AF colonel accused of imposing religion
By GEOFF ZIEZULEWICZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 10, 2009
RAF MILDENHALL, England — An Air Force colonel is being criticized for improperly referring airmen under her command to a far-right religious Web site.
Col. Kimberly K. Toney sent a e-mail Jan. 16 to the 501st Combat Support Wing inviting airmen to enjoy a linked video highlighting an inspirational individual on 4marks.com, a Roman Catholic Web site.
The video featured Nick Vujicic, a 25-year-old who was born without arms or legs. According to the video’s introduction, Vujicic finds his "greatest joy in this life is to introduce Jesus to those he meets and tell them of his (Jesus’) great desire to get to know them personally by allowing him to become their Lord and Savior."
Air Force Master Sgt. Jeffrey L. Thompson, a member of the 501st, sent a letter to Toney that complained she had inappropriately advanced her faith in an official capacity.
"My own impression of your e-mail was an organizational endorsement of Christian faith, because the e-mail, article and video compelled us to witness an exercise in religious-specific faith that I felt was in conflict with DOD neutrality on religion," Thompson said in his letter.
Thompson, who says in the letter that he is a Roman Catholic, had no further comment Monday.
No formal complaint had been lodged in connection to Toney’s e-mail as of Monday, U.S. Air Forces in Europe spokesman Senior Master Sgt. Stefan Alford said. Thompson states in his letter to Toney that he intends to file an official complaint.
"He has yet to fill out the required paperwork and start the complaint process," Alford said. "Right now there’s no complaint, no investigation."
Alford said Toney first received the video through a colleague.
In the Feb. 2 letter to Toney, Thompson contended in his letter that the e-mail violated Air Force regulations regarding religious proselytizing. He also said the Web site 4marks.com "explicitly promotes an atmosphere that is hostile to our commander-in-chief, which is potentially detrimental to the good order and discipline of our unit."
One posting on the Web site features President Barack Obama in a Nazi uniform with a Hitler-style moustache, while other content claims Obama "wants to murder babies that have survived abortion."
"As a commander you wield a tremendous amount of power," Thompson stated in his letter. "What you say, write, or send out sets our direction and instructs us how to get there."
Toney declined to comment and instead said she would release a statement.
In that statement she apologized for the e-mail and said she did not realize the Web site and links contained "inappropriate" content.
"I sincerely apologize for this oversight, especially to those individuals who may have been offended, and want to ensure all are aware that my intent was solely to provide a tool that might offer beneficial insight toward overcoming adversity," she said in the statement sent to all members of the 501st.
Toney has commanded the 501st and its approximately 3,000 military personnel distributed across eight bases in the U.K. and Norway since 2007.
In his letter to Toney, Thompson also wrote that he had contacted the Military Equal Opportunity office about filing a complaint. He also says that the airman with whom he spoke at the office divulged his identity to Toney — a violation of numerous Air Force regulations.
The MEO office worker did not return repeated requests for comment.
"[The worker] informed me that he has told you my identity regarding this issue," Thompson wrote to Toney. "I appreciate that his intentions were good, but approaching the wing commander on what I perceived as a foul has made me very nervous.
"No one wants to be on the wrong side [of] their wing commander," Thompson said in the letter.
Others also saw Toney’s e-mail as an inappropriate mingling of religious beliefs and official military duty. Military Religious Freedom Foundation head Mikey Weinstein said his organization heard from "in excess" of 60 people regarding the e-mail. Weinstein released the correspondence to Stars and Stripes.
Thompson reached out to the foundation, based in Albuquerque, N.M., for help, Weinstein said.
The foundation claims more than 11,000 military "clients" have contacted the group when they felt their religious rights were being affected, said Weinstein, who is an Air Force Academy graduate, former military attorney and onetime member of President Ronald Reagan’s legal counsel, according to the foundation’s Web site.