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Group files complaint over Wright-Patt reserve chaplain

Published: Tuesday, September 19, 2017 @ 5:00 AM

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has filed a complaint over remarks an Air Force Reserve chaplain assigned to Wright-Patterson wrote in a blog post.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation said it has filed a complaint about a Wright-Patterson Christian chaplain who in a blog post wrote military service members are “grossly in error, and deceived” if they support service members of some different faiths for practicing their religion under the Constitution.

Capt. Sonny Hernandez, an Air Force Reserve chaplain with the 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson, wrote in part on a Sept. 12 blog post: “Counterfeit Christians in the Armed forces will appeal to the Constitution, and not Christ, and they have no local church home — which means they have no accountability for their souls (Heb. 13:17). This is what so many professing Christian service members will say: We ‘support everyone’s right’ to practice their faith regardless if they worship a god different from ours because the Constitution protects this right.”

He added in the post: “Christian service members who openly profess and support the rights of Muslims, Buddhists, and all other non-Christian worldviews to practice their religions — because the language in the Constitution permits — are grossly in error and deceived.”

RELATED: Group wants Wright-Patt to investigate email it describes as faith-based 

An attorney representing the New Mexico-based Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed a complaint with the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office on Sept. 15, over the chaplain’s written remarks.

“You take an oath when you’re commissioned to support and defend the Constitution, period, with no reservations,” said Donald G. Rehkopf, a Rochester, N.Y., attorney representing MRFF and a former Air Force lawyer. “A lot of people are exposed to his thoughts and beliefs professionally and religiously, and for younger enlisted troops to be hearing stuff like that he’s in essence telling them to avoid their … duties to comply with the law.”

This newspaper sent messages to Hernandez seeking comment.

“He’s been trying to establish a religious faith and he’s creating a religious test,” said MRFF President and Founder Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, also a former Air Force lawyer who has demanded an investigation and punishment for the remarks. “This is absolutely a cancer to the very essence of what it takes to put a military together. It destroys good order, morale, discipline, unit cohesion, the health and safety of the troops, mission readiness and military accomplishment. It’s completely antithetical to that.”

The MRFF has had a doubling in complaints about issues related to religion in the military since President Donald Trump was elected to the White House, Weinstein said.

The latest complaint was one of multiple filed by the MRFF over Hernandez since April, Weinstein said.

RELATED: Bible removed from POW display at Wright-Patt Medical Center

The blog post has an addendum that Hernandez “wrote this article as a civilian on his own time on an issue of public interest.” The reservist is also listed as director of Reforming America Ministries.

Hernandez is a former Air Force Life Cycle Management Center individualized mobilization accession company grade officer of the year. In an Air Force article in April 2015 about the award, it noted while at the Air Force Academy, Hernandez was cited for “on-call chaplain support to the active-duty Rabbi chaplain, allowing the cadets Jewish religious rites.”

The 445th Airlift Wing selected the chaplain as the company grade officer of the first quarter of 2016, according to the wing’s website. He joined the wing in November 2014 and has served in the military since 1997, according to published sources.

A wing spokeswoman Monday referred questions about the MRFF complaint to the DoD IG’s office, which had not responded by deadline.

Air Force picks new Thunderbirds leader after former commander removed

Published: Wednesday, December 13, 2017 @ 2:20 PM

            The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds arrived at the Dayton International Airport in June, but canceled appearances at the Vectren Dayton Air Show after a team jet mishap injured a pilot. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
            Ty Greenlees
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds arrived at the Dayton International Airport in June, but canceled appearances at the Vectren Dayton Air Show after a team jet mishap injured a pilot. TY GREENLEES / STAFF(Ty Greenlees)

The Air Force Thunderbirds have a new leader after the prior commander was fired from the high-profile post.

Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, a Long Island, N.Y., native who served as the team’s operations officer this year, will take over as commander of the team that flies six F-16 Fighting Falcons in aerial formations at air shows and events around the country.

Walsh replaces Lt. Col. Jason Heard, who was removed last month after Heard led “a highly successful show season,” but his commanding officer “lost confidence in his leadership and risk management style,” an Air Force statement said.

An Air Force spokeswoman said in a Nov. 30 email Heard continued to serve in a “non-supervisory position” with the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. The Thunderbirds are based there.

RELATED: Air Force Thunderbirds leader removed from job

The Air Force did not elaborate on specifics behind the firing, but an Air Force spokesman on Wednesday said in an email the incident was “unrelated” to a Thunderbird jet mishap in June in Dayton.

On June 23, a two-seat F-16D fighter jet slid off a wet runway in a rainstorm and flipped into a grassy area at the Dayton International Airport, injuring Capt. Erik Gonsalves, the No. 8 Thunderbird pilot and team narrator. A team member who was a passenger in the two-seat F-16D was not injured. The jet was on a single aircraft “familiarization flight.”

Gonsalves spent several days at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton and was later transferred to another medical facility for ongoing treatment. He rejoined the team based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, as narrator later in the season.

After the incident, the team canceled weekend appearances at the Vectren Dayton Air Show.

RELATED: Excessive speed blamed for Thunderbird crash in Dayton

In an accident investigation report released in November, the Air Force said excessive speed and landing too far down the runway contributed to the mishap that destroyed the $29 million fighter plane.

Walsh, a former F-16 weapons tactics instructor, has served with the Thunderbirds for two years. Along with leading the team’s aerial demonstration flights, he will be in charge of the management of 140 team members.

The aviator has more than 2,600 flying hours in the cockpit, the Air Force said.

The Navy’s Blue Angels are scheduled to appear at the Dayton Air Show next June.

Trump signs defense bill; shutdown stlll looms next week

Published: Tuesday, December 12, 2017 @ 3:14 PM
Updated: Tuesday, December 12, 2017 @ 4:04 PM

            The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base BARRIE BARBER/STAFF
The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base BARRIE BARBER/STAFF

President Donald Trump signed a defense authorization bill into law Tuesday, but that doesn’t settle the prospect of a partial federal government shutdown Dec. 22.

The bill authorizes defense programs for 2018, many of which will impact Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, but reaching a funding deal that would pay for the programs has eluded lawmakers so far this year.

“A government shutdown still remains possible,” said Michael Gessel, vice president of federal programs at the Dayton Development Coalition.

Since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, Congress has passed stop gap measures to keep the federal government operating, but cap spending at last year’s levels.

RELATED: Lack of defense budget raising concerns at Wright-Patterson

Two top Wright-Patterson leaders have spoken out against the temporary spending measures recently because they say they have created budget uncertainty and prevented the Air Force from starting new programs and eroded readiness.

Moreover, without a final spending bill that lifts budget caps imposed under the decade-long Budget Control Act of 2011 —- also known as sequestration—baseline defense spending will be capped at $549 billion. Congress has passed a $700 billion defense authorization bill that includes $66 billion in additional contigeny funding not restricted by the budget caps.

Gessel said lawmakers have worked behind the scenes on the possibly of a two-year budget framework to prevent the threat of a government shutdown for at least another year. Disagreements over other issues, from immigration to taxes and domestic spending, have weighed on the budget talks.

But what the final deal will be remains uncertain.

“The congressional leaders have insisted that they want to avoid a shutdown and the Senate majority leader (Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.) has even promised there won’t be a shutdown,” Gessel said. “These are all good signs.”

Ohio lawmakers have added several provisions under the defense legislation that will impact Wright-Patterson.

Some of the provisions were put into place by U.S. Sens, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, or U.S. Reps. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, and Warren Davidson, R-Troy.

“This law represents hundreds of hours of bipartisan work to ensure our military is fully equipped to handle every threat it may face in the coming year and rebuild our readiness,” Turner said in a statement.

RELATED: General: Spending needed if you want to hire; fly B-52s until 2040

Among the provisions added:

• $6.8 million to build a fire station at Wright-Patterson.

• Preventing a defense production office at Wright-Patterson, which works to boost the domestic industrial base to meet defense needs, from moving to the Pentagon. The office has had roughly two dozen employees and has been at the Miami Valley base since 1987.

• Increases royalty payments to federal researchers who develop new innovations and technology, such as those at the Air Force Research Laboratory.

• Gives the military more flexibility to fund “minor” construction at laboratories, and to buy commercial off-the-shelf equipment for civil engineers.

• Urges more collaboration between the Federal Aviation Administration and the Defense Department to integrate drones into the national airspace system.

Turner co-introduced with U.S. Rep. Nikki Tsongas, D-Mass., the BE HEARD Act, to address issues related to military sexual assault. Both lawmakers are co-chairpersons of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus in the House.

The provision includes expanded training for military lawyers working with sexual assault victims; allowing the military’s highest court to hear victims’ appeals while a trial is ongoing; and permitting military judges to appoint legal representatives to sexual assault victims who are underage or cannot represent themselves prior to an alleged perpetrator facing charges, according to Turner’s office.

Turner also included a provision that prohibits the congressionally chartered National Aviation Hall of Fame, which is located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, from leaving the state of Ohio. NAHF officials have said recently they do not intend to relocate the hall of fame which is in the midst of a $5 million fund-raising campaign to update the center.

Retaliatory culture has not changed in military, ex-prosecutor says

Published: Monday, December 11, 2017 @ 4:35 PM

            In this May 15, 2017 file photo, Air Force Academy Cadets pass in review after Brig. Gen. Kristin Goodwin assumed command of the AFA cadet wing at a ceremony at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
In this May 15, 2017 file photo, Air Force Academy Cadets pass in review after Brig. Gen. Kristin Goodwin assumed command of the AFA cadet wing at a ceremony at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Former female Air Force Academy cadets who withdrew after they said they faced retaliation when they reported they were sexually assaulted shows a need for a culture change throughout the military, a former prosecutor said.

“What it says about the climate is that despite all the military’s promise that they are taking this seriously and they are there to support survivors, the reality is that when a person is sexually assaulted in the military and then (reports it), whether they are at the academy or whether they are on active duty, the odds are that their career is going to be over,” said Don Christensen, president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders and a retired colonel who was a chief Air Force prosecutor.

“They’ll be subjected to pervasive retaliation both by their peers and by their superiors,” he said.

During a six-month investigation, CBS This Morning reported Monday it interviewed more than a dozen current or former cadets who said they faced retaliation after they reported sexual assaults to the academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Two of those interviewed Monday were women who were cadets but dropped out, and two current cadets whose identities were disguised. One of those interviewed said while she was subject to continued harassment after filing a report, her alleged attacker graduated at the prestigious school that produces Air Force officers.

Wright-Patterson assaults rise

Last month, the Defense Department released data for every major U.S. military installation in the world that showed Wright-Patterson Air Force Base had 30 reports of sexual assaults in 2016, nearly double the number from the previous two years. The Miami Valley base, which has an estimated 27,000 employees, recorded 17 assaults in both 2013 and 2014 and 19 cases in fiscal year 2013.

RELATED: Sexual assaults reported at Wright-Patt doubles in the past two years

The Defense Department data also showed the Air Force Academy had a higher number of sexual assaults than any other Air Force installation. The service academy had 44 reports in 2016, the Pentagon reported.

“Number one, they need to change the culture,” Christensen said. “This isn’t just the Air Force Academy, this is all the service academies.

“The military, as with anything they address (about) this issue, is more empty promises,” Christensen said. “On the one hand, they tell Congress that they’ve got it. On the other hand, behind the scenes, they support the people that have committed the rapes and force out the survivors.”

Meade Warthen, an Air Force Academy spokesman, told this outlet academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria’s would give a response to the investigation Tuesday on CBS This Morning. Warthen also sent this statement:

“What I can tell you in the interim, is that the Air Force Academy is deeply concerned by the allegations regarding the treatment of sexual assault victims at the Academy,” the statement said. “Dozens of professionals like Special Victims Counselors, Mental Health Professionals, Victim Advocates and more dedicate themselves day in and day out to the service of caring for the victims of this horrible crime. But the Academy is also focused on the root cause and believes creating and sustaining a climate of dignity and respect is absolutely essential to ending the scourge of sexual assault. One assault is too many and we will never rest until the number is zero.”

Retaliation complaints

Christensen cited a Department of Defense investigation that showed one in three women who have filed a sexual assault report leave the military within a year. Further, he said, about 60 percent of those who have said they experienced harassment or assault reported instances of retaliation since 2010.

RELATED: 32 sexual assaults reported at Wright-Patt AFB in 4-year period

“It’s not getting any better,” he said. “It’s probably getting worse and the retaliation is as bad as ever. The leadership knows about the retaliation and does nothing about it. That to me is their inability to speak out strongly and to hold people accountable. It sends a clear message to survivors, report at your own peril.”

In a statement last month, Wright-Patterson responded to the sharp increase in reported assaults.

“We cannot identify any significant trends in the increase,” spokeswoman Marie Vanover said in a Nov. 20 email. “While each case has its own unique attribute, the number is not indicative of the number of assaults that occurred at Wright-Patt. There are many factors that go into the numbers; including some cases accounting for more than one incident.

“We’re dedicated to fostering an environment of respect by standing against anyone who commits sexual assault and supporting survivors, whenever and wherever it may have occurred,” the statement said.

Christensen has said in his more than two decades of military judicial experience the “vast majority” of reported assaults occurred on or near the installation where they were first recorded.

2016 Air Force installation sex assault cases

U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.: 44

Kadena Air Base, Japan: 37

Ramstein Air Base, Germany: 36

Travis Air Force Base, Calif: 34

Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.: 33

Wright-Patterson: 30

Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas and Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.: 27

Source: Department of Defense

A return of flying sergeants? Air Force says no despite too few pilots

Published: Monday, December 11, 2017 @ 5:00 AM

Could dual-track pilot careers save Air Force pilots?

The Air Force will launch a high-tech training experiment testing both officers and enlisted airmen to prepare pilots for the cockpit faster.

But, despite a growing shortage of aviators, it won’t be a return to the wartime days of flying sergeants – at least for now, according to the Air Force.

The six-month initiative at a military reserve center in Austin, Texas will reportedly include 15 commissioned officers, and five enlisted airmen who have recently graduated boot camp.

RELATED: Air Force facing growing crisis in pilot shortage

The initiative, dubbed “Pilot Training Next,” will use virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, bio-metrics and data analytics to determine if aviators can be trained faster and cheaper using technology, an Air Force spokeswoman said in an interview.

The Air Education and Training Command’s latest training experiment, set to begin next February, is meant to find out if technology can help airmen of different educational backgrounds learn faster in the pilot-training pipeline, the Air Force said.

“We are going to use immersive technology to see how we can help people learn more effectively,” Lt. Col. Robert Vicars, Pilot Training Next director said in a statement. “This is an initiative to explore whether or not these technologies can help us learn deeper and faster.”

The Air Force, the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve, confront a shortage of about 2,000 aviators – and of that about 1,300 were fighter pilots. Many have been drawn out of the cockpit by an airline industry hiring binge or may have tired of a high number of deployments overseas.

RELATED: Wright Patt,defense firm, work to protect weapons from cyber threats

Training military pilots takes time and money: Two years of undergraduate fighter pilot training costs taxpayers more than $1 million for each aviator.

Still, despite the unusual move of including enlisted airmen in the experiment, they will not advance to undergraduate pilot training, according to Air Force spokeswoman Erika Yepsen.

For decades, the Air Force has reserved jobs for pilots to fly aircraft to commissioned officers who are college graduates.

However, to fill a gap of a shortage of aviators in wartime, enlisted pilots flew in World War I and World War II, historical documents show. Thousands flew in World War II alone, but still made up only about 1 percent of pilots, documents show.

RELATED: House defense leader at Wright Patt, says AF pilot shortage is growing

The Air Force has opened the door for enlisted troops in one area: Flying drones, which the service branch calls remotely piloted aircraft.

Since last year, the Air Force has trained enlisted airmen to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-flying spy drone.

So far, 11 enlisted airmen have earned their wings as drone pilots, and that number could reach 100 by 2020, Yepsen said.

Kenneth E. Curell, 65, a former Air Force and Air National Guard fighter pilot who became an airline and corporate pilot, said in an email he did not believe enlisted airmen should be pilots of manned aircraft yet.

“If the objective is to proactively address pilot shortages, then the Air Force needs to experiment with and implement other options to entice prospective pilot candidates into the (Air Force) and promote initiatives that directly address areas pilots have identified as retention barriers,” the Centerville resident said. “Air Force leadership has not institutionally affected areas pilots perennially identify as retention barriers.”

Consequently, he added, pilots have “lost confidence” initiatives put in place to address the pilot shortage will stay beyond the next round of senior level leadership.

An F-22 Raptor demonstration pilot in the cockpit of the stealh figther before flying in the Vectren Dayton Air Show in 2008. TY GREENLEES/STAFF FILE PHOTO(Staff Writer)