At its core, this story clearly illustrates why it’s imperative the Air Force must remove judicial decisions from the hands of commanders who have no idea what they’re doing.
In 2014, Col. Michael Madrid began a journey he never planned — a journey to save his career.
Despite being a stellar career officer with an impeccable record as a flight surgeon, Madrid came under speculation when an airman under his mentorship was charged with multiple criminal offenses, including illegally bringing a loaded weapon onto the Air Force base, prescribing narcotics illegally and performing duties while under the influence of narcotics.
The airman, who was ultimately found guilty on all charges, filed a complaint contending Madrid had made derogatory comments about homosexuality.
Madrid, who is a devout Christian and believes marriage is the union of one man and one woman, denied the accusations. Steadfast in his faith and never one to push his beliefs on others, he voluntarily submitted to, and fully cooperated in, an Air Force investigation.
Based on records, interviews, and fact-finding, the Air Force found the allegations against Madrid “unsubstantiated” and closed the investigation in 2014.
This is where the story would normally end. But this is the Air Force of 2017.
Even though cleared of all allegations, he’s about to enter into uncharted waters. For more than 25 years he’s been a model GI. Now the service he’s loved is turning against him. More than two years after being found innocent of any wrongdoing -of being nothing more than a man who serves his nation and his faith- he’s being punished by Maj. Gen. John E. McCoy. Without any new evidence, without due process, Madrid was served a Letter of Reprimand by McCoy and once again finds his career and religious beliefs in jeopardy.
“The general accused Col. Madrid of lying to the investigator when Madrid denied the allegations, even though the investigation already determined the allegations were unsubstantiated,” said Mike Berry, Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs for the First Liberty.
On Mar. 29, the First Liberty Institute sent a demand letter to Maj. Gen. Mark Brown, Vice Commander of Air Education and Training Command stating Madrid had been denied due process under the law and that the Letter of Admonishment should be rescinded. If not, the letter said the Institute is prepared to take legal action.
“First Liberty is the nation’s largest legal organization exclusively dedicated to defending religious liberty for all Americans,” said Berry. “We took this case because our service members — who make many sacrifices for our freedoms — should never lose their religious freedom.
Col. Madrid submitted to an extensive military investigation and the Air Force cleared him,” Berry said. “Maj. Gen. McCoy has no right to ignore the rule of law and arbitrarily decide, more than two years later and without any new evidence, that he can punish Col. Madrid.”
Berry said McCoy never provided justification for the LOR, but that this is not the first case of what seems like institutional hostility toward military personnel who openly express their religious beliefs. He also contends the military’s culture shift toward political correctness is dangerous.
“I think our military has fostered a culture that rewards political correctness,” Berry said. “That might be fine, but not when we sacrifice our constitutional freedoms in the name of political correctness. Our military has a long history of recognizing the value of religious freedom as a force multiplier. Anything that would take away something that has historically been a source of great strength for our service members is not only unwise, it’s dangerous.”
On the surface, it seems the Air Force agrees with Berry’s contention. A spokesman for Air Education and Training Command said the Air Force doesn’t approve or disapprove of any faith.
“The Air Force is dedicated to creating an environment in which people can realize their highest potential without any consideration of their personal, religious or other beliefs,” said Capt. Jose Davis, AETC Public Affairs. “Leaders must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of any faith, belief or absence of belief. Mutual respect is an essential part of Air Force culture.”
It leads one to wonder if the Air Force endorses McCoy’s actions toward Madrid, of if he’s acting as a lone wolf and overstepping is authority to admonish a man who has done nothing wrong.
“McCoy’s actions violate numerous Air Force regulations,” Berry said. “Regulations exist to ensure due process and to protect airmen and the integrity of the system. Due process means, once you’ve submitted to a thorough and impartial investigation, and your name has been cleared, you shouldn’t have to be dragged through the mud all over again just because someone higher up doesn’t agree with your religious beliefs.”
Not only is McCoy impacting Madrid’s career, the colonel’s personal life is filled with undue stress.
“It’s been incredibly stressful,” Madrid said. “I’ve lost sleep. But my faith and my family are what keep me going. In the end, I believe the Air Force will do the right thing.”
Madrid acknowledges the struggle, but also knows he’s not on the journey by himself.
“I am grateful to have a lot of support from my Air Force colleagues,” he told JQP.
The First Liberty Institute says airmen make so many sacrifices — religious freedom and liberty is something nobody should have to sacrifice in the name of political correctness.
“This shouldn’t happen to anyone,” Barry said. “Faith is not something people should have to hide, especially those serving in our military. “We give up so many freedoms when we put on the uniform. But we should never have to give up our religious freedom. One of the fastest ways we lose our freedom is by failing to fight for it. I hope others experiencing religious hostility are encouraged to take a stand. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.”
For Madrid, his story is more than about himself, it’s about setting precedent for anyone who exercises his or her faith.
“I hate feeling like I have to constantly look over my shoulder to see if someone is coming after me because of what I believe,” Madrid said. “We have many good service members who are people of faith, and they shouldn’t have to live in fear of being punished for what they believe.
“I don’t want to see this happen to anyone else,” he said. “I just want to resolve this situation and have the letter removed from my record so I can continue to serve our nation with honor.”
The First Liberty Institute concurs with Madrid saying, “First and foremost, we want justice for Col. Madrid. We want to see this removed from his otherwise stellar record. If we can accomplish that via amicable resolution or a face-to-face meeting, we’re happy to do so,” Berry said. “We are also prepared to take legal action, if necessary. At a broader level, we hope to continue to raise awareness on the disturbing trend of religious hostility in our military.”
Maj. Gen. McCoy denied our request for an interview.
The First Liberty Institute is dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans. The Institute has a successful record that includes legal victories in defense of numerous non-Christian religious liberty clients. According to the Institute’s research, Christians are far more likely to be the victims of religious hostility.
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