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Lying to Survive at the Air Force Academy: An Open Letter to Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson

“We, of Spartacus, live a total lie every single day and night to survive here.”

The following letter was written by a client of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO:

I am Spartacus.

I am over 100 cadets strong at the USAF Academy. I am also the seventh Spartacus in succession, covering more than six and a half years since first appearing within the AF Academy Cadet Wing in the summer of 2007.

We, of Spartacus, live a total lie every single day and night to survive here.

In our world here at the Air Force Academy, having the indispensable odor of a practicing, “all in”, committed Christian among our peers and superiors means being accepted as one of the pack. With that “in” smell, no one bothers us, tries to convert us, questions our honor, our commitment to service, our motives—we are generally left to our own devices, studying, practicing, flying, athletics and marching.

Frequently, though, and to our disgust, we feel forced to embrace the odor; to “roll in it.” If the odor fades, or we slip outside of the pack for too long and the alphas and betas sense that we are drifting, we are reined back in with a subtle sniff or bark or nip to make sure that we know our place. If we question or run away or attempt to fight back, then the pack circles and strikes. We’ve seen this happen to our friends and (mostly) to those outside our pack and it’s just not worth the risk. The pack howls: “He doesn’t get it. He can’t be one of our honorable pack. She can’t be an alpha and lead us. She can’t excel in THIS pack—not while we rule the pack. Not while we’re the majority.”

Some cadets decide to fight, but that doesn’t last long. They’re trouble makers. They’re not team players. They don’t have “character” or ethical standards. They’re deviants. We’ll remember them and keep them at bay. “See, he doesn’t bow his head when WE pray. She’s not one of us.” Branded as outsiders, those who choose to remain may form a small group that meets in a basement. They console themselves with stories of persecution, but they will remain outside the circles of power dictated by the larger pack. They are constantly reminded, too, that they don’t have the right odor and that they can only be “saved” if they give in and clearly surrender to the pack’s standard of what Jesus is supposed to be. And, to the pack members, especially great rewards come to those that bring the errant cadets back to the pack.

We, of Spartacus, don’t fight, though. Not yet. We admire those who do, but our dream is to succeed and excel and prepare to serve once we escape the Academy’s South Gate entrance’s gravity permanently. We deeply fear that word of our not belonging to the great pack (or even suspicion thereof) will follow us after the Thunderbirds roar overhead at our graduation and that friends and leaders of USAFA’s pack will be all too ready to poison our futures, wherever we go. We’ve seen it happen. Over and over again. We know it will.

So, we choose to take (what some would say is) the coward’s path, rationalizing that the ends (serving our nation honorably) DO justify the means. We hold our noses and, though we loathe that particular smell, we roll. We roll with the pack watching us, we go to the prayer breakfasts quietly, but just often enough to quell suspicion, so we can eat and sleep and study and march in peace and unmolested. We put the “right’ Christian books, DVDs and CDs on our shelves. We always enthusiastically say Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays. We know that MOST of our squadron-mates find the smell of this “only way, truth and life” to be homey and comforting, den-like and warm. They gain great confidence and (some would claim) a sense of peace from it, but it’s not our personal perfume, it’s not how we’d LIKE to feel, and so it comes at a terrible and frightening cost–to our spirit, our psyche, our self esteem and our personal sense of honor.

Occasionally, and at great risk, some of us—introduced silently, as roaming eyes, during group prayer, occasionally meet a sympathetic glance—secretly gather away from the pack and vent our rage at the AF Academy system that maintains and feeds the pack. In our little subpack, we rant that the pack doesn’t just exclude and shun outsiders and those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ, but in particular those who don’t believe in him robustly enough; the “right way.” There is only one accepted aroma in the pack. It’s the unforgiving stench of brutal evangelism, fundamentalism, restriction, and judgment. We rage that everyone just assumes that all cadets must beseech God to be honorable, that if we don’t add four special words (“So help me God”) to our oaths, at appropriately audible levels. we will be “outed,” judged for being terminally unworthy. Mostly, we scream about needing to roll in the odor to succeed and how much we hate the dishonorable act of lying to everyone, especially ourselves. When Spartacus graduates at the end of each academic year, we choose a successor. I am the seventh.

Occasionally, we get glimmers of hope, though—only to be dashed by those we assume must be the highest pack leaders—long-time members themselves, in good standing since they were cadets. When a USAFA employee makes a very public proclamation that he will ignore published Air Force policy and try to bring as many in his organization into the pack as he can, try to convince all those around him to roll in the pack’s odor, we hope that this will finally cause the break—but nothing happens. When it is discovered that one of the high counselors of the pack has a long history of practicing shaman, and universally discredited, psychology at the cost of who-knows-how-many, all in the name of the pack, nothing happens. We’re told that he doesn’t REALLY interact with the other wolves—he’s just the “chief of counseling wolves”. Meanwhile, at least nine cadets of Spartacus fear his influence because they know that HE THINKS he can change their “chosen” deviant lesbian, gay and bisexual ways.

And then, just this week, something truly remarkable happens. One of the pack—we assume he had to be one of the pack—speaks the simplest truths by reading an Air Force Instruction aloud. (We thought the AFI was just window-dressing to calm the jackals, never really to be enforced or even spoken.) He tells hundreds under his command that their religion is their personal decision and that they should not “share” it with their students and subordinates because of the effect it might have in the classroom and the office—because of the POWER inherent to the military and educational hierarchy. That he, and we, should respect the privacy and beliefs of all, and that belief or non-belief should not be a basis for judgment. He actually recognized exactly how we feel every day and said so publicly. Some cheered (deep inside themselves), but no one clapped nor even commented beyond muffled whispers because, in the end, he’s just not the Alpha Wolf.

You are, Lt. Gen. Johnson. And only you.

Some of us thought, “Wow, this is great. Now that this is out in the open, the Superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, will be asked about it and she’ll support his words publicly and maybe, just maybe, we can be ourselves and stop the charade.” But, we haven’t heard a thing from you at all. Deafening silence. Why?

We could assume that you support his statements, but we can’t be sure because we’ve been badly burned by this before. We’ve been told publicly, at the Academy’s own symposium on character and leadership, by the previous Superintendent’s wife (and others) that our number one priority must be GOD—presumably her idea of God (Jesus-on-steroids) and that without faith — HER faith — we are nothing. Our leaders still “invite” us to the Prayer Luncheon and the Prayer Breakfast and take mental attendance of the pack members there with heads bowed. Nothing’s changed in our eyes—yet.

Please speak for us, Lt. Gen. Johnson. Please, ma’am, reiterate, for all to see and hear, the Dean’s words, expand upon them, and START the process by which we can all stop the lies and live unjudged, unsegregated, and honorably. We can’t and won’t be open without that step. We can’t run the risk. We can’t use the USAFA chain of command we’re taught to trust because we fear that the pack IS the chain. We want to serve. But, until the Alpha Wolf tells us otherwise, you leave us no choice but to hold our noses and roll in that odor to stay safe.

We detest that we have no other choices.

I am Spartacus.

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