Debunking the Cost of the Air Force Academy’s Falcon Circle (Again)

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There’s no rhetorical fruit that hangs lower than government waste, everyone hates it! $16 dollar muffins$600 dollar toilet seats, $131,000 dollar dragon robots for preschoolers (actually, that sounds pretty cool), all seeming evidence of a spend-happy government run amok, and an easy target for curmudgeonly columnists of all political stripes. This past year, we saw modern Pagans get sucked into this Andy Rooney-esque vortex from which no nuance or joy escapes when a LA Times report wrote about the Air Force Academy’s Falcon Circle in November, noting the $80,000 dollar price tag for the Pagan and earth-religions-dedicated worship area.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

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

“Still, the academy this year dedicated an $80,000 outdoor worship center — a small Stonehenge-like circle of boulders with propane fire pit — high on a hill for the handful of current or future cadets whose religions fall under the broad category of “Earth-based.” Those include pagans, Wiccans, druids, witches and followers of Native American faiths.”

That reported cost spurred a wave of commentary about government waste and rampant political correctness, which prompted the Air Force Academy to defend the cost, and their commitment to religious plurality.

“The LA Times got the $80,000 figure from the Academy’s Cadet Chapel fact sheet. But the numbers on the fact sheet at the time were too high because they mistakenly included $26,500 that was spent to control erosion on the east side of the hill on which Falcon Circle is now situated. […]  The scope of work in the $51,484 Falcon Circle contract included removing screws and nails from the inside of the circle and installing 1,225 square feet of flagstone. The boulders were moved in 2009 from the east side of the hill, where erosion threatened to send them crashing into the Visitors Center, where more than 500,000 people per year learn about the national treasure that is the Academy. By way of comparison, the Cadet Chapel that now houses Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist worship areas cost $3.5 million to build — in 1959. That would be more than $25 million in today’s dollars, or enough to build 500 Falcon Circles.”

Defending the cost of Falcon Circle, which was built in response to a genuine need among Pagan cadets, was just the latest in a string of challenges faced by the academy and Pagan cadets. This included the site being vandalized shortly after it first received press attention in 2010, and ignorant opinion pieces attacking Pagan religions. Sadly, the debunking of the $80,000 dollar price-tag seemed to not reach retired news anchor and Scripps columnist Truman Taylor, who decided he really needed to weigh in on this important issue.

“If you don’t agree that most government spending is quite that wasteful, a recent Gallup poll says it may be because you’re too well-educated. A conjecture perhaps, but there it is. Those in the survey with some postgraduate education don’t think that the government wastes as much money as do those with less education. You can self-test yourself on this Gallup assertion. First, think about how much education you have, then think about the $80,000 pagan stone circle that the government built at the Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo.”

Ho-ho! You over-educated eggheads, Taylor has you in his rhetorical grasp! How can any reasonable person think $80,000 dollars is anything but waste for a “Stonehenge look-alike on the top of a hill with a fire pit right in the middle of it.”

“…the fact that only three of the academy’s 4,300 cadets are actually believed to be pagans, you may think that the money spent to build the stone circle was justified to protect the constitutional right to religious freedom. You may also think that $80,000 for a fire pit for Druids and Wiccans at the Air Force Academy isn’t enough money to get too riled up about, that perhaps the academy is trying to attract more Wiccans to the Air Force — an equal-pagan-opportunity sort of thing. If these thoughts come to your mind, Gallup would probably say you may have spent too many years in grad school … not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Touche! A touch! A veritable sting! Truman Taylor can now sit back in his armchair, crack open his vintage collection of Mike Royko columns next to a roaring fire whilst enjoying a fine glass of port, safe in the knowledge he’s not only lampooned excessive government spending, but political correctness *and* people who went to grad school (suckers!). Who cares if it isn’t exactly true, it feels true, and that’s all that matters, right? I mean, why mention that the real cost was much lower and that the erosion work needed to be done anyway to protect other buildings on the base. Why trouble our thoughts with the notion that the circle isn’t exclusively for Pagans and that any cadet can use the circle for all sorts of activities, why quibble over the fact that it doesn’t actually look like Stonehenge in the slightest? People hate government spending, and so long as you check the boxes on the ready-mix instant-column, you’ll do just fine.

In truth, I don’t mean to excessively pick on Truman Taylor’s column, but misinformation can sometimes overwrite actual reality. The more people spout the $80,000 price-tag and hold it up as an example of waste, the more folks believe it, and the more it sinks in that Pagan cadets aren’t worth the expense, even though the AFA’s cadet chapel would be worth the cost of 500 Falcon Circle’s in today’s dollars. Frankly, I don’t care if there’s only one Pagan cadet, creating a culture of religious respect within our military is a vital project worthy of the cost.

“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.”

Here’s hoping that it continues to be “very easy to be a Pagan at the Air Force Academy, “ and that Pagan cadets can get back to focusing on their lessons instead of being put under a microscope by those looking to score points on “government waste”.