One father’s reaction: “The word has zero power in my house.”
Racial slurs were written on the dormitory message boards of five black cadet candidates at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School earlier this week.
Lt. Col. Allen Herritage, director of public affairs for the academy, said the slurs were discovered Monday. One cadet candidate’s mother posted a photo on her Facebook page Wednesday that shows the words “go home n*****r” written on the white board outside her son’s room.
“This is why I'm so hurt!” the mother said in her post, which was at first public but then taken offline Thursday. “These young people are supposed to bond and protect each other and the country. Who would my son have to watch out for? The enemy or the enemy?”
In an interview with Air Force Times, that cadet candidate’s father said his son is doing fine in the wake of the racial slur incident, which he called “utter stupidity.”
“The word has zero power in my house,” his father said. “Zero power. The word is not going to yield a reaction. My initial advice to him was, respond with intelligence, do not react, do not get upset. You don‘t have to defend intelligence, you don’t have to defend common sense, you don’t have to defend confidence. He’s fine.”
His father also said he felt the academy was taking the right steps to handle the incident ― though he lamented that it will inevitably turn into a big deal ― and that it doesn’t reflect on the academy and its staff as a whole.
“The real victim here is that individual [who wrote the slurs], because that individual is going to lose a promising career in the military,” the cadet candidate‘s father said. “That individual is going to go home disgraced. Him or her is the real victim, because they were raised with that kind of vitriol and that kind of hate. My son is not a victim, I don’t view him as a victim.”
Air Force Times is not identifying the cadet candidate or his parents to preserve their privacy.
In a statement issued Thursday, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the academys new superintendent, condemned the slurs.
“There is absolutely no place in our Air Force for racism,” Silveria said. “It‘s not who we are, nor will we tolerate it in any shape or fashion. The Air Force Academy strives to create a climate of dignity and respect for all ... period ... those who don’t understand that are behind the power curve and better catch up.”
Herritage said Silveria planned to address the incident in a meeting with the Prepatory School and Cadet Wing students Thursday.
“I‘ve said it before, the area of dignity and respect is my red line,” Silveria said. “Let me be clear, it won’t be crossed without significant repercussions. Diversity is a strength of our academy and our Air Force. We are stronger when we take into account the views of those with different backgrounds and life experiences.”
Herritage said that the academys security forces are investigating the incident, but that no additional information can be released at this time.
Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, the House Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, urged swift action.
“The Air Force needs to investigate this incident thoroughly and take appropriate action,” Smith said. “There is no place in the military for these kinds of acts. Incidents like these, even if they are performed by a single individual, offend our moral sensibilities and they can undermine the morale of service members and cadets. It is a bedrock principle that everyone in the U.S. military should be treated with dignity and respect.”
The academy’s 10-month prep school program provides a chance for about 240 students each year to train and study and have a chance at becoming full-fledged freshman cadets the following year. Some of those students ― who are called “cadet candidates” ― are prior enlisted, some are recruited athletes, and some are “diversity students” who come from disadvantaged backgrounds such as poor school districts.
In a 2014 interview with Air Force Times, former prep school commander Col. Jerry Szybist said that some cadet candidates come to the prep school having had little experience with people from different backgrounds. Some may never have worked side-by-side with a black person or a woman. So, Szybist said, prep school leaders try to “pull them together” during the initial three weeks of basic military training as they teach them discipline, values and the foundations of a military life.
In August, days after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted in violence, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein joined the other service chiefs in denouncing racism and extremism.
"I stand with my fellow service chiefs in saying that we're always stronger together," Goldfein said in an Aug. 16 tweet. “It’s who we are as airmen. Integrity, service and excellence ... thats what America's Air Force is about."
During an Aug. 25 interview with Air Force Times, when Goldfein was asked why he felt it necessary to release that statement after Charlottesville, he said “Im one that believes that diversity in the force is actually a war-fighting imperative.”
"The challenges that we face, some of them are wicked hard and require some really creative and thoughtful approaches," Goldfein said. "We come from all races, colors and backgrounds, and we‘re able to take this very diverse force and bring it together into a fist. It's, in fact, one of our greatest strengths."
In a Wednesday email to Academy leaders ― which was posted on the Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page and confirmed by the academy ― Silveria said that prep school commander Col. Jackie Breeden had addressed the students and faculty of the prep school. Breeden had also reached out to the academy’s chief diversity officer to start holding small group discussions with the cadet candidates as the investigation continues.
Silveria also urged academy officials not to shy away from discussing the racial slur incident.
"We've all seen the ongoing controversy in the NFL and witnessed the fallout since the riots and violence in Charlottesville, and we know the conversations that are happening in our society and in social media,” Silveria wrote. “I would like us all to be engaging in these tough conversations, in a civil manner that spurs more discussion and reaches productive solutions. To that end and to be clear: do not avoid the topic. I expect you to have conversations with Cadets about respect and dignity. This discourse is how we grow and how we develop our future officers."
Silveria reminded academy officials that it’s up to them to show cadets that respect and diversity is valued in the Air Force
"We don't always know what 'right' looked like for them in the families, schools and communities where they grew up," Silveria said. “But once they arrive here and get immersed in the Air Force culture, it must be absolutely clear how we look out for and respect one another. ... I want cadets to see that we take a united stand on the importance of respect and dignity as part of our Air Force way of life, and that we ― espousing a diverse variety of backgrounds, expertise and viewpoints ― are stronger together."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.