  Within most commands (e.g., AF Space Command) the directive was immediately “shot-gunned” out to all subordinate commanders and in blanket, base-wide e-mail to all personnel, civilian and military, officer and enlisted.  I received a copy from a friend at AF Space Command and immediately sent it up my chain of command asking if the letter had been received and if the USAFA leadership intended to send it out to everyone.  For days, the faculty leadership equivocated.  First, they didn’t want to get in front of the Superintendent sending it out to everyone, then it was a viewed as a topic of discussion for commanders, but not for wide-spread diffusion.  Some cadets responded by printing copies of the letter and pinning it to bulletin boards in the dormitories or taping it to doors, Martin Luther-style.

Still, nothing was sent from the USAFA leadership.  Finally, more than two weeks after the original distribution, with USAFA leadership still silent on the matter, MRFF, aided by generous donors, published the CSAF’s letter in its entirety on a large billboard on a major Colorado Spring thoroughfare.  They added no elaboration to the letter and did nothing to condemn USAFA leadership.  Shortly thereafter, the Commandant, Brigadier General Richard Clark, sent the CSAF’s letter to all cadets and his staff, but the Dean did not send it to her full faculty.  Instead, a discussion session on religious respect and tolerance was mandated for all academic departments (week of 3 Oct 2012), the letter was sent to department heads for their use during the sessions (from the Dean’s staff, not her), along with a scripted briefing, and all departments were forced to have a military lawyer (JAG) and a chaplain present to help answer questions in the session.  Almost exactly one month later, the “Operation Christmas Child” case (mentioned above) exploded in the local papers after complaints were sent by cadets to MRFF.

I’ve been associated with the US Air Force Academy for many years in many roles.  I love the US Air Force Academy and, in many ways, made it my life’s work to support, promote, and improve this national treasure.  Largely due to the efforts of the MRFF, I’ve also seen significant progress made over the last eight years in terms of religious rights—from the first official identification of a problem via an internal USAFA survey in 2004 and incidents in that time period that were instrumental in the formation of the MRFF.

I’ve been a contributing member of the MRFF since its inception and know of several other faculty and staff members that share my passion for a military free of religious coercion and intolerance.  We don’t hold meetings, we haven’t formed cells, and, frankly, have no intension of coming “out of the closet” in any more tangible way than to say that we support existing policies and guidance and work to see that they are enforced equitably.  We recognize and fear the danger religious (or any) intolerance poses to our republic.  Whenever possible, we have worked within the USAFA chain-of-command to identify problems and resolve them internally.  We’ve counseled cadets and others that unless we have some confidence in the system and exercise that trust routinely, things cannot truly improve in the long-term.  We’ve had some notable successes (unknown to most) and some blazing failures (seen in various media), but we remain convinced that what we are doing in the cause of religious liberty is in concert with senior leadership desires for good order and discipline and our actions are good for our Academy, the Air Force, and our nation.

Quite simply, we contend that no religious perspective can claim to be a necessary or sufficient condition for honorable service, and that all should be free from religious pressure (in any form) exerted by anyone in the hierarchical military environment, that a commitment to support and defend the Constitution of the United States is a commitment to the whole Constitution and the rights of all that choose to serve with us in this noble endeavor.

If these accusations are true, then I find the idea that a senior leader at our US Air Force Academy would consider me and those that share my belief in our Constitution INSURGENTS, that we are an actual threat to USAFA aiming to undermine legitimate military authority, simply abhorrent.  That this leader would task other members of her staff and our own colleagues to conduct a COIN analysis of MRFF supporters, betrays the trust so necessary to a functioning military organization.  Are we enemies of the State or really enemies of those that would like to be free to impose their own religious beliefs on their subordinates, all the while protected by the shield of senior rank and privilege?  If I’m branded as an insurgent, then I choose to wage my insurgency against bias and coercion, against those that do not support and defend our Constitution, and I welcome all others to the insurgency who share my commitment to those guarantees of freedom and the defense thereof.  I suppose that this is my first “shot” in that role.

The Accidental Insurgent, USAFA (Active Duty USAF Officer’s Name, Rank, AFSC, and USAF Academy Position Withheld)

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  1. Fact or Fiction?

    Some things to consider when reading this piece…..

    (1) USAFA Command Chaplain recieved and distributed CSAF Religious Neutrality Memo on 13 Sep 11
    (2) The Superintendent discussed CSAF Memo with his senior leadership and staff on 14 Sep 11
    (3) The Commandant sent the CSAF memo NOT to the entire cadet wing but to his leadership team [the Air Officers Commanding (AOCs) and Academy MilitaryTrainers (AMTs)] sometime the week of 20 Sep and they then decided how and when and if they distributed to their respective commands/cadets
    (3) After return from an out of town trip the Dean met face to face with all Academic Department Heads and faculty leaders and distributed and discussed the CSAF Memo on 26 Sep 11 at a previously scheduled Faculty Council meeting
    (4) In preparation for Ancillary Training and Faculty Religious Respect training which had been scheduled for the non-class days of 30 Sep and 14 Oct 11, the Dean’s CAG distributed the CSAF memo and redistributed the Dean of the Faculty’s Nov 2010 Religious Freedom memo to Department Heads on 29 Sep 11 for their use in their respective Department discussion sessions
    (5) The CSAF memo, and more importantly the spirit and intent of the CSAF’s message, was shared eye-to-eye with all faculty and staff within their work groups at the Air Force Academy

  2. BirdManBlue

    Fact or Fiction?

    (1) To whom?
    (2)-(5) All true.

    The perceived failure, though, can be seen in the pace at which the letter was disseminated among the rank-and-file, giving the impression (especially when compared to other organizations) that it was not fully appreciated or endorsed or expected to be enforced. Lots of things EVENTUALLY happen. The fact that they do, does little in the eyes of the afflicted to mitigate the damage caused by the delay. A good example might be Civil Rights. Does EVENTUALLY getting it right erase all responsibility for taking so long to do so?

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