Religious respect conference attendees discuss Academy's progress

Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould speaks with Bishop Michael Sheridan and Scott Levin during the Academy's 2012 religious respect conference. Sheridan represents the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services. Levin is director of the Rocky Mountain Region of the Anti-Defamation League. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)

Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould speaks with Bishop Michael Sheridan and Scott Levin during the Academy's 2012 religious respect conference. Sheridan represents the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services. Levin is director of the Rocky Mountain Region of the Anti-Defamation League. (U.S. Air Force photo/Don Branum)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Representatives from Air Force major commands, religious endorsing organizations, First Amendment watchdog groups and others gathered at the Air Force Academy Oct. 30-31 to review the religious climate here.

Chief among the topics discussed was the religious respect training program, which was established after a similar conference in 2010 outlined what form it should take.

Cadet 4th Class Wasim Soomro captured the attention of the attendees with a recollection of his experiences Wednesday morning. Soomro, a native of Columbus, Ohio, is from a Muslim family.

"Coming here for basic cadet training, I had a lot of questions on my mind," Soomro said. "We pray five times per day, we don't eat pork. There's various little things. I thought I was going to blow it off -- I was told not to stand out. Just get through basic, and then remember my faith again."

But Soomro didn't have to put his faith aside for BCT. The military guidance officer for Soomro's unit, Cadet Squadron 39, visited him on his second night of basic cadet training. The MGO knew from Soomro's biography that he was Muslim and wanted to know how to meet his religious needs.

"He asked me what times of day I was supposed to pray," Soomro said. "I told him the morning was huge, and then the midday."

Mid-morning prayers can be joined with noon prayers, and sunset prayers can be joined with before-bed prayer, but early morning and midday were essential, he explained.

"We had basic wake-ups, where we're given 30 seconds to shave, and by the time we get out the door, we're already late," he said. "But the third morning of basic, I got a knock on my door five minutes before that to pray. I may have prayed more consistently at basic than I did at home."

He and fellow Muslim cadets also received permission not to fast during the portion of Ramadan that overlapped with Phase 2 of BCT through a fatwa, or religious edict. Muslims are normally required to fast from sunrise to sunset during the month-long observance.

"We do have to make it up, but the fatwa allowed us to miss Ramadan with a clear conscience," he said.

Soomro said those accommodations exemplify a culture at the Academy that respects members of various religions. But it goes beyond worship services, even influencing interpersonal communication.

"I think it's actually brought me closer to them because they know who I truly am, and they're not afraid to come ask questions," he said.

Establishing an understanding of diverse backgrounds encourages respect, said Brig. Gen. Cathy Chilton, the mobilization assistant to Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould.

"Not understanding religion leads to fear," she said. "Even though it's different from way I believe ... it really does help you to be able to get along, to understand where they're coming from. The military is a team - we can't do what we do without being a team."

The chaplain corps has worked to institutionalize the religious respect training program so that it will endure when new leaders arrive. That step is important to prevent the climate here from backsliding, said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Dan Brantingham.

"The institutional mission is to develop leaders of character," Brantingham said. "This is an institutional issue. I'm firmly convinced the Academy's senior leadership is committed to this. This is a system that couldn't work if not for senior leaders broadcasting the expectation of respect for human dignity."

Chaplain (Col.) Robert Bruno, the Air Force Academy chaplain, said the Air Force's senior leaders also support the Academy's religious respect initiatives.

"If a future superintendent tries to change that, I think - I hope - he would be called to account for that," Bruno said.

The long-term outcome of the training program will be to wash away "islands of intolerance" that still exist within the organizational Air Force. One cadet experienced an incident during a visit to a base in which he was discriminated against due to his religion, said Chaplain (Maj.) Shawn Menchion, the chapel's chief of plans and programs.

"Initially, he was with a maintenance unit, and they were doing an icebreaker," Menchion said. "He shared who he was, what his faith background was. A little while after that, he noticed that no one came around him. What had happened was that one of the senior enlisted members shared with his junior enlisted (Airmen) that they were not to go to him because of his religious background.

"That moved me to tears because, in 2011, we still had to deal with discrimination based on someone's religion," Menchion continued. "If you've never experienced any type of discrimination, then you don't know what type of pain people feel. It makes me want to press harder to emphasize the importance of being one team, focusing on the mission and taking care of one another."

Beyond religious respect training, the chaplains keep a lookout for incidents of disrespect and ask the members of the Cadet Interfaith Council to do the same, Brantingham said.

"We try to keep our ears open," he said. "The Cadet Interfaith Council is closer than we are, and we ask them to be the first responders if at all possible," he said. "Wherever we can hear it, wherever we can find it, we will address it, and where we can get the cadets to address it first, that's even better."

Representatives said they're encouraged by the training program and by the climate evidenced in Soomra's example.

"It validates what you are doing," said Scott Levin, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Rocky Mountain Region. "This is a changing culture. It's not just in the classroom - it's in the cafeteria, it's on the parade field. When it's a peer who reaches out, it's culture. When people in his unit are freely asking about his religion, and when he feels free to answer, that's a culture change, so congratulations."

Retired Col. Frank Clawson, representing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the conference illustrates that the Air Force Academy has not swung the pendulum so far that people are afraid to discuss religion altogether.

"Our biggest concern was that ... we'd become a secular university with no opportunities for religious respect, and those who wanted to exercise their faith would be so looked down on that there would be no religious discussion at all," Clawson said. "I was so encouraged with (Soomra) ... to see how you've taken the concept (of religious respect training) and that we've seen very positive results the first year."

Clawson cautioned the chaplains to keep their training scenarios both current and engaging to prevent the fatigue that can otherwise set in.

"You have to keep rejuvenating these to keep them current and relevant," he said.

Dr. David Oringderff represents the Sacred Well Congregation, a Wiccan faith group that serves as an endorsing body for Congress and for other non-Defense Department government organizations. He attended the 2010 conference and returned for this year's.

"When I came back this time, I expected to see some movement forward. I did not expect to see the enormity of the movement forward," Oringderff said.