AF Generals Mark Welsh, Larry Spencer Highlight Need for Respect

In a commentary entitled “Every Airman Counts: Treating each other with dignity and respect,” General Larry Spencer, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, nobly attempted to laud the virtue of respect.  He recounts the story of a fellow Airman using the “N word” during a flag football game many years ago:

I was certainly no stranger to harsh language or “trash talk.” However, this was different—and it literally hurt…I was an American Airman and I didn’t expect that kind of verbal attack from a fellow Airman…

Several Airmen, on both sides of the ball, spoke up — forcefully. They chastised the offender and made it clear they did not approve of his outbursts or attitude. The referee, who was an NCO, also stepped forward and not only ejected him from the game, but directed him to report to his first sergeant the following day. The next day, not only did my teammates (on both teams) go out of their way to apologize for this single Airman’s behavior, but the Airman who committed the act also personally apologized.

Gen Spencer later said 

Airmen don’t care about their fellow Airman’s race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. We focus on character, commitment, professional competence and leadership…

General Mark Welsh, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, similarly spoke on respect while at the US Air Force Academy.  After getting a “rock star” welcome by USAFA cadets, General Welsh said:

I want you to fully appreciate the value of the people you are sitting beside — all of them, even the ones you don’t like…You have no idea — no idea — who is going to be in that medical crew that your life depends on. You have no idea who’s going to be in the cockpit of the airplane that provides close-air support … You have no idea who the number-four aircraft in that formation’s going to be when you’re leading your four-ship into combat 15 years from now … who will have your life in their hands. You have no clue who that’s going to be…

Value everybody. Understand that everybody in this business is critically important to what we do. They all bring something different that you don’t have. They all matter, and they all deserve to be treated with respect, here and in the Air Force. Understand that respect is the key to success — that inclusion is part of our strength, and that without diversity, we have a glaring shortfall.

The Generals’ comments come at a time in which there is a wide-ranging controversy on “respect” in the US military.  Given the timing of the statements, it seems to indicate a “leadership focus” on the issue of “respect” in the Air Force.

The very first comment on the official Air Force site hosting Gen Spencer’s column gives some indication of the environment to which they were speaking [emphasis added]:

General, thank you for your insight. I submit to you that worse than an Airman disparaging my identity is the Air Force doing so, yet that is exactly what has been happening to me and many of my “white, male, healthy, heterosexual, Christian” colleagues…

Other comments on the site recall the recent controversies highlighted in the media in which the religious freedom of Christians in the military has been attacked not only by other Airmen, but also seemingly by the Air Force itself.

It’s almost as if Generals Welsh and Spencer were making an effort to directly address those recent accusations — by Congress even — that the military and the Air Force had taken on a hostile view toward troops who held religious beliefs.

The military value — the Air Force value explicitly stated by its Chief of Staff — is to value everyone, which includes even those Christians some people might not like.

Unfortunately, it seems the value of “respect” in the military isn’t always mutual.  While there appear to be a few stories of Christians in the US military being threatened or punished merely for having religious beliefs (not for showing “disrespect” through those beliefs), it does not seem their peers who fail to “respect” their religious beliefs are held to the same standard.

For example, addressing the controversy surrounding SMSgt Philip Monk at Lackland Air Force Base, a self-described atheist fellow Air Force Senior NCO said [emphasis added]:

[Military] Christians complain because they feel “persecuted” because they are not allowed to harass or intimidate non-christian or the LGBT community while in uniform. These people are…purveyors of hate and disinformation to push their own agenda upon those that disagree. The military does not allow for religious people to do this…This doesn’t mean that someone can’t be religious in the Air Force. It means that they have to keep their mouth shut, or face the consequences if they vomit their hate speech onto others.

Can you imagine the reaction if a Christian Airmen had said his fellow Airmen were “purveyors of hate and disinformation” who need to “keep their mouth shut?”  How does that “respect” mesh with the Chief’s commentary?

The committee that produced the survey and plan for implementing the repeal of DADT specifically called out the conflict between religious values and repeal, and it, too, called on the need for respect:

Respect strengthens the team and is the most important value associated with the effective inclusion of any new group. Respect does not mean agreement with a person’s point of view. Respect does mean honoring a person’s right to hold their point of view even if it differs from yours.

The manual made clear the guidance applied in both directions:

Leaders must ensure that unit members are respectful and do not refer to individuals or groups in a derogatory way. This includes gay and lesbian individuals as well as people who have moral or religious concerns with repeal, all of whom could be stereotyped in a negative way.

Right or wrong, there has recently been a perception that “respect” is a one way street in the military.  Rather than a global requirement that Airmen are required to “respect” each other — whether they agree or not — the perception is that only some Airmen are required to show such “respect.”

It seems Generals Welsh and Spencer set out to correct that perception.