No Room for Bigotry in the Airforce—Or America

By Alex Vazquez and Victor Santana

Last week, someone wrote racial slurs on the doors of five black cadets at the Air Force Academy Prep School. Lieutenant General Jay Silveria, superintendent of the Academy, brought all 4,000 cadets and the Academy’s faculty and staff together to let them know exactly where he, and the Academy, stood on the matter.

“If you’re outraged by those words, then you’re in the right place…If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you can’t treat someone from another gender, whether that’s a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can’t treat someone from another race or a different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”

As enlisted Air Force veterans, we watched General Silveria’s speech with a mix of sadness and pride. Sadness because such a racist, despicable act happened at such a celebrated and important place. But we were also proud because the superintendent’s response exemplified real leadership.

One of us—Victor—grew up in Puerto Rico, in a community that was remarkably diverse. All of his friends and schoolmates were brown-skinned and spoke Spanish and English. Racism was practically nonexistent. After all, when everyone is “mestizo,” diversity is the norm. He didn’t experience prejudice until he joined the Air Force.

The other of us—Alex—grew up in North Carolina as a bit of an outsider, the child of refugees who arrived in the United States from Nicaragua. Alex’s friends were a diverse group, and while he never felt oppressed by his background or birthright, it was not always easy to grow up defined by a label.

This incident, and Lt. Gen. Silveria’s speech, hit home for us. We witnessed the flaws of our military. We’re proud to have served, but we wouldn’t be honest if we said that bigotry didn’t exist in our Air Force. But the superintendent’s speech also exemplified the type of leadership that we witnessed, and aspired to, during our service. His words reflected the values that make us proud to be Airmen and Americans.

In boot camp, we learned the Airmen’s Creed: “I am faithful to a proud heritage, a tradition of honor.” The Air Force’s core values were instilled in us: “integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do.” We learned the Air Force vision: “Our differences make us stronger. Our values make us one.”

As is true for everyone who serves in our military, every day we worked alongside—and at times depended on—people very different from us. Binding us all was a shared commitment to those values and a duty to the missions at hand.

Lt. Gen. Silveria echoed this in his speech, reminding all 4,000 cadets gathered before him “that we come from all walks of life, that we come from all parts of this country, that we come from all races, we come from all backgrounds, gender, all makeup, all upbringing… that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful.”

He made clear that those who scrawled hate on their fellow cadets’ boards could not steal that power. Their acts would not define the Academy, the Air Force, or its values. He was right. We are more powerful together than a few cowardly cadets. The values that we recited and fought for are more powerful than hate.

But this event was also a reminder that our institutions—and the great American experiment of ours—are actually quite fragile. No one person, or small group of small-minded people, can take our values away from us. But those values must still be defended. We must work continuously to ensure that hateful ideas are swiftly shamed, kept at the margins, and stomped out altogether.

This is true in the Air Force, and in other military branches. It is also true for all Americans in civilian life. As Americans, we must be vigilant of our values and safeguard them by demonstrating respect for our neighbors and strangers alike. We must call out hate when we see it, and actively exercise our collective citizenship.

It’s one reason why we have both spent a great deal of time and energy since leaving the service trying to remind all Americans who we are, and why upholding our values is so critical to preserving American leadership and its greatness.

Through Veterans for American Ideals, we are giving back to our communities. We are speaking out against racism and xenophobia. We are speaking up for refugees and for the core American ideals that first inspired us to serve. We are, in the words of another leader—Secretary of Defense James Mattis—“holding the line,” fighting for our ideals and doing the important work of citizenship to leave our country even greater than we inherited it.

Lieutenant General Silveria rightly told those who eschew our values to “get out.” We agree. We also challenge every Airman, every veteran, and every American who believes in the power of diversity and in the vision of American ideals: get to work.

Alex Vazquez and Victor Santana served together in the U.S. Air Force. Alex, the son of Nicaraguan refugees, enlisted right out of high school. He currently resides in Washington, D.C., where he works for the World Bank and is a law student at UDC David A. Clarke School of Law. Victor was born and raised in Puerto Rico and joined the Air Force in 2003 as an intelligence analyst. He now resides in Texas, where he works in cyber security.