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Group Demands Commander Rescind Support for Christmas Campaign

Entrance to Dover Air Force Base.

Four years after the Air Force Academy was taken to task after some cadets solicited the student body to back a Christmas-time effort to proselytize children around the world through gifts a Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, squadron is under fire for sending out a similar email for the same campaign.

An email forwarded last week from the secretary of the 436th Force Support Squadron to all 436th personnel encouraged squadron members to help "fill 5,000+ shoe boxes [for Operation Christmas Child] to be sent around the world as a way to show children in desperate situations that God loves and values them."

"Many of these children have never received a gift before. Many have never heard of God's incredible Gift of Salvation though His Son," the email stated.

The email forwarded by Valencia Branch prompted 14 squadron members to contact the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which on Monday accused the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Donald C. Tasker, of effectively endorsing the campaign and demanded that he "immediately and very publicly rescinded" that support.

"MRFF further demands that appropriate and aggressive remedial actions of punishment be taken against Ms. Branch as well as any others either directly or indirectly involved (which may very well include you, sir, as her immediate supervisor and Squadron Commander)," MRFF President Mikey Weinstein wrote in his letter.

Operation Christmas Child is a campaign sponsored by Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical Christian charity and relief organization headed by Rev. Franklin Graham.

Tasker did not return Military.com's phone call or email by press time.

In a brief telephone interview with Military.com on Monday Branch expressed surprise at the proselytizing language of the message she forwarded. She also said she did not know where the email originated and that old emails had been deleted for space reasons.

The email, which is included in the MRFF letter to Tasker, indicates it originated with Rene B. Valladares, a former Air Force officer and media volunteer with the Central Del Mar Operation Christmas Child in Harrison, Delaware.

"I just sent it out to see if airmen wanted to volunteer, because our airmen like to volunteer for things," Branch said. She said many people in the squadron send out emails seeking volunteers for various causes.

One member of the 436th, who spoke to Military.com on condition he not be identified for fear of reprisal, said Branch has sent out similar, Christian-oriented communications in the past and has also put "inappropriate" religious literature on squadron member's desks.

"This has been going on for a while," he said. "The problem is she's a gatekeeper to the commander, and she's constantly invoking this stuff."

In November 2011 Air Force Academy cadets promoted Operation Christmas Child to all cadets. After more than 100 cadets protested the solicitation to the MRFF directed that the campaign be placed under the wing of the school's chaplain and issued an apology, according to a Nov. 7, 2011, report in Christianity Today.

Weinstein, in his letter to Tasker recalled also that in 2011 MRFF took to court the AFA's officer and cadet chains of command for promoting the National Prayer Luncheon.

Weinstein said a trial was avoided when the AFA "took the appropriate action of putting the NPL program permanently under the auspices of the Air Force Academy's Chaplain's Office rather than the command structure."

Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.