Pagans Get “Warm Welcome” at Lackland AFB, USAFA
A “pagan newswire collective” article on the religious environment in the US Air Force painted a picture of a tolerant, accepting, and respectful military treatment of even the most minority religions.
The pagan report is only the most recent outside observer to highlight the positive religious environment in the US Air Force. Starting at Lackland Air Force Base:
“Our airmen…should know that the Air Force has gone to great lengths to ensure their spirit was nurtured while in basic training,” says Rev. Tamie Rieth…, the Wicca Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL) at Lackland for just over 6 years. Rev. Rieth is one of 5 instructors who lead the weekly Wiccan services for BMT trainees.
The article says 150 to 300 trainees attend the Sunday Wicca services, which appears statistically abnormal compared to the active duty Air Force. A significantly higher percentage (2 to 4%) of trainees is attending than actually claim Wicca or any related faith in the Air Force. Then again, it is a truism that chapel attendance is higher in basic training than on active duty, and the two-hour Wicca class may present an excellent opportunity to get away from the structured training environment (something even the quotes in the article suggest).
The article goes on to praise the Air Force’s introduction of religious services to the trainees, the lack of pressure, and the lack of penalty to those who choose not to attend. Quotes within the article from recent graduates claiming a Wiccan faith said with regard to Sunday services, “people didn’t care:”
There were people who went to the Christian services that weren’t Christian and people went to the Wicca services that were Christian and wanted to learn more about it or found the time more opportune. No one really cared.
Rieth is apparently being replaced as the faith group leader by retired Lieutenant Colonel Tony Gatlin. He notes the religious environment in basic training builds trust the airmen will take into active duty, which is a positive for everyone concerned. He also notes he was approached while on active duty by airmen who wanted to learn about his faith while he was deployed to Afghanistan.
As a Wiccan retired officer, Gatlin had strong words for the religious environment in the Air Force:
[Lt. Col. Gatlin] says service members can always turn to Chaplains and DFGLs for help, “You can rely on the Chaplains in the field. They are wonderful, supportive. It doesn’t matter what faith you are, they are willing to help you and service your faith needs.”
The pagan newswire also covered the US Air Force Academy, quoting a senior cadet on the religious atmosphere at USAFA:
Cadet Nicole Johnson, a senior at the AFA, has experienced the willingness of AFA Chaplains to help cadets of any religion, “The Chaplains are wonderful. You can go to them with any problem. It can be just an every day problem or a spiritual problem and they are more than willing to help you out with it or connect you to the right people.”
Interestingly, the article included a not-so-subtle dig at Academy critic Michael Weinstein when it repeated the oft-quoted frustration of cadets about overreactions and manufactured controversies at USAFA:
The Cadet Interfaith Council…assists the Chaplain Corps in monitoring the religious respect climate on the campus. Chaplain[(LtCol) Dan] Brantingham says the Council, “has expressed frustration the press does not report on what they see and experience day in and day out, a climate of religious respect, and continues to unquestioningly keep slapping the Academy with the 2005 story-line.”
The article also details the history of the “Falcon Circle” portion of the USAFA cadet chapel — and how it resulted in the resignation of the pagan leader, TSgt Brandon Longcrier:
The circle drew world wide notice when it was dedicated in Spring of this year. Some of the news articles and editorials were good, much of it was not. It also resulted in the resignation of Longcrier as DFGL at the Academy, “The Wing Chaplain and I had some very heated discussions about the name of the Circle. He kept wanting to call the Earth-Centered Circle a Chapel and also wanted anyone to be able to use it. To me, this was taking away something that belonged to us.”
Longcrier’s complaint isn’t entirely valid (as noted before), and he ultimately lost. It seems his Wiccan certifier, Dr. David Oringderff, and Longcrier’s replacement, Maj Kelly Ihme, supported the decisions about the circle.
Major Ihme said they initially had some “problems with Christians praying for [their] sins,” but the circle is apparently visited only by the pagans now.
As to their treatment at USAFA:
Johnson says in the four years she’s been at the Academy she’s never experienced a problem with religious discrimination or harassment…
Major Ihme wants Pagans considering applying to the Air Force Academy to feel reassured, “You don’t have to be nervous or afraid because every belief system is OK at the Academy. We will back you up.”
“You don’t have to be scared about sharing your religion or think you need to stay in the broom closet about it,” Cadet Johnson says. “People are very understanding. We have officers in charge of us who are very understanding, the Chaplains are very understanding so it’s very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy.”
Much like the Jewish cadets who spoke at the 116th Jewish War Veterans Convention, it seems these pagans failed to get Michael Weinstein’s script of Christians trying to take over the world. Richard will probably be along to say these pagans have “sold themselves to the [Christian] dominionists.”
The truth is USAFA, and the US military, have an admirable record with regard to religious freedom and the institutional religious environment. Like every institution, there will almost certainly be incidents of every kind to deal with. The prevailing sentiment, however, is one of respect and tolerance — and the feeling that Michael Weinstein has to recycle tired insinuations from 2005 to keep himself in the news.