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A cadet's oath.

ON JUNE 29, 2000, I affirmed my Oath of Office at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I was charged to defend the constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Since I was young, I knew that I would someday be in the military to defend our freedoms from foreign enemies, however I never expected to face enemies wearing the same uniform as me.

When I began my training at the Academy there were occasional indicators that triggered me to stop and ask questions. For starters, during basic cadet training (BCT), a two-month course prior to the freshman year, we could either elect to go to church after the evening meals or go back to our rooms for personal time. Being an atheist I chose to go back to my room and relax, however in doing so I was marched in what was commonly called "Heathen Flight" and isolated from the rest of my peers in what was made to feel like a "walk of shame." At other times we were all gathered into mandatory group formations where a Christian chaplain would say a prayer (often in Jesus' name). I had no way to excuse myself from these events.

When cadets enter their sophomore year they're allowed more privileges such as receiving passes to go off base. One particular pass, the Church Pass, was meant to be used on Sundays because many training events were held on Fridays and Saturdays. Several Jewish friends of mine always complained about being looked down upon for trying to go to their synagogue on Saturdays. During this year I found a group that I related to in the Colorado Springs area called the Freethinkers. They held meetings on Wednesday nights to discuss many topics including world religions, atheism, society, and life in general. I made a request to attend through my chain of command and was denied several times. I was told that my cadet commander would not approve it, but he would look the other way if I left on Wednesdays and used one of my personal passes. This wasn't the answer I was looking for. However, this incident was small in comparison to the arrival of the new commandant of cadets my junior year.

Our new commandant called our parade formation to attention to recite a Christian prayer and throughout that year pushed his beliefs on others and introduced ways to spread those beliefs throughout the Academy. He spoke at a religious meeting and introduced a call-and-response that began with him yelling, "Airpower!" followed by cadets responding, "Rock Sir!" It's derived from Matthew 7:24-28 and Luke 6:46-49 where Jesus is the "rock" or foundation of faith and was meant to inspire cadets to evangelize other cadets.

The movie The Passion of the Christ also premiered that year and with it another Christian push to the cadet population. Flyers and email announcements went out to recruit people to see the movie. At that point many people at the Academy saw this and knew it was wrong, so the commandant was to make an announcement at the dining hall in front of all cadets. He opened with "Airpower!" Many cadets exclaimed "Rock Sir!" in response. I took this as a message to those who understood that he was then going to say something he didn't believe, something he was forced to say.

As I went through my four years at the Academy I spoke out about incidents such as this and was labeled a troublemaker. After a while I kept quiet and just watched, listened, and collected all the information I could. I didn't know exactly what to do with it all, so I eventually went to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for help. The head of the OIG took the information from me and said he would speak to the leadership about it. I never heard back from him. After some time I decided to try the Air Force Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) Program, the stated objective of which is to "eliminate unlawful discrimination against military personnel, family members, and retirees based on race, color, national origin, religion, or sex." While I was explaining my case, mentioning that I was atheist, the MEO officer on duty tried to convert me to Christianity.

I next went to my chain of command and explained the situation. They agreed that since some of the problems were stemming from the Academy leadership it was appropriate to go outside the organization. I filed my complaint at the Pentagon level and an investigation ensued. Months went by and a report finally came out concluding that the problems I spoke of were misunderstood and that the system for reporting these incidents was not working properly. No punishments were awarded to those who grossly abused the Constitution to spread their beliefs. To me the whole thing was a farce with no real resolution.

Religious intolerance by way of "in-your-face Christianity" is very similar to sexual harassment. Until the military leadership truly steps in to correct the rising religious intolerance at the U.S. Air Force Academy, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, American's United for Separation of Church and State, and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation will champion the cause. I hope they can uphold our Constitution. I've done my part.

Patrick Kucera graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2004 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He is currently deployed to Iraq on a one-year assignment as an advisor to the Iraqi Army.
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Author:Kucera, Patrick
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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