The last decade wasn't always kind to the Air Force Academy. In January 2003, Westword published "The War Within," a feature by reporter Julie Jargon about mistreatment of female cadets that kicked off a series of scandals and PR black eyes. Among the latter: A 2005 military study that documented religious intolerance at the Academy, some of it reportedly aimed at cadets who weren't evangelical Christians.
In the years since then, the Academy has tried to prove its openness to attendees of all faiths. The latest effort? The establishment of a worship space specifically designed for use by cadets and staffers who practice Earth-centered beliefs, including Pagans, Wiccans and Druids.
As AFA spokesman John Van Winkle puts it, "We've been working to instill the Air Force expectations of respect for others, and religious respect is part of that. Word and deed."
According to Van Winkle, the Academy has long sponsored an organization called Special Programs In Religious Education, aka SPIRE. "It's existed since the '70s," he says, noting that "if enough cadets in a certain faith group want to have a certain program, the chaplain will support that. We will make time in their academic schedule for them to take part in their religious education group and work to find someone in that faith group in the chaplaincy, among the staff or in the local community."
Van Winkle says the Academy has been home to an Earth-centered group for "at least ten years," with participants using a worship area in the Jacks Valley portion of the facility. But the space's location is hardly convenient.
"The Air Force Academy is physically larger than the island of Manhattan -- about 19,000 acres," Van Winkle points out. "And the Jacks Valley is quite a distance from the cadet area. So we were looking to improve the area and put it closer to the cadets, so it's a short walk rather than a run or walk of a couple of miles. That's of key importance, because as a cadet, time management is a survival skill -- and the less time you can spend in transit between locations, the better."
The new area comes at "zero cost" to the taxpayer, Van Winkle stresses, with the SPIRE group doing most of the work to create a stone circle for worship. It's in place now, but owing to what Van Winkle refers to as "the last bit of administrative paperwork," it probably won't receive a formal dedication until March.
At that point, the circle will officially become one of the Academy's worship spaces, joining a Buddhist temple built in late 2007 that remains the only such facility in the Department of Defense.
In the meantime, Van Winkle makes it clear that the Academy wants cadets from every background to feel welcome.
"The Air Force is dedicated to providing an environment that doesn't condone hostile attitudes toward anyone, and that includes the Air Force Academy," he says. "We continue to focus on religious respect and make sure that all of our airmen respect the spirit and intent of the First Amendment. When we sign up, we take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and we should allow our members to practice the same rights that we sign on to protect -- and religious respect is all about that.
"These are going to be America's future leaders in the Air Force and in the country. They have to be able to take a diverse group of people and combine them into a group with respect for everybody's beliefs in order to carry out the mission. And that starts right here."