Thursday, October 6, 2016
Col. John C. Walker
Commander, 39th Air Base Wing
Incirlik Air Base
5th SOK Street
Dear Colonel John C. Walker:
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has recently been retained by over 100 Incirlik Air Base personnel following the widely disseminated, internet publication of an article, on September 15, 2016, just 3 weeks ago today, by your very own Public Affairs office entitled, “Meet your leadership: Lt. Col. Michael Kersten, 39th MDSS commander”.
Most of these MRFF clients are under your direct command at the 39th Air Base Wing and include active duty USAF officers, enlisted and civilian personnel of many varied religious faiths (the majority of whom are practicing Christians) and no faith. Additionally, a number of Turkish military personnel and related Turkish nationals, the majority of whom are practitioners of the Islamic faith, also assigned at Incirlik were, like their fellow American/USAF MRFF allies, extremely offended and, consequently, very concerned about the ramifications from the following specific Q&A passage from this article:
Q: Is there a leader from your career that influenced you the most? If so, who, and how did they affect the way you lead?
A: There’s no ONE in particular. As a Christian, my example is to be like Christ. He is my guide and affects all of my decisions. He teaches to do all things as unto the Lord and I believe this is synonymous with integrity first and excellence in all we do.
While MRFF strongly supports and would effusively defend Lt. Col. Kersten’s personal right to believe as he chooses, we’re also confident that you, as the 39th Air Base Wing Commander, see the improper, coercive nature of these very public comments as to the obvious unconstitutional time, place, and manner of their unfortunate expression—which is exactly what prompted our new Incirlik clients to contact us. Specifically, Colonel Walker, let me reference an excerpt from Air Force Instruction (AFI) 1-1 (paragraphs 2.11 and 2.12, respectively) which states:
“Every Airman also has the right to individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs, to include conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs, unless those expressions would have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety, or mission accomplishment.” (emphasis added).
“They must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief, or absence of belief.” (emphasis added).
Lt. Col. Kersten willfully and definitively violated AFI 1-1 with his sectarian Christian proselytizing statement. He has proclaimed to the entire Incirlik Air Base community that ALL of his decisions are based upon his Christian faith. Moreover, and perhaps even more outrageously, he claims that his exclusivist Christian faith is synonymous with two of the three Air Force official core values.
In point of fact, sir, ALL of Lt. Col. Kersten’s decisions SHOULD be based upon his oath of office and allegiance to the United States Constitution to which he has sworn to protect and defend. By unequivocally stating to the world that ALL of his decisions are based upon his Christian faith, he has broadcast to his otherwise helpless subordinates, and the multitudes of other military and civilian members which the Air Force Squadron he now commands directly and indirectly serves, that he will, in a professional setting, place decision-making primacy on his personal version of his Christian religious faith over his official military duty. One has to wonder how that sits with those who don’t share his religious views. Will he (and by extension, his organization) treat non-believers, Jews or Muslims differently than Christians? He’s certainly planted that all-too-substantial seed of doubt with our MRFF client complainants and that, in itself, violates AFI 1-1. He has essentially stated that Christianity (or his particular interpretation/denomination of same) is the guiding policy of HIS command. He has VERY publicly endorsed his singular view of Christian faith supremacy and it is not unreasonable or irrational to think that this widespread endorsement in an official Air Force internet publication could and/or would lead to preferential treatment of those subordinates who share his views.
On behalf of our many MRFF clients, MRFF wonders if his foregoing statement of Christian triumphalism is the curious reason that Lt. Col. Kersten deliberately excluded a third official USAF core value, “Service Before Self”, in his Public Affairs interview statement? That particularly glaring omission seems, in fact, to state that his PERSONAL beliefs trump the service-motivated value of prioritizing duty to the Constitution (and mission).
We find Lt. Col. Kersten’s statement of Christian exceptionalism to be extremely egregious, defiant and violative of Constitutional, judicial and DoD regulatory mandates. Please keep well in mind, Colonel Walker, that Lt. Col. Kersten made these statements in an Islamic-allied country to boot! And, while others might think that it was a simple “personal statement”, the enormous flood of complaints emanating from Incirlik Air Base to our office testifies to a VERY different reality. USAF airmen/civilians and allied Turkish military personnel and civilians at your international military installation are now hesitant to deal with the 39th MDSS because of the commander’s declared Christian bias. Junior airmen who might not share Lt. Col. Kersten’s beliefs cannot be confident that they will be treated fairly based upon their performance—and not on their religion or lack thereof. More insidiously, since this article was published completely without subsequent repercussion by Lt. Col. Kersten’s chain of command, they cannot be assured that you and your subordinate commanders do not share the precisely same beliefs and priorities, thus creating a toxic environment in which preferential treatment for “appropriately declared Christians” and overt Christian proselytization are common place.
AFI 1-1 was written precisely for situations like this—to preserve a command environment in which all airmen, regardless of their religious faith or lack thereof, are treated fairly and perceive that their leaders are judging them based upon mission accomplishment and not extraneous, private issues. Just as we have absolute restrictions on the political activity of active duty members—and I’m sure that you’d agree that a similar statement by Lt. Col. Kersten extolling the leadership characteristics of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and expressing support for ONLY one of the presidential candidates in this forum would be improper and illegal—AFI 1-1 serves ALL of our airmen.
Colonel Walker, sir, in light of the extensively published article and the damage already caused, we at MRFF, representing our American and Turkish military and civilian clients, demand that you act swiftly to enforce AFI 1-1. To this end, MRFF demands that you (1) expeditiously and publicly rebuke Lt. Col. Kersten’s official statement—as contrasted with his private Christian faith belief which is not MRFF’s concern—(2) appropriately and visibly punish Lt. Col. Kersten for his unconstitutional and UCMJ-violating behavior; (3) apologize to your airmen and our Turkish allies, and; (4) reaffirm an inclusive 39th Air Base Wing command climate in which ALL USAF airmen/civilians and Turkish military/civilian members, regardless of their respective religion, race, gender, sexual preference, national origin, or political leanings are treated with equal and mutual respect and dignity. All individuals under your command, sir, must be made to feel welcomed and valued, and judged SOLELY on merit and mission accomplishment. Only through actions such as these can the good order, morale, discipline, military readiness, and unit cohesion of an effective military organization be restored.
We look forward to your timely response.
Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, Esq.
Founder and President
Military Religious Freedom Foundation