Archives For Brandon Longcrier

[This is part two of a two-part story by Cara Schulz from PNC-Minnesota. Part one, dealing with Pagans in basic training at Lackland Air Force base can be found, here.]

One of the Gateways to the Air Force for future officers is the United States Air Force academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. While earning their bachelor’s degree, military cadets participate in a rigorous athletic program and are instructed in how to lead others as an officer in the Air Force. In part 1 of our series, Pagans receive warm welcome at the ‘Gateways to the Air Force,’ we looked at Lackland AFB, where enlisted trainees attend Basic Military Training. In part 2, we take a closer look at the Air Force Academy (AFA) through interviews with Pagan faith group leaders, an Academy Chaplain, and a current Pagan Academy cadet.

When Pagans think about the AFA, what often comes to mind are the string of articles in 2007 showcasing the institution as the focal point for an evangelical Christian takeover of the military.  It’s a view that appears to have come about due to an over-correction to the sexual assault cases shocked the campus a few years earlier. Lt Col Dan Brantingham, AFA Cadet Wing Chaplain, explains, “In the aftermath of the sexual assault cases in 2004-5, some leaders looked to religion to assist cadets in living honorable lives. In doing so, the leaders unintentionally promoted a particular flavor of religion as the solution.”

The accounts of aggressive proselytizing of cadets by Evangelicals at the Academy worried civil rights activists as this influences the next crop of officers, planting the seeds to change the culture of the Air Force to a more repressive atmosphere.

Since 2007, the Academy has taken meaningful steps to renew its focus on freedom of religion and religious neutrality in its policies. Brantingham says he supports the current Academy policy of religious neutrality, “As an Air Force Chaplain my responsibility is to ensure the free exercise of religion for all cadets to include the minority faith group cadets. When I protect and advocate the freedom of religious conscience for all cadets, I fulfill my oath and because of the brilliance of the First Amendment, I safe-guard my own freedom of religion as well.”

"Four Freedoms" by Norman Rockwell hangs in Brantingham's office with the quote,“Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.”

"Four Freedoms" by Norman Rockwell hangs in Brantingham's office with the quote,“Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.”

Cadet Nicole Johnson, a senior at the AFA, has experienced the willingness of AFA Chaplains to help cadets of any religion, “The Chaplains are wonderful. You can go to them with any problem. It can be just an every day problem or a spiritual problem and they are more than willing to help you out with it or connect you to the right people.”

Creating a culture of religious respect
How did the Academy change from being a perceived bastion of aggressive Evangelicalism to the open and inclusive institution Cadet Johnson is experiencing? A major step was taken when the Academy hosted the Conference on Religious Respect in 2008 and again in 2010. The conference examines how the Academy can create a climate of religious respect and equip its future officers with the skills needed to ensure religious beliefs are respected and accommodated. Out of the 2008 conference the Cadet Interfaith Council was formed, the Religious Respect Cadet Training program was launched, and support was increased for the Spiritual Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE).

SPIRE is time blocked off each Monday evening for cadets to meet and discuss spirituality. In addition to SPIRE time, Earth-Centered Spirituality cadets also celebrate the Sabbats, go on a Freshman retreat, and enjoy an annual Spring retreat.

The Cadet Interfaith Council meets once per semester and the faith of any requesting cadet is included. The Council assists the Chaplain Corps in monitoring the religious respect climate on the campus. Chaplain Brantingham says the Council, “has expressed frustration the press does not report on what they see and experience day in and day out, a climate of religious respect, and continues to unquestioningly keep slapping the Academy with the 2005 story-line.”

The third initiative to come out of the 2008 conference is what the Academy calls its “cornerstone religious diversity program,” the Religious Respect Training program for cadets, faculty and staff. The program is unique to the Air Force Academy as no other military academy or university has a program quite like it. It includes in-depth training on the First Amendment, and the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Free Speech clauses of the US Constitution. The program is modular and cadets have six hours of scenario and mission focused training on religious respect during their four years at the Academy. The Academy hopes this program assists future officers in creating a climate where airmen under their command feel free to request religious accommodation.

The Conference on Religious Respect in 2010 continued to examine and refine those initiatives. Sixteen national religious leaders were invited as panelists including Rev. David Oringderff, PhD, head of Sacred Well Congregation and sponsoring organization for the Earth-Centered Spirituality group at the Academy. In a message to the San Antonio Military Open Circle Yahoo group, Rev. Oringderff said he was impressed by the emphasis on ways to promote respect, not merely religious tolerance. He quoted Chaplain Brantingham remarks during the opening of the conference, “I don’t want to be tolerated; I want to be respected—and everyone else is entitled to that same right.”

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle
The most visible result of the renewed commitment to free exercise of religion is the creation of Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle. Falcon Circle, which sits on a hill, came into existence through the efforts of a former cadet wing chaplain, Chap. William Ziegler and former Earth-Centered Spirituality Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL), Tech Sgt. Brandon Longcrier, who is currently deployed in Afghanistan.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy.
Photo by: Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

In 2006 Tech Sgt. Longcrier and Reserve Major Kelly Ihme started a Wiccan circle at the Air Force Academy. They were able to instruct cadets because of two organizations – Sacred Well Congregation and the Air Force Academy’s SPIRE program. SPIRE was created in the early 1990’s to provide religious accommodation to faith groups not served by a chaplain of their faith. Longcrier contacted Sacred Well Congregation, which was already the Denominational Sponsor for other Pagan military faith groups, to sponsor him as a Distinctive Faith Group Leader (DFGL) for the Academy. Sacred Well Congregation agreed and the request was approved by the Command Chaplain at the AFA. Longcrier and Ihme could now form a faith group on campus.

The faith group went through a few name changes before they settled on Earth-Centered Spirituality. Originally called a Wiccan group, they later changed it to Pagan. Major Ihme, a mental health nurse and current DFGL at the Academy, says there’s a good reason for their present name, “[Earth-Centered Spirituality] is less threatening, especially to civilians living in the Colorado Springs area. We’re also want to be inclusive of Native American religions.” Nearby Ft. Carson has a sweat lodge and Ihme like to cooperate with them, but they’re just beginning to explore the possibility.

The Earth-Centered Spirituality group met in an engineering classroom for worship before construction of Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle began in early 2010. The circle drew world wide notice when it was dedicated in Spring of this year. Some of the news articles and editorials were good, much of it was not. It also resulted in the resignation of Longcrier as DFGL at the Academy, “The Wing Chaplain and I had some very heated discussions about the name of the Circle. He kept wanting to call the Earth-Centered Circle a Chapel and also wanted anyone to be able to use it. To me, this was taking away something that belonged to us.”

Chaplain Brantingham says the decision on the name and the use of the circle was a joint decision between the Academy and Sacred Well Congregation, “I worked very closely with TSgt Longcrier’s national DFGL certifier at the time, Dr David L. Oringderff of Sacred Well Congregation. After extensive consultation with Dr Oringderff, TSgt Longcrier and Maj Kelly Ihme, USAF Reserves, I decided the best long-term solution for promoting religious respect and economy of resources was to dedicate the outdoor worship space as the Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle with the Circle being available to all cadet faith communities and the Earth-Centered Spirituality cadet community having scheduling priority. Dr Oringderff and the Academy’s current Earth-Center Spirituality DFGL, Maj Kelly Ihme, agreed.”

What brought matters to a head was the date of Falcon Circle’s dedication“The straw that broke the camel’s back was when they set a date for the dedication of Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle on a date when I would be deployed. I put my blood, sweat, and tears into the program and getting the Circle approved and built and they thought that it would be ok to dedicate it without me being there? I resigned after that, but left the group in very good and capable hands.”

Longcrier also said he was concerned over incidents of religious harassment at Falcon Circle, “We already had incidents where Christians would go up there to pray for our sins and that isn’t what I wanted to be happening up at our sacred space.”

Ihme said that although there were early incidents at Falcon Circle, that is no longer the case, “At first there was some problems with Christians praying for our sins and some acts of vandalism [at the Circle] but no one besides us goes up there now. The site is very secure now with cameras running 24/7.” Ihme said the Circle is a peaceful place that seems far more remote than the short walk up the hill should feel.

Rev. Oringderff had the opportunity to visit Falcon Circle while attending the 2010 Conference on Religious Respect, “The site is situated on the hill just above the Cadet Chapel and you immediately sense the spirit and sacredness of the place.”

Cadet Johnson describes Falcon Circle as a needed oasis of tranquility, “I go there during the day sometimes. It’s very stressful here so getting away from the academy is important. I can go and center myself and get more in touch with nature.” Johnson says in the four years she’s been at the Academy she’s never experienced a problem with religious discrimination or harassment.

Not every Pagan has had a military career free of harassment, but many have remarked that the military is generally ahead of the curve in accepting minority groups. Carlee, who left a comment on PNC-Minnesota’s article on Pagans at Lackland AFB, wrote, “Despite what people think, the military usually leads in the acceptance of minorities when the rest of the population still treats them as pariahs. Note the integration of blacks, the acceptance of women (I watched this one from 1979-1999 as more and more opportunities opened to me) and now the acceptance of gays. I am proud to have served in the nation’s military and to be one of the very few who has.”

Major Ihme wants Pagans considering applying to the Air Force Academy to feel reassured, “You don’t have to be nervous or afraid because every belief system is OK at the Academy. We will back you up.”

“You don’t have to be scared about sharing your religion or think you need to stay in the broom closet about it,” Cadet Johnson says. “People are very understanding. We have officers in charge of us who are very understanding, the Chaplains are very understanding so it’s very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy.”

What wild couple of weeks it’s been for the Pagans at the Air Force Academy! First it was announced that a special outdoor worship area was created for Pagan cadets and faculty (that had been in the works for some time), a positive step after past allegations of rampant Christian-fueled intolerance at the academy. Then, the story hit the national media, Tech Sergeant Brandon Longcrier was named an “intriguing person of the day” by Rick Sanchez at CNN, and the first rumblings of criticism were emerging. Sometime, during all this press, a “desecration incident” happened, when a large wooden cross was left at the site. Cue anger (and some debate over how serious of an incident this was) from Pagans, and strangely, anger from Christians at our temerity in claiming it a desecration.

Which brings us to today. While the initial flurry of national press seems to have died down, the Air Force Academy, and the Pagans on it, are still generating news. Some wondered if the Naval Academy would be building a worship area for Pagans, with the answer, for now, being “no”.

“Naval Academy officials said they have had no demand for such a spot. “At this time, there have been no requests for a worship location for earth-centered religions,” academy spokeswoman Judy Campbell said. “Midshipmen are always provided the opportunity to observe the religious obligations of their chosen faith, but their participation is entirely up to them,” she said.”

But you never know, perhaps we’ll see Naval Academy Pagans decide to organize and ask for one too?

Meanwhile, the Colorado Springs Gazette gives us some much-needed background concerning Pagans at the Air Force Academy, showing that this new stone circle wasn’t some rash action, but a response to a long-term need by an established community of cadets and service members.

“According to administrators, the traditions that some dismiss as “witchcraft” are nothing new at the Colorado Springs military academy. Wiccans, pagans and other followers of Earth-centered religions have been active on campus for at least a decade, and are now among 14 religious groups recognized under a program that sets aside time for cadets to worship on their own, said cadet wing chaplain Lt. Col. William Ziegler III. “We’re here to serve as caretakers to support every cadet’s religious freedoms,” Ziegler said of Special Programs in Religious Education, or SPIRE. Until recently, the pagan group met at a brick-and-tile worship area in Jack’s Valley, a sprawling, wooded training area to the north of the academy’s cadet area. About a dozen cadets belong, the academy said, and an additional 30 service members in Colorado Springs identify themselves as pagans. The group’s path to prominence began last summer, after an inspection determined the aging site was no longer “structurally sound,” Ziegler said.”

In other words, Pagans at the academy are nothing new, and the circle, built at “no additional taxpayer expense”, is the result of years of bridge-building and open communication. The article also notes that several military bases have established stone circles for Pagan soldiers, with the most famous being the one at Ft. Hood, the existence of which spurred the (in)famous “Witchcraft isn’t a religion” statement from George W. Bush, and a full-blown campaign against Pagans in the military by then-congressman Bob Barr.

Sadly, despite the genuine underlying non-controversy of all this happening, it has brought out the worst in some religious commentators. Like Catholic pundit Michael Terheyden, who calls this development “dangerous”, and essentially backs the flawed “two-tiered” religious arguments we see flying about in the Patrick McCollum case.

“Paganism and witchcraft are not equal to the major religions of the world. I believe that it largely died out throughout much of the world because, based on the idea of “survival of the fittest,” it was not the fittest.  In general it was violent and blood thirsty and mired in superstition and magic. It was seemingly unable to provide the glue necessary to maintain a healthy culture and society.  It is true that others have the right in our country to believe what they want, and we should defend that right, but it is another thing altogether to treat every belief as being equal when they are not.  Consequently, it does not seem competent or rational when the Air Force Academy, one of the premier training institutions of our military, equates neo-paganism with the major religions of the world and claims this is, somehow, indicative of tolerance and respect.”

You know, there was a time, not so long ago, when Catholics weren’t seen as “equal” to the protestants that dominated the American political and cultural landscape. They were discriminated against, and viewed with suspicion. It was such a big issue that John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president, had to reassure voters that he wouldn’t take orders from the Pope.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

So to see a Catholic, so seemingly blind to his faith’s history in America, so ready to spout half-truths and misinformation about modern Pagan faiths, so ready to see the government create barriers against non-monotheistic faiths, is bitterly ironic.

Anyone with a clear sense of history, and a clear vision of America’s values, would see this simple stone circle as a testament to our success. To begrudge the Pagans a circle, or to imply that some faiths should be more equal than others, are the subconscious stirrings of a theocratic mind. Because once you draw the line for one faith, you’ll soon want to draw more lines, until only the “pure” and “true” faith is left. As history has taught us, that way leads to madness and horror.