Colorado Springs: And Jesus wept
4 June 2005
'Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.'
- High Flight by John Gillespie Magee Jnr.
An excerpt from a hymn which features in a
promotional video for the USAFA.
If you go to the website of the US Air Force Academy, you can watch a short film which explains exactly what the USAFA is all about. What it's all about, as you might have guessed anyway if you can manage to put the raging homosexuality of Top Gun out of your mind, is the moulding of future leaders through spiritual, physical and academic development, the pursuit of excellence, both individually and as part of an invincible team, and the attainment of honour. Honour is very important to the USAFA. They even have a code devoted to it.
On the subject of said code, and in time-honoured film-trailer bombast, the narrator of the film declares: 'The Honour Code is one of the cornerstones of character development. Equally important to an officer's character is treating each person with respect and dignity, and conducting one's affairs in an honourable and ethical manner.' Sadly, the Honour Code has recently been, if not exactly called into question, then certainly marched all over with nasty bullyboy jackboots.
Jennifer Bier is a private therapist in Colorado Springs, which is also the home of the USAFA. Bier currently faces arrest over her refusal to hand over confidential records of sessions with one of her clients to the US military. The sessions in question were those conducted with former Academy cadet Jessica Brakey, one of two female cadets claiming to have been sexually assaulted by 1st Lt. Joseph Harding in 1999 and 2000, while Harding was still in training.
On Wednesday morning Bier appeared before a judge in Texas, where Harding's court-martial is due to take place, reiterated her refusal to comply with the subpoena requesting her client's records and asserted that the subpoena itself is unconstitutional. Her lawyer Wendy Murphy pointed out that, 'The accused has no constitutional right to conduct a fishing expedition in the private records of a rape victim, or any kind of victim.' Earlier in the week, Bier herself told the press, 'I think it's just appalling that this order places me and, to a larger extent, other therapists in the position of having to choose between serving our clients ethically or protecting ourselves.' She added, 'I'm mostly afraid victims won't come forward anymore.'
The outcome of this case will set a precedent for other cases in which the military attempt to trample over the rights of individuals in an attempt to serve their own ends. Whether Bier wins this case or not however, or indeed whether Jessica Brakey wins hers or not, this story is just the unsavoury tip of a particularly grubby iceberg. It cannot be said to be without significance that Jessica Brakey is only one of dozens of female cadets who have claimed that they have been raped or sexually assaulted at the Academy, only then to be ignored, put under pressure to keep quiet or even punished when they have spoken out.
So much then, for respect and dignity. But what about touching the face of God? Well, as it happens, the USAFA is an awful lot better at that, even if in reality that touch is more of an overzealous grope. And so we come to the pressing problem of Enforced Evangelism. Although, to listen to that slinky promo, you'd never have guessed. In the words of one cadet: 'The Academy is very interested in ensuring that its graduates do have an opportunity to practise their spiritual needs. It doesn't advocate one certain religion over another, but it tries to ensure that all have equal representation or opportunity to practise their religion.' Other commentators, from both inside and outside the Academy, have been forced to disagree. Rather, they maintain that evangelical Christianity has been established as the Academy's official religion and that, for any cadet without that evangelical streak, life at the Academy can be a real crucible.
In the football locker room there is a copy of the 'Competitor's Creed', which includes the lines 'I am a Christian first and last' and, 'I am a member of Team Jesus Christ'. Well, fair enough, you might think. If you're a little confused about life.
Unfortunately there is little room for opting out of Team Jesus,and legion are the stories of the bullying of the less than fervent. Robyn Blumner in the Salt Lake Tribune describes an environment in which cadets are 'cajoled, harangued and even bullied into being ''saved''.' And Jesus shuddered.
One woman who has spoken out from within the system is Captain MeLinda Morton. Perhaps surprisingly, Morton was a Lutheran minister and Executive Officer of the Chaplain Unit at the USAFA. And you know that if the chaplain is trying to put the brakes on religious recruitment, there something is seriously wrong.
'There's nothing wrong with people reaching out to cadets,' Morton said. 'But when the purpose is to proselytize and make the military into a godly force, then that's inappropriate.' She also told the Washington Post that 'the Evangelicals want to subvert the system. They have a very clear social and political agenda.' Her reward for speaking out was less surprising. Morton was relieved of her duties within the chaplaincy and in her remaining military role transferred, as of next month, to Okinawa, Japan.
The USAFA is of course not the only military training academy in America, but its location in Colorado Springs, a veritable hotbed of the religious Right, makes it deliciously special. Indeed, just a hop, skip and a manly jump away from the Academy is the wonderfully well-intentioned Focus on the Family.
And 'cross town there's what Harper's magazine described as America's Most Powerful Megachurch.
Colorado Springs is one hell of a place. And you know, the USAFA has had one hell of a week. Not only is Jennifer Bier fighting for her right to do her job properly, but also, another separate court-martial trial for yet another senior cadet accused of yet another rape kicked off on Saturday. And as if that weren't enough, Wednesday was Graduation Day. And guess who came to town with words of hope and encouragement. That's right. Dick Cheney!
Graduation Day is probably the most exciting day of the year at the Academy. Especially for this year's top-ranking cadet, one Nicholas Jurewicz. In honour of his achievement, Jurewicz inherited the title Wing Commander. And on the eve of the proudest day of his life, Wing Commander Nicholas Jurewicz sent out an email to this year's batch of freshmen (and freshwomen), as well as the sophomore and junior classes - about 3,000 cadets in total. The email included a list of Jurewicz's favourite quotations, which were no doubt meant to encourage and inspire.
Take these quotes on board, the inference goes, and maybe one day you too could be Wing Commander. Thankfully there was nothing extolling the virtues on non-consensual sex. There were however a number of Christly quotes, one of which the most commonly cited in subsequent reports, goes: 'Bear one another's burdens, and so you will fulfil the law of Christ.'
In itself, this doesn't seem so bad. But in context, it is the work of an idiot.
The Air Force Academy has been so very widely criticised for its religious fanaticism recently that a specially-appointed Pentagon task force has descended upon and is currently formalising its whitewash. Er, investigation. As a result of the furore, cadets have had to attend Religious Tolerance seminars, during which they have been specifically reminded that Air Force policy prohibits the passing of personal messages within official email.
So what does Wing Commander Jurewicz go and do?
And the scary thing is, he *is* the sharpest tool in the box.
The Academy are looking into it. The Pentagon are looking in its general direction but almost certainly won't see anything. And who's this oozing into view on Wednesday? That's right, it's Dick Cheney! Wow. All this and Dick Cheney too.
As usual, Dick kept to the agenda and ignored the point. He made no mention of scandal, no mention of regret. He spoke instead in pure and unassailable concretes. Here's an excerpt: 'After 9/11, this nation made a decision. We will not sit back and wait for future attacks. We will prevent those attacks by taking the fight to the enemy.' At which point hats were thrown in the air,America was blessed and the enemy - women, atheists, whatever - were damned to fiery hell for all eternity.