Saving Lieutenant Ryan Berry

Military: The Air Force punishes an officer who has challenged an assignment because of his religion.

July 25, 1999|By Robert L. Maginnis

THE HIT MOVIE "Saving Private Ryan" was about principle. In the movie, Gen. George Marshall acted on principle when he ordered the Army to return a family's last surviving son to his home before he, like his three brothers, was killed in combat.

Today, another Ryan needs a Marshall-like figure to act on principle and rescue him. The modern military is pushing a radical feminist agenda without regard for military necessity. Casualties in the feminist war are too often people of faith. That's one of the reasons we need the Religious Liberty Protection Act just passed by the House of Representatives.

Minot Air Force Base, N. D. -- which gave us 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, the first female B-52 pilot but an acknowledged adulteress and liar -- has produced a personal crisis of a radically different nature. Politically correct commanders punished a married, devout Catholic officer for being reluctant to share secluded accommodations with a female officer, which would have meant disobeying his God and dishonoring his wife and daughter.

In recent years, the military has been vigorously fighting adultery and sexual misconduct while endorsing settings that contribute to the problem. Expect more Flinn-type cases in the Air Force.

First Lt. Ryan Berry is a 25-year-old who followed in his father's footsteps, joined the Air Force and became a missileer. Soon after arriving at Minot, Berry learned that he might be expected to serve alone with a female officer deep inside a missile launch control capsule. Berry believes that serving in isolation with a woman other than his wife conflicts with Catholic teachings on temptation and the command to flee even the appearance of evil.

The two-officer capsule in which Berry served is the size of a small bus and is buried 90 feet below the prairie, an hour from the base headquarters. The capsule is linked to 10 Minuteman III nuclear missiles. Minot has 15 capsules.

After assuming duty, crews usually exchange their military uniforms for shorts and T-shirts or sweat clothes to work more comfortably in the cramped quarters. The capsule is austerely furnished with a single bed, a toilet and retractable privacy curtains.

Missile crew members are paired, without regard to sex or marital status, to complement their strengths and weaknesses. Crew pairings may last from months to years. Crews serve as many as eight 24-hour alerts each month. They work together outside the capsule as well.

Aside from routine operations, life inside the capsule is boring. This can contribute to mischief. There is no surveillance of missile crews, and the only outside contact is by telephone and a small television. Former missileers report that looking at pornographic magazines is a common pastime.

Spending hundreds of uninterrupted hours together provides an opportunity for crew partners to establish close relationships. It is not uncommon for mixed-sex crew partners to date when off duty. Stay-behind spouses have always been uncomfortable with these pairings, though at Minot most missileers are single and only one in eight is female.

Berry approached the base's Catholic chaplain, who agreed that mixing sexes among crews "was improper and a likely occasion of sin for any normal young man, married or otherwise." Initially, Berry's commanders granted him a religious waiver from participating in mixed-sex crew assignments but withdrew that accommodation last year after several fellow missileers complained about his "preferential" treatment.

The lieutenant immediately approached his commander, who, within hours, decertified Berry from nuclear duty and assigned him a meaningless desk job.

Though Air Force regulations provide for reassignment, reclassification or separation when a religious accommodation is not deemed "in the best interest of the unit," Berry's rater, Col. Ronald Haeckel, blasted the lieutenant as "unprofessional." Haeckel wrote in Berry's evaluation report that the lieutenant "refuses to accept personal responsibilities ... [and] will not perform duties with fully qualified female crew members."

Haeckel's rating will ruin a promising career.

Berry never refused to serve with a female officer. He only expressed to his commander his religious objections and asked that his waiver be extended.

Edwin O'Brien, the archbishop for the military services, supports Berry. O'Brien wrote a letter to Maj. Gen. Thomas Neary, commander of the 20th Air Force, which oversees Berry's unit.

Berry's case is "not just a sex-bias case," wrote O'Brien. The lieutenant "has willingly and effectively served alongside female crew members." The issue is the "unique set of expectations." The archbishop continued, "A stated moral goal (gender integration), joined to professionalism (discipline, obedience), does not transcend or make less significant the physical realities involved in 'gender.' "

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