Enough about ‘not picking sides.’ The only right position is against white supremacy and extremism

Esteban Castellanos

AirForce Times

Apr 24, 2021

U.S. Capitol Police officers stand as violent rioters storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6.
Photo: John Minchillo/AP

In late March, the U.S. Air Force Academy held its Department of Defense-mandated extremism stand-down training to examine and to eradicate extremism and white supremacy within the ranks.

Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark spoke of extreme ideologies on “both sides,” rather than confronting the unique flavor of the extremism threat on display Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. Cadets learn how to lead by the example set from their leaders. Whether they lead with honor and integrity in all aspects of their lives, and especially in moments of duress, depends on the standard of leadership that is set by people like Lt. Gen. Clark.

Many USAFA graduates feel the mild response to the insurrection from the academy and its Association of Graduates failed to reflect these values and stands counter to everything they publicly expect of graduates. We are disappointed and feel that leadership has failed our graduates, the members they lead, and ultimately the citizens of this country.

Simply put, many of our leaders are underreacting to the attack. We need them to state, unequivocally, that the insurrection was wrong, intolerable and against our values and oath of service to the Constitution. They must state publicly and emphatically that those within our ranks who participate in, or are sympathetic to, the organizations that took part in the riot at the Capitol are not welcome in our ranks because they are supporting domestic insurrectionists and terrorists.

Approximately one in five of the insurrectionists were veterans, according to criminal charging reports. They included at least one U.S. Air Force Academy graduate. Many more veterans are sympathetic to the insurrection, espouse the lies upon which it was based, or are participants in related causes.

Air Force Academy class Facebook pages and other social media sources show clear evidence that our officer corps members either do not take the threat seriously or support the underlying insurrectionist groups, many of which hold white supremacist ideologies. Where does the academy and its AOG leadership stand on white supremacy within our ranks? Are they afraid of alienating large donors that may sympathize with the terrorists’ cause instead of doing the right thing?

It took 26 days after the insurrection for retired Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, the AOG’s CEO, to repudiate the insurrection after failing to do so on a video call with members the previous week. He said they “made it a point that we would stay totally apolitical … and that we weren’t going to pick sides in any of this.” This unsatisfactory initial response only served to give more life to our concern.

Our character was molded by the academy, and that is why this “picking sides” debate hits us so hard, because the Air Force Academy and its Association of Graduates know better.

The average American likely doesn’t understand that the U.S. Air Force Academy, its related AOG and the US Air Force are distinct institutions. It’s all just “the Air Force.” Therefore, what USAFA or the AOG say, or don’t say, speaks on behalf of all U.S. Air Force members.

The academy’s lack of a strong rejection of the insurrection is, in effect, a political stance, one which undermines trust as well as good order and discipline within the ranks and the graduate community. Additionally, many of us, as service members of color and our allies, feel the insurrection was not only an assault on American democracy but on the value of all as equal citizens in this country. We saw our government nearly overthrown after an election victory brought about, in large part, by people of color.

Our AOG and USAFA leadership should have come together, with united strength, to support Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s call for a stand-down in a meaningful way. We need a forceful plan to continue this effort within the academy and its graduate community. We cannot wait for the next constitutional crisis or extremist attack.

This is personal and painful for those who have served because we’ve fought for our Constitution and for the rights of our fellow citizens. Any more hesitation or equivocation in doing so risks losing the trust of the very Americans we have sworn to defend.

Graduate co-signers
Lawrence Romo ’78
Martin France ’81
Kathryn Smith ’82
Ed Tomme ’85
David Englin ’96
Aaron Pultz ’97
John Kleven ’98
Tino Dinh ’99
Diane Zorri ’01
Nikki Foster ’03
Leo Kim ’09

Esteban Castellanos is a 2003 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and member of the Air Force Reserve. The opinions expressed are the views of the author and don’t represent the views of the Air Force or the Department of Defense.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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