At Minot Air Force base in Minot, North Dakota, a wife kisses her husband goodbye, knowing that he will be spending the night alone in close quarters with a fit, talented, professional woman officer. He will dress next to her, sleep where she slept, smell how she smells. Although their job can sometimes be tense, for the most part it is boring, and so they talk. Over several days each week, month after month, they've built up a relationship that it would be fair to call friendly. He is a devoted husband, yet he is a man, and weak as all men are weak. So as his wife kisses him goodbye, she worries, not that his hands will wander, but that his heart might, just a little bit. She wants to trust him, but it can be hard, and she fears she's growing jealous, against her will, of that colleague of her husband. She knows she is supposed to think of her as just another officer in the armed forces, but when she looks she sees, and fears her husband sees, another woman.
Minot may be small and remote, but it is the scene of something dramatic: a man's struggle to defend his faith and marriage against the cultural forces of our day. This particular mini-drama is repeated daily in the households of Air Force officers assigned to the two-person crews whose job is to maintain and, if necessary, launch the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles stored in silos under the North Dakota soil. They do this from one of fifteen Launch Control Centers (LCC), bunkers located at least an hour away from Minot and sixty feet underground. The bunker is the shape of two Tylenol capsules stuck end to end, in its entirety and with all the electronic equipment no more than twelve yards long by five feet wide—about the length and width of a school bus. At one end there is a small sleeping area with a mattress separated by heavy curtains from the rest of the bunker. At the other end is a small toilet which, until recent suggestions from crew members prompted the addition of a door, was also separated from the bunker only by curtains.
On the surface above each bunker there is a Missile Alert Facility (MAF), basically a house with security personnel who guard the elevator down to the bunker and a chef who prepares meals for the crew. At mealtimes, somebody calls down to the LCC, letting the crew know to unlock the entrance to the facility, always giving them at least thirty minutes notice before coming down, so there are no surprises. Nobody on the staff of the MAF or even back at the base is able to monitor what is going on in the bunker, again for security reasons.
The job has its pressures, most notably the prospect of launching weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, most of the work is routine, and crew members have a lot of time to kill during their "alerts." They have DIRECTV, including HBO and other pay channels, and access to videos. They can bring down reading material, and although it is not permitted, some bunkers have pornographic magazines hidden in the equipment racks. But much of the time is spent shooting the breeze. The same two-person crew serves together a few times a week for an average of six to eight months consecutively. Each crew spends at least twenty-four hours underground each time they go down, but the weather in North Dakota being what it is, sometimes they are forced to wait as long as five days before a replacement crew can arrive. As one Air Force missileer put it: "Everyone is pretty friendly with each other. What do we talk about? Anything and everything. … You're spending twenty-four hours with this person, after all."
Since 1988, the Air Force has assigned women to serve with men on these missile crews as part of its effort to allow women officers the same career opportunities men receive. The Air Force has been at the forefront of gender integration in the military, assigning women to combat roles as fighter pilots while the Navy still permitted the bottom-pinching atmosphere that eventually blew up into Tailhook, and while to this day the Army does not permit male and female cadets at West Point to be alone in a room together with a closed door. Missile alert crew duty seemed another choice candidate for gender integration, requiring judgment and will, but not physical strength. At first, women served on crews only with other women, but after a time, the top brass decided to treat male and female missileers indiscriminately, scheduling them without regard to their sex. This policy went largely unquestioned until the assignment of Lieutenant Ryan Berry, a promising young airman who could not square his marriage and his Christian faith with the compromising situation in which the Air Force was placing him.
Lt. Berry graduated from West Point in June 1996, and was permitted to transfer from the Army to the Air Force, one of a handful of top graduates from the military academies allowed to switch branches of the military. He was trained to work with Minuteman ICBMs and assigned to Minot, where his father had begun his military career in the Air Force almost three decades before. In the meantime, he married his high school sweetheart Jill, and they moved into a small house on the base.
Although there was one woman in his missileer training classes, Berry did not think that women and men would be assigned to the same missile crew. "I was under the impression that once we got to the wing, since it is just a two-person workplace, isolated underground, that men would pull alerts with men and women with women," Berry later told reporters. The Air Force did not brief the missileer candidates about the particular challenges of serving on mixed-sex crews in such a unique environment—nobody even mentioned it. As soon as Berry realized the crews were mixed, he knew he had a problem.
Many male servicemen grouse about such "gender integration," seeing it as a sign of acquiescence to political correctness and a violation of common sense about human nature. But Berry's problem was deeper: as a Christian struggling to live the commandments, he must keep his heart pure and avoid even the appearance of sin so as not to scandalize others. Needless to say, adultery is a sin. So, following the ancient rabbinic principle of "building a fence around the commandments," Berry avoids situations where he is alone with a woman, thereby reducing the likelihood that his thoughts or feelings might dwell on a woman other than his wife. This does not preclude dealing with women professionally, but it does put limits on such contacts—especially with women who are unmarried—so as to protect his family from the vagaries of his own heart.
Clearly, Christian doctrine encourages such caution. Scripture is filled with instructions to avoid temptations, even to avoid occasions where one might be tempted. "If your eye is causing you to sin, pluck it out," says Matthew's Gospel, because "if a man looks at a woman with lust in his eyes, he has already committed adultery in his heart" (5:28-29). Paul warns the Corinthians to avoid occasions of sin, because "if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12). Berry, an educated and well-formed Catholic, realized that pulling a missile alert with a woman would make it exceedingly difficult for him to work with a pure heart, as it would for most men. He immediately consulted the Catholic chaplain on base to discuss his options.
Berry was prepared to leave the military over this crisis of conscience, his soul being a greater priority than his career. He had faced a similar decision once before, when during his training he thought missileers had to take an oath to follow any order given through the appropriate chain of command—a promise he simply could not make. (If his superior officer ordered him to launch an unprovoked attack at a city, Catholic just war doctrine would prohibit him from obeying.) After consulting with his chaplain on that issue, Berry decided he would exercise his moral agency before he went on duty, asking himself each day: is there any likelihood, given the known state of the world, that the President might today order an illicit nuclear attack? If he ever thought so, he would not go on duty that day, and would accept the consequences, whatever they might be. Maybe this new problem could be solved in a similar way.
And for eighteen months, it was. In accordance with Air Force procedures, Berry requested a religious accommodation so that he would be scheduled to serve on alert duty only with men. Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2706 4F, "Accommodation of Religious Practices," is "based on the constitutional right of the free exercise of religion in accordance with [Department of Defense] policy." Commanders "are expected to respect the religious beliefs and practices of Air Force members in a manner that is consistent and fair to all," and to accommodate religious practices "when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline." On the advice of the Catholic chaplain at Minot, Berry's squadron commander granted the request.
Since even professional soldiers are likely to become jealous over personal accommodations, Air Force policy is to handle them discreetly, "at the lowest level of command." In keeping with this policy, Berry's squadron commanders discussed his accommodation only on a need-to-know basis. Regulations do not require such requests to be submitted in writing, and his squadron commanders did not ask for it. For the most part, this meant that besides the chaplain, only the person scheduling the crews knew that Berry was being treated differently. Scheduling accommodations of various sorts are not uncommon—two married officers at Minot, for example, were given permission to be scheduled always on the same days to maximize their time off together—and it did not raise eyebrows that Berry was never scheduled with a woman, since the great majority of the missileers at Minot, over 90 percent, are men.
So Berry served crew duty with men from his arrival at Minot in May 1997 until March 1998, at which time he was promoted to instructor and transferred to another squadron. His new commander continued the religious accommodation until he was replaced in May 1998. His successor, Lt. Colonel David Blalock, continued the policy of previous squadron commanders.
In the meantime, however, certain women officers began to suspect that Berry's refusal to pull alert duty with women was grounded in sexism, and began to say as much to the senior officers at the base. The grumbling became more public when a newly assigned scheduler mistakenly assigned Berry to serve with a woman, and then changed it when he was informed of the policy. Schedule changes are posted publicly, so all the missileers knew about the change. Not knowing the truth, they believed the rumors.
To complicate matters, the higher leadership at Minot had changed. Berry's first squadron commander had talked informally with many officials on the base before granting the initial accommodation. But after that decision, the subsequent squadron commanders never discussed the policy with anyone outside Berry's squadron. This meant that with the change in leadership, the new group commander, Col. Stephen Cullen, was not informed of Berry's accommodation until he began to investigate the complaints.
Although the squadron commanders below him were following the appropriate policy, Col. Cullen was irritated at having been left out of the loop. In late November 1998, while Berry was out of town on leave, he called a meeting to discuss the lieutenant's alleged preferential treatment. Although the Catholic chaplain and the head chaplain at Minot supported Berry's accommodation, the equal opportunity officer and the base lawyer ultimately persuaded Cullen that the accommodation should not be continued. When he returned on December 8, Berry was summoned to the colonel's office and presented with a memo revoking his religious accommodation and informing him that any further refusal to serve with women would result in disciplinary action. Berry protested. Sure that he could persuade them he was no sexist, he requested the opportunity to speak with those who complained. The colonel dismissed this suggestion. Berry asked to be reassigned to some other duty within the wing, or retrained and assigned to another career field. Both requests were rejected as well.
The next day Berry met with Lt. Col. Blalock and described his meeting with Cullen. Blalock decided that given Berry's state of mind (in addition to all this, his wife was nine months pregnant) he should not go on his next alert, which was scheduled to be with a woman. (Such suspensions are not punitive and do not go on one's record, to encourage crew members to speak frankly with their commanders when personal issues might distract them from their sensitive duties.) After a month of temporary suspensions, Blalock decided to recommend that Berry be suspended from nuclear alerts permanently, reasoning that without the religious accommodation, Berry would always face a conflict between his faith and his military duty. Berry expected that given his exemplary record he would be retrained for another field or, at worst, given an honorable discharge. That was January 8, 1999.
In early February, notice of Berry's permanent suspension reached the ranking officer at the base, Col. Ronald Haeckel, who began an inquiry as to whether Berry's interpretation of Catholic morality was in fact official Church teaching. He called the command chaplain for Air Force Space Command, Col. Charles Baldwin, who in turn called Major General William Dendinger, Chief of Chaplain Service and a Roman Catholic priest, who declared that nothing in Catholic doctrine prohibited Berry from serving with women. Based on this judgment of Catholic teaching, Chaplain Baldwin (a Protestant) wrote a memo concluding that Berry's refusal to serve with women was "based on his personal understanding of the biblical directives, and not based on Catholic doctrine."
With this memo in hand, Col. Haeckel called a meeting with Berry, Blalock, and Cullen to discuss the situation before agreeing to Berry's permanent suspension. On the basis of Baldwin's memo, Haeckel and Cullen accused Berry of causing all this trouble on behalf of his own personal beliefs rather than official Church teaching, and gave him six weeks to "reconcile [his] faith with [his] military duties." When at the end of that time Berry told them he had not changed his religious beliefs, it seems they resolved to make an example of him.
On Berry's annual Officer Performance Report (OPR), signed several days later, Haeckel overrode the glowing reports of Berry's immediate superiors. Although Berry had "superb technical expertise" according to Haeckel's assessment, he "refused to accept the personal responsibilities of a missile combat crew member." Haeckel's report alleged that Berry "had [the] daily alert schedule altered" and had refused to "perform duties with fully qualified female crew members." Neither claim was strictly true. Berry did have the alert schedule altered, but only by going through the proper channels, which is not grounds for a negative rating. Likewise, while Berry had expressed his objections to serving on an alert crew with women, he had never been ordered to do so, and thus was never even in a position to have refused his official duties.
Haeckel also criticized Berry because his religious accommodation "adversely impacted good order, discipline, and morale of both male and female ICBM operators" (a reference to AFI 36-2706 4F, mentioned above). Again the charges have a grain of truth but fall apart under scrutiny. Jealousy and rumors are a foreseeable result of any religious accommodation; the superior officer has a duty to explain the accommodation to those who might resent it initially. On Haeckel's interpretation, however, any commander should automatically deny even a reasonable request for religious accommodation if he fears someone in his command might react irrationally or unprofessionally. This approach would make accommodations virtually impossible, and would in effect gut Air Force policies defending religious freedom. In Berry's case, the commanding officers not only failed in this duty, they exacerbated the tensions his request had stirred up and denied him any chance to alleviate his colleagues' concerns.
Haeckel's report apparently was thrown together quickly—it contained several factual errors and lacked the documentation required by the Air Force to substantiate such criticisms. It had the desired effect nonetheless: Berry's career was effectively over. Almost every Air Force lieutenant with a clean record gets promoted to captain. Berry—whose superiors call him "highly capable," "knowledgeable," "a cool performer under pressure," full of "boundless potential," "one of my best," "ready for even greater challenges"—rightly expected the automatic promotion to captain, and the chance for the further, more competitive promotion to major. West Point, his family, and his performance at Minot had all prepared him for military leadership, which is closed off to those with black marks on their records.
Berry's only hope was to appeal his report to Major General Thomas Neary, Commander of the 20th Air Force, beginning the most surreal episode of the whole case. Berry believed, with good reason, that the basis of his suspension was Monsignor Dendinger's confusion about Catholic moral teaching. Therefore, he thought, if he could provide Gen. Neary with a truly authoritative presentation of the doctrine, he could at least have the negative OPR removed from his record. Through a mutual friend, Berry sought the help of Monsignor William Smith of New York's St. Joseph Seminary, a respected Catholic moral theologian, who reviewed the entire case and wrote a letter in support of the lieutenant's position.
According to Msgr. Smith, "occasions of sin" are situations or actions that are conducive to, or temptations toward, sin: being in a bookstore for an impecunious bibliophile, being around an irresponsible yet charismatic friend, or going to a strip bar, for example. Some situations are wrong for everybody (e.g., the strip bar); these are traditionally called absolute occasions of sin. Some situations are wrong only for a certain person with a certain proclivity (the bibliophile in the bookstore); these are called relative occasions of sin. Missile alert crew duty with someone of the opposite sex, in Smith's judgment, would be "closer to the absolute occasion rather than the relative one." "Such an arrangement for twenty-four or forty-eight continuous hours seems to me to offend common sense, even basic Christian standards of scandal," Smith wrote, because it has "the appearance of evil and is likely to be a stumbling block for others."
Seconding Msgr. Smith was Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of the Catholic Archdiocese for Military Services, who wrote his own letter to Gen. Neary: "I fully concur with Monsignor Smith's conclusions and I support Lt. Berry's request for religious accommodation in the matter."
On June 2, one month later, Neary, himself a Roman Catholic, responded to the archbishop's letter. He made three points: 1) The officers trained for ICBM crew duty are such professionals that they can "responsibly address and resolve any perceived temptation … through obedience—both to one's personal beliefs and to the professional commitments and standards expected of all Air Force officers." 2) Since the professionalism of the ICBM crews is such that each member would out of obedience respect the privacy of the other, serving on a mixed-gender crew could not be an occasion of sin nor cause of scandal. 3) Bracketing any moral considerations Msgr. Smith might raise, "if any officer refuses to perform gender-integrated alert duties, it would undermine the great progress we have made in the gender equity area."
Archbishops are not used to being told quite so bluntly that they misunderstand Catholic doctrine. O'Brien sent a letter to Neary on June 23, insisting that Chaplain Baldwin retract his statement that Berry's conviction was not based on Catholic doctrine. "Nothing could be further from the truth," wrote the archbishop. "I am sure that highly trained and well disciplined Air Force officers do resist temptations, for the most part. The question for me as a moralist is, Are there some programs whose highly unusual moral contexts would render it unfair to require participation?" Archbishop O'Brien also dismissed Neary's slippery-slope argument that giving in on mixed crews would "undermine the great progress … in the gender equity area." Gender equity among the troops, he insisted, was not as important as their adherence to the commandments prohibiting lust and adultery.
When it became clear that the Air Force would not reconsider its hardline stance against him, Berry went public with his story. On July 14, Rowan Scarborough broke the story on page one of the Washington Times. It caught the attention of Capitol Hill, at least in part because of a series of news stories regarding religion and the military: in just the previous two weeks, the Marines had decided to allow Wiccans to practice their faith on military installations and the Navy had kicked the Knights of Columbus off their base in Norfolk, Virginia, because they were too sectarian and did not admit women. Just a few days before, the Army, Navy, and Air Force had all announced that they were having trouble getting recruits and would be requesting an additional $20 million for their recruiting budget.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland used the Berry case to tie it all together: the military was adopting the leftist policies of the cultural elite, he said, in the process driving away proven soldiers and potential recruits. Bartlett along with seventy-seven Representatives of both parties (and both sexes)—including Floyd Spence, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and most of the House leadership—sent a letter to Major General Michael Ryan, the Air Force Chief of Staff, asking him to grant Berry's accommodation.
The results were mixed. Gen. Ryan did order that Berry be reassigned to a new base and retrained. But he did not remove the negative evaluation from Berry's record, saying he supported the conclusions of Berry's immediate superiors that Berry's "personal convictions could not be accommodated without creating an unacceptable impact on the unit's ability to accomplish the military mission." In the media circus that followed the Washington Times story, Air Force representatives repeatedly employed this line. For instance, Chief Chaplain Dendinger in a statement to the press said: "Lt. Berry's case is not a matter of accommodating a specific religious practice but accommodation of his personal religious conviction." Col. Evan Hoapili, the commander of Berry's Operations Group, in a briefing to junior officers on how to talk to the press, explained the ramifications of such merely personal conviction: "You can have personal religious convictions, but if these conflict with Air Force policy, be prepared to be kicked out."
In one sense the military chaplains are certainly correct: nothing in the Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically prohibits unmarried men and women from serving missile alert duty together. The conflict is rather with the principles of Catholic moral teaching, not some specific injunction. Among the several principles this policy violates is the principle of freedom of conscience set forth by the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty: that "within due limits," nobody is to be forced to act against his convictions, nor be restrained from acting in accord with his convictions, "in private or in public, alone or in associations with others." If the Air Force were without serious military reason to require Berry to act against his conscience, it would clearly be in conflict with the teaching of the Catholic Church, quite apart from other concerns about adultery, interior dispositions, modesty, scandal, and so on.
John Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, who spent twenty-seven years as a chaplain in the Navy and Marine Corps and was the Senior Chaplain of the U.S. Naval Academy before becoming archbishop of the military archdiocese, wrote two outraged columns in Catholic New York: "This is not the military I knew in uniform, nor the military I knew as bishop for all the armed forces." O'Connor argued that the Air Force's legitimate concern for "good order and discipline," in Chaplain Dendinger's words, could not be sustained unless the Air Force was also concerned about the moral character of its airmen. The twentieth century has seen too many soldiers put military success ahead of any higher moral purpose, noted the cardinal. "I would shudder for our country and certainly our armed forces" if the same reordering of values occurred here.
The Air Force's stubbornness in the Berry case may be explained in part as a reaction to the earlier—even more famous—sexual scandal at Minot over Kelly Flinn, the Air Force pilot who in 1997 carried on an adulterous affair with the civilian husband of a female soldier under her command. On that occasion the Air Force handled the media poorly, and in the end was intimidated by public pressure into letting Flinn off with a slap on the wrist. In the Berry affair, by contrast, the Air Force decided to play hardball. Senior officers searched for soldiers who would disagree with Berry or would present a different picture of missile crew life than Berry had. To this end, Col. Hoapili met with junior officers on July 17, briefing them on what to say when speaking to the press, and the next day Col. Haeckel did the same. They encouraged the junior officers to present Berry as a divisive presence in the unit, and they implied among other things that Berry was a sexist, a religious kook, an unstable personality, even a potential rapist.
Untroubled by logic, Haeckel announced, "There is absolutely no difference between Berry not wanting to serve with females in the capsule and Berry not wanting to serve with blacks." And Hoapili cynically observed, "Berry says that this is a Catholic belief, but everyone knows that you can get five bishops in a room and they will give you five different opinions on any issue." The briefing offended many of the officers present; several of them contacted Berry or his lawyer to prepare them for what was coming.
The briefings and "talking points" had their effect. Officers filled the letters pages of the Air Force Times with statements accusing Berry of sexism or insinuating that he was pathological: "Women and men should not be subject to sexual harassment even when it is described as religious belief"; "This is more about a perceived inability to control one's individual urges than it is about religious expression"; "What's next, a person decides he or she can't work around someone of a different race because it might invoke violent feelings that violate his or her religious faith?"; "It is ludicrous that … Berry was allowed to not serve crew duty with perfectly capable and fully trained missileers just because of their sex"; "The last time I looked, adultery was punishable in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Thinking of committing a crime, sir?"
Outside the Air Force, others unsympathetic to Berry followed the same tack. The New York chapter of NOW criticized Cardinal O'Connor for "condoning sexism, and expressing the same attitudes used by those who in the past had condoned racism and sexual violence against women." NOW-NYC President Galen Sherwin told the press, "Historically, opponents of women's equality have justified excluding women from areas traditionally reserved for men with an appeal to men's inabilities to control their sexual impulses." Ellen Goodman was on message but wittier, encouraging Berry to "Make Love, Not War."
Gen. Neary inserted into Berry's file the confidential admission Berry made to Lt. Col. Blaylock that, were he assigned to a crew with a woman, his mind would not be entirely on his job. As we saw above, it is Air Force policy to keep such conversations off the record so that missileers will speak freely about potential distractions. But soon a spokeswoman for Minot Air Force Base justified Berry's decertification to the New York Post by appealing to this ostensibly confidential admission: "The leadership … decided that we can't have leaders down in the capsules with anything on their minds other than the missiles. … [Missile crew duty] requires a tremendous amount of professionalism."
Of course, Berry did have some supporters in the media. The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, New American, and Washington Times all ran editorials supporting him. Paul Craig Roberts and Phyllis Schlafly wrote columns in his defense, as did Terence Jeffrey of Human Events. The National Association of Evangelicals wrote in their newsletter, "This is not just an attack upon Roman Catholic teaching. It is only one more action in a series of moves to intimidate and suppress 'politically incorrect' religious belief and practice, and we, as Evangelicals, stand with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in calling for redress." Even the Air Force Times, which was otherwise critical of Berry, admitted in an editorial that he did not deserve the negative performance rating: "It is not Berry's fault that previous commanders told him he essentially had the right to pick his workmates."
Despite having a few supporters in high places, Berry's case remained problematic. In an era where religion is widely regarded as a purely private affair, few people want to make public concessions to religious conviction. When public life was more informed by religious values, the guardians of public morality would through laws and public opinion discourage men and women from putting themselves in such delicate situations. Today's guardians demand it in the name of equality. Even in a post-Lewinsky world, more aware than ever of the weaknesses of man's will, we still as a culture think it possible to remain pure of thought when temptation abounds, to look and look, but never think to touch. A nation of impulse buyers and divorcees, we still imagine that all it takes to sustain a marriage is an act of will and the strength to resist temptations.
It is a doctrine among some of our cultural elites that the human will is strong and infallible. Among such people, Berry's admission of his fallen nature is a sign of his inadequacy. A man who has withstood threats, demotion, and ridicule for his countercultural stance is deemed a moral weakling who could not control his sexual impulses. Traditional Christianity and Judaism, by contrast, are more realistic about human weakness—and, not coincidentally, more tolerant and forgiving. They recognize the need to struggle against one's baser inclinations, but also to have a safeguard against those frequent occasions when our fallen natures get the better of us.
Lt. Berry has chosen to live according to such religious wisdom, and he is paying for it. Were his colleagues and superiors to engage in the same quality of soul-searching, one imagines, it would be the end of gender-integrated missile assignments, and, presumably, the vindication of Lt. Ryan Berry.
Daniel P. Moloney is Associate Editor of First Things, where this article originally appeared in the magazine's February 2000 issue.
Other articles by Daniel Moloney in First Things include:
'Saving' the Poor (May 1999)
Eroticism Unbound (February 1999)
Questioning Everything? (Nov. 1998)
See the New York Post's coverage of the controversy, " O'Connor Defends Stance in Silo-Sex Fuss" and " Sex in ihe Silo: It's No Big Deal" as well as overseas coverage from the (UK) Telegraph.
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