GOING TO THE CHAPEL / NON-CHRISTIAN RECRUITS COMPLAIN OF BIAS AND INSENSITIVITYMARCH 3, 1997
By Bryant Jordan, Times staff writer
SAN ANTONIO -- It was Friday, Aug. 30, and Amy Talit was in her second day of basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio when her training instructor began handing out dormitory duties. The instructor, Staff Sgt. David Isabelle, needed chapel guides -- airmen whose job it would be to know when various religious services were being held and to direct the recruits to them.
"Who's Protestant?'' Talit, 19, recalls him asking. Hands went up. "Who's Catholic?" Another show of hands.
He picked the chapel guides, then began to assign airmen to cleaning duties.
Talit, 19, raised a hand to get the instructor's attention. "Sir, Airman Talit reports as ordered, sir,'' she said. "Sir, I'm Jewish.''
In that brief exchange, Talit stumbled onto an unwritten and unofficial reality at Lackland. It can be an uncomfortable place for non-Christians.
Non-Christians, and particularly Jews, have been waging a decades-long battle to institutionalize religious tolerance at Lackland. Those most involved say they frequently make progress, only to see backsliding when commanders change or when their pressure is reduced.
The problem, they say, is a mixture of a handful of cases of overt anti-Semitism or other religious discrimination combined with a more prevalent and intractable problem of simple insensitivity.
For commanders, it seems to be a struggle to balance respect for individual religious beliefs with the basic-training goals of conformity, team building and putting duty before self-interest.
What is clear is that often in the earliest days of basic training, the only airmen for whom arrangements are made for religious services are Protestants and Roman Catholics. Sometimes, even Catholics end up at Protestant services.
The problem is known at the command's highest levels.
After Air Force Times began inquiring about trainees' attendance at chapel services, officials began making changes to ensure that airmen do not end up at services that are not their own against their will. Gen. Billy Boles, head of the Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio, said the chapel briefings that recruits previously received did not take place until after their first weekend at Lackland -- after they had already been exposed to services.
From now on, he said, the trainees will be given that briefing no later than Friday morning, allowing those with Friday evening or Saturday observances the opportunity to attend them. Boles said the directive spelling that out is being drafted at the wing level.
"I view anything to do with inhibiting religious freedom in that same category sexual harassment," Boles said. "A person's religious belief, or lack thereof, is their personal belief. ... The kind of issues brought up with regard to young men and women of the Jewish faith and attendance at eir service at Lackland is something we need to be accommodating."
Boles said he has asked Brig. Gen. Robert J. Courter Jr., the commander of the 37th Training Wing at Lackland, to come up with an instruction aimed at solving the problem. He said training instructors must be made aware of what is expected. Part of the problem, he said, is that about 30 percent of instructors change each year, so training will have to be continual.
For members of non-Christian faiths, at least in the early days -- though at times throughout basic -- the first Sunday at Lackland becomes a choice between attending the Christian service or pulling cleanup duties at the dorm.
"I told him Jews have service on Friday, and he said there was no service that I could go to that night,'' Talit recalled. Instead, Isabelle told the group the non-Christians would all go to the Protestant service on Sunday morning, then be briefed on Monday about other religious services.
But Talit's problems did not end with her one appearance at Protestant chapel service. Her insistence on being allowed to observe the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, placed her at the center of a weeks-long conflict between the base's Jewish lay leader and those responsible for Talit's training.Other complaints
Talit's experience was not unusual. According to interviews with other Jewish airmen in or recently out of basic training, airmen are given to understand that their first Sunday at Lackland will include a Christian service, usually Protestant. The contention is backed up by former chaplains at Lackland and the base's Jewish lay leader, retired Chief Master Sgt. Steve Nemerow.
Nemerow, who retired in December, said the problem existed when he arrived at Lackland seven years ago. Since then, he said, he and others have routinely had to fight the same fight over and over with each new basic flight: getting training instructors to release their charges for non-Christian services and periodically convincing commanders of the airmen's right to attend them.
"We have complained until we're blue in the face. They give us lip service,'' said Nemerow. He said the problem is not solely a Jewish problem. Seventh-day Adventists, Buddhists, Muslims and Eastern Orthodox Christians have all been directed to the Protestant services at Lackland. What made Talit's case particularly offensive to Nemerow, though, is that he thinks training officials made life hard for Talit because she insisted on attending the High Holy Day services, a charge that Air Force officials deny and that was deemed unfounded by Air Force investigators.
Maj. Daniel Badger, commander of the 331st Training Squadron, said most of Nemerow's accounts of Jewish airmen being kept from their services or being forced to attend Protestant services are stories the former chief picked up secondhand. When checked out, Badger said, the stories turn out to be untrue.
Col. Toreaser Steele, commander of the 737th Training Group at Lackland, said during a Jan. 16 interview also attended by three base chaplains and Talit's last training instructor that she does not think anyone in her command would deliberately keep airmen from attending their own religious services. The chaplains, including Rabbi (Capt.) Anthony Deutsch, said airmen can sometimes end up at a chapel service not their own, but that does not mean they are being forced to go.
The instructors are trying to set up and maintain a training atmosphere, Deutsch said, and that means emphasizing the group, the flight. In that environment, most trainees are not going to want to stand out.
Nemerow said non-Christians attend the Protestant chapel service for the same reason they go do so many other things in basic training -- because that is where everyone else is going and they do not want to stand apart from the crowd. And in basic training, according to Nemerow, an instructor's suggestion or recommendation carries the weight of an order as far as trainees are concerned.
In interviews with Air Force Times, several airmen still in training said they were directed to the Protestant service during zero week, the common name for the first week of basic. Airman Avraham Edri, now in technical training at Lackland, said he was told that for his first week he "had no choice.'' Others, including a Seventh-day Adventist who worships on Saturdays, said chapel guides told them that they would be briefed about services but that for the first week they are advised to attend the Protestant service.
Nemerow said one Jewish airman not only found himself at a Protestant service, but also was urged to take Communion -- a Christian ritual commemorating the death of Jesus, who is not recognized as either a prophet or the messiah in Judaism.'An old problem'
Retired Rabbi (Maj.) Irvin Ehrlich, the Jewish chaplain at Lackland from 1985 to 1989, said the problem existed when he was at Lackland and predates his arrival.
"It's an old problem. At best, it's the result of technical instructors wanting to keep their flights together in those first days, coupled with a reluctance of new airmen to stand out in any way,'' said Ehrlich, who now leads a Jewish congregation in Colorado Springs, Colo. But even if unintentional, "you've got an intimidation factor at work.
When Rabbi (Maj.) Brett Oxman drew an assignment to Lackland in September 1992, "all Jewish personnel were routinely being coerced into attending Protestant worship services,'' Oxman said Jan. 13 in a written response to an Air Force Times query. Oxman said the coercion was carried out under the guise of it "being their duty to function as a group with their flight."
Usually this was restricted to the airmen's first one or two Sundays of basic, said Oxman, who is now stationed at Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall in England. But he said pressure was often put on the airmen to attend Protestant services throughout their training. Almost no week went by that either he or Nemerow did not have to intervene with an instructor on behalf of a Jewish airman forced to choose between attending Protestant service or staying behind cleaning up the dormitory.
Though basic trainees are the most vulnerable to being directed away from their religious services, the problem also has cropped up at technical training at Lackland. Airman 1st Class Genny Brown, who is Jewish, said she did not complain when she was required to attend Protestant services during zero week in April 1995. But when she ended up at technical training at Lackland a few months later, she did protest when her training instructor told her she would not be able to attend Friday evening services because they would conflict with physical training exercises.
"When I told her that I wanted to go to wish chapel services, she didn't like that," Brown said in a Feb. 19 telephone interview from Hurlburt Field in Florida, where she is assigned.
Brown went to Nemerow for help. Brown was then able to attend her services, but the problem did not immediately go away. When the High Holy Days arrived, she was again told she could not take time from training to attend services. And once more Nemerow intervened, asking the instructor if she thought a cleaning detail or physical training was more important than Brown's religious observations.
"After I spoke up about going to services, I found I was getting letters of reprimand. I got five letters. Three out of five were for not eating meals," Brown said. Skipping meals is something she had done often before, she said, but the letters began only after her complaints. The other two letters were for being minutes late to a formation or gathering. While many others arrived after her, she said, she was the only one to be given letters.
An investigation by the inspector general determined the letters were not reprisals.
At one point during his time at Lackland, the basic training commander announced that Jewish airmen would not be allowed to attend the Jewish High Holy Day services unless they coincided with the Christian Sunday services. Because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are multiday holidays, that decree would essentially eliminate the Jewish airmen's chances of observing their sacred days.
Oxman said he proceeded with the services anyway while Nemerow went from squadron to squadron forcing the release of Jewish trainees. He said one instructor refused to let an airman go and offered instead to "secure the latrine so his airman could pray uninterrupted.''
The situation was intolerable, Oxman said, and with the support of his immediate supervisor -- Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Robert Hadley, the basic training head chaplain and a Christian -- he pushed hard to end it. At a meeting with the commander, Col. Wolfgang Gesch -- now assigned to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi -- Hadley said he made his point about the significance of the High Holy Days by suggesting he would cancel Christmas services for the Christian airmen.
"I was making a comparison on the significance of Christmas and the Jewish High Holidays,'' said Hadley, now chaplain for the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. "That made it clear to sch›, very clear. And we got good results with that clarity, I think.''
Gesch, in a telephone interview Feb. 3, said he did not recall the announcement Oxman and Nemerow cite but thinks it was an issue only one year while he was at Lackland. He said he was concerned that Jewish airmen would miss some early days of training by attending the long services. After Nemerow and others talked to him, however, he said he agreed to leave it to the individual airmen to decide whether they wanted to go.]
"Our message was clear,'' Oxman said. "Religious rights for all trainees would be respected equally. I occasionally found Catholic trainees who had been marched into Protestant worship services as well. When this did occur, I took the same actions on their behalf that I was doing for the Jewish personnel.''
By the time he left Lackland in July 1995, Oxman said, the situation had been resolved and Jewish airmen were attending Jewish services for their entire time at Lackland. But it has not stayed that way, as new commanders and training instructors succeeded others. Or, as Hadley, drawing from the Bible, put it: "There arose a new Pharaoh over Egypt who knew not Joseph.'' Bottom line? The earlier unwritten policy was resurrected and back in place when Talit arrived in August.
Steele, the basic-training commander, did not say there is a problem now but said she is committed more than ever to ensuring that all airmen know about and have access to the religious services of their choice. She has met with training officials and made it clear that airmen are to be permitted to get to their services. She has also met with Jewish trainees to hear firsthand whether they are getting to their services.
But, according to Nemerow, not everyone in the chain of command is getting Steele's message. He said that on Friday, Jan. 31, an instructor loudly reminded a Jewish trainee that he had to get over to the Jewish chapel service. As the trainee was heading out, the instructor told the other trainees that the airman "was an example of someone who puts his religion above his flight."