Lt. Berry Reassigned, and Legal Fight Goes On

WASHINGTON-An Air Force lieutenant who asked not to be assigned with a woman to an underground missile silo has a new job and a new attorney.

First Lt. Ryan C. Berry will be reassigned to Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts after a three-week training program in Texas. Ryan told the Register on Aug. 9 that he will henceforth be represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in his legal case. He declined further comment.

The Becket Fund describes itself as “a bipartisan and ecumenical, public-interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions.”

The Washington, D.C.-based organization, headed by Kevin Hasson, is no stranger to high-profile cases. The organization represents Zachary Hood, the New Jersey first-grader whose teacher forbid him from reading his favorite story to his class because it was from a children's Bible.

Hasson, who is also a Register columnist, was unavailable for comment.

At a Capitol Hill news conference Aug. 4, Berry, accompanied by his wife, Jill, and 6-month-old daughter, Juliana, told reporters: “I love my faith; I love my Church; I love my life in the military and I have fully intended to serve the full 20 years. I love my wife and my child. But in the current military, I have to sell one of those short.

I have never refused to deploy with a woman. The only thing I have asked for is to have my Catholic beliefs respected.”

Berry is protesting his commander's decision to retrain and transfer him and is asking that a career-killing performance review be removed from his file. Otherwise, he will sue the Air Force, according to his lawyer.

The occasion of sin in question entails working in an isolated, cramped underground nuclear missile launch capsule with a female officer for around-the-clock shifts. But Berry's request for a religious accom modation has earned him a career-ending job performance evaluation, said his former attorney, Henry Hamilton. Berry now has little chance of promotion to captain this August, which means that his career will end once his current five-year tour is over in 2002.

The treatment of Berry is “perverse,” according to William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Donohue, an Air Force veteran, told reporters at the news conference that the current Air Force policy reflects a “feminist agenda” and shows the “silliness” of today's military. “Lt. Berry's beliefs are totally consistent with what the Catholic Church teaches,” Donohue said.

Berry, 26, a West Point graduate who followed in his father's footsteps and joined the Air Force to become a nuclear missileer, morally objects to sex-integrated silo duty at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, a policy that has been in place since 1988.

Each missile silo capsule is buried 90 feet below the prairie and is connected to 10 Minuteman III nuclear missiles and is the size of a school bus. Its furnishings — one bed and toilet facilities shielded only by a retractable curtain — render privacy minimal. Depending on weather, silo duty can last up to five days.

Berry sought counsel from the base Catholic chaplain who agreed that mixing of the sexes among silo crews was improper and a likely occasion of sin. From May 1997 to December 1998, Berry's religious waiver was honored and he worked silo duty exclusively with men. He received excellent job performance evaluations. Then several squadron members complained about “preferential” treatment, and the new wing commander, Col. Ronald Haeckel, refused to continue Berry's religious accommodation.

In an April job performance review, Haeckel blasted Berry for “unacceptable professionalism.” He wrote that Berry “refuses to accept personal responsibilities … (and) will not perform duties with fully qualified female crew members.” Berry was then decertified from working with nuclear missiles and assigned to a desk job.

Berry's then attorney, Hamilton, in a letter to Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Neary, commander of the 20th Air Force, which oversees Berry's unit, has requested removal of these comments. The attorney also asked for an investigation into anti-Catholic statements allegedly made by Berry's commanders to junior officers equating Berry's beliefs with racial bigotry and sexism and ridiculing Catholic bishops.

‘An Issue of Sanity’

The policy of stationing men and women in such close quarters is “silly and stupid, quite apart from the religious aspect. It's a case of worshipping at the altar of political correctness,” according to Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., member of the House Armed Services Committee who is championing Berry's cause.

“One man, one woman, one bed, 24 hours,” Bartlett told reporters. “It's an issue of sanity.”

In July, Bartlett and 77 other members of Congress wrote to Gen. Michael Ryan, Air Force chief of staff, protesting Berry's treatment.

The letter expressed concern that “lack of accommodation for religious beliefs could discourage men and women of faith from pursuing careers in the military. Why should potential recruits or officers of faith join the Air Force if it does not honor their requests for a religious accommodation, under service regulations?”

Gen. Ryan responded to the congressmen with a letter released Aug. 4, just before the press conference: “I fully agree that the United States Air Force must accommodate religious beliefs to the maximum extent possible.” Nevertheless, he wrote, Berry's superior officers have determined that the lieutenant's “personal convictions could no longer be accommodated without creating an unacceptable impact on the unit's ability to accomplish the military mission.”

He added that Berry would “soon be scheduled for training to a new career field, followed by an assignment to another installation.”

Attorney Hamilton told reporters that the general's letter was “a vapid response. It's nonsense. Lt. Berry is being punished for what he thinks. He's been ostracized. … If the Air Force persists in stigmatizing Lt. Berry as a malcontent, we will exhaust all administrative remedies, and then we will bring suit.”

Anita Blair, president of the Independent Women's Forum and recent chairman of the Congressional Commission on Military Training and Gender-Related Issues, has concerns about both military readiness and morale.

“Lt. Ryan Berry is only being realistic,” she said in a recent press release. “Coed missile silo duty is a high-risk assignment for any man, who could easily lose his entire career if his female partner later charged him with sexual harassment.”

She points out that the Air Force is suffering from severe personnel shortages and it projects a deficit of 2,000 pilots by 2002. In light of these shortages, she asks, “Surely the Air Force would accommodate a request from a nonsmoker, or a Wiccan. Why not a faithful Catholic husband?” Wiccans, practitioners of witchcraft, are permitted to have ceremonies on Army bases.

Catholic Doctrine

Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, archbishop for the military services and a moral theologian, agrees that Berry is acting in accordance with Catholic doctrines of avoiding scandal and occasions of sin. In a letter to Maj. Gen. Neary, the archbishop wrote that Berry “has willingly and effectively served alongside female crew members.” Nevertheless, the archbishop stated, “the Air Force must not ignore sexual differences.”

Retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, senior director for national security and foreign affairs of the Family Research Council, put the incident in perspective in a recent press release: “Lt. 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.

“In a time when the military continues to face scandals such as Tailhook and sexual harassment trials, the action taken by the Air Force to punish Lt. Ryan Berry for fidelity to his wife and faith are absurd and inexcusable. The modern military is pushing a radical feminist agenda without regard for military necessity.”

Una McManus is based in Columbia, Maryland.