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Good Riddance to the Air Force's Religious Intolerance Enabler in Chief

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In his last agonizing days, the now-disgraced former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno lamented publicly, "I wish I had done more.” Indeed, we all wish he had. As we’ve now come to learn, the debacle of pedophilia revealed at Penn State would not have occurred if not for the clear complicity of coach Joe Paterno, who helped to orchestrate a careful cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s reprehensible pattern of serial sexual molestation. Paterno’s concealment of Sandusky’s vile misdeeds ruined his own legacy as coach and forever stained the reputation of Penn State’s athletics program.

A similar drama has played out within the ranks of the United States Air Force (USAF). Rather than the odious offense of covering up sexual abuse, we have seen the vast cover-up of an unlawful epidemic whereby many thousands of men and women within the ranks of the USAF have been subject to serial religious abuse and molestation. The national security repercussions of this ongoing crisis are all too dire, and as was the case at Penn State, the responsibility for this scandal ultimately lies with the most senior leadership.

On August 10, 2012, the current Chief of Staff (Commander) of the USAF, General Norton A. "Norty" Schwartz, will saunter off into a plush and comfortable retirement. Schwartz has spent 39 years on active duty, with the last four of these years being spent as the singular leader in charge of the USAF. I know this man well, and he knows me well too – all too well. We first met in his lavish Pentagon office nearly three and a half years ago. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the civil rights activism of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), the organization that I founded in 2005. Then, as now, MRFF had been in a state of perpetual conflict not only with the USAF, but the whole of the Department of Defense (DoD), regarding the out of control command-influenced proselytizing by fundamentalist Christians throughout the ranks of our armed forces. In fact, the initial meeting between Schwartz and myself was covered in an article by New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eric Lichtblau in late February of 2009. Norty said some things in that meeting that gave me some hope that maybe (just maybe) we had finally found a senior Pentagon military official who would stand up to this tidal wave of predatory religious bigotry. The most important advice he gave me was to never lose "my vitriol" lest the Pentagon stop listening to the Constitutional civil rights battle of MRFF. Well, Norty, this Op-Ed is a testament to how seriously I took your counsel. In careful retrospect, it is likely the only truth you have ever spoken to me.

As months passed and turned into years, Norty and I spoke frequently. Sometimes we spoke numerous times each month, and occasionally we spoke numerous times a week.  Indeed, I still have a plethora of voicemails left by him from when I was unable to answer his calls. When we did speak, he was always superficially courteous and disingenuously engaging. He would often prattle on about Air Force football and an array of other matters inconsequential to the epidemic of religious supremacy metastasizing at light speed throughout the Air Force under his command. When we would finally get down to brass tacks, he supposedly took attentive notes, promising to expeditiously tackle the dire matters of religious bigotry that were the subjects of our continual years of discussions.

At my urging, Schwartz and I had organized a protocol that was supposed to address, in a timely manner, the mounting, desperate calls for help that MRFF received from thousands of terribly aggrieved USAF members. Without going into specifics, let me say that in the fullness of time it became bitterly apparent that Norty never meant to embrace, support, or endorse this plan to fight the brutal religious intolerance flourishing under his command. Sure, he would commiserate with me through the course of countless phone calls, complaining that he only had "so much institutional influence" over the USAF. When I described the real-world consequences wrought upon the USAF by this maelstrom of fundamentalist Christian tyranny and provided him incontrovertible proof of same, including eyewitnesses, he would tell me that he "could not be everyone's Wing Commander.” After years of continuously promising me the opportunity to address his most senior subordinate commanders, he lamented that the "white hairs" (read: senior USAF four-star generals underneath him) were "too far gone" to change. He suggested that I instead speak to those junior officers who would be in a position to affect institutional change in, say, just a decade or two. Seriously? Right, Norty.