US Commander in Turkey Criticized for Religious Statements

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Kersten, 39th Medical Support Squadron commander, poses for a photo inside the medical facility Aug. 23, 2016, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Nieves Camacho)
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Kersten, 39th Medical Support Squadron commander, poses for a photo inside the medical facility Aug. 23, 2016, at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Nieves Camacho)

The head of watchdog group is petitioning the Air Force to reprimand a squadron commander at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, after he said Jesus Christ guides all his decisions.

While Lt. Col. Michael Kersten, 39th Medical Support Squadron commander, is within his personal rights to believe in whomever or whatever he chooses, his decisions should "be based upon his oath of office and allegiance to the United States Constitution to which he has sworn to protect and defend," according to Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group that promotes civil rights.

"By unequivocally stating to the world that ALL of his decisions are based upon his Christian faith, he has broadcast to his otherwise helpless subordinates, and the multitudes of other military and civilian members which the Air Force Squadron he now commands directly and indirectly serves, that he will, in a professional setting, place decision-making primacy on his personal version of his Christian religious faith over his official military duty," Weinstein said in a letter.

The correspondence was sent to Col. John C. Walker, 39th Air Base Wing commander, as well as Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

A spokesperson for the Air Force didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from Military.com.

Weinstein said his group has been retained by more than 100 Incirlik personnel who feel uncomfortable with Kersten's comments, especially since the base is shared by both U.S. and Turkish personnel in a predominantly Muslim country.

On Sept. 15, in a question-and-answer post as part of the base's "meet your leadership" series, Kersten was asked if there was a leader from his career who influenced him most.

"There's no one in particular," Kersten said in the Q&A. "As a Christian, my example is to be like Christ. He is my guide and affects all of my decisions. He teaches to do all things as unto the Lord and I believe this is synonymous with integrity first and excellence in all we do."

Weinstein said this comment violated rules spelled out in Air Force Instruction 1-1.

The policy states, "You should confidently practice your own beliefs while respecting others whose viewpoints differ from your own. Every Airman also has the right to individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs, to include conscience, moral principles or religious beliefs, unless those expressions would have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, good order, discipline, health and safety, or mission accomplishment."

In 2014, then-Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and James called for an update to the policy to better clarify how commanders should handle "religious accommodation requests or when Airmen's rights to free exercise are questioned."

Another amendment to the policy states that leaders "must ensure their words and actions cannot reasonably be construed to be officially endorsing or disapproving of, or extending preferential treatment for any faith, belief, or absence of belief," which Weinstein believes Kersten directly violated because his statements favor Christian beliefs.

Free religious practice has become a heated topic in the Air Force, and the military overall, after recent incidents have landed some airmen in hot water.

In April, retired Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez was forcibly removed from a retirement ceremony at Travis Air Force Base, California, after he began making a flag-folding speech that referenced God several times. An investigation into the incident determined Rodriguez was kicked out of his acquaintance's retirement ceremony because he didn't follow a commander's order to avoid participating in the event -- not because he referenced religion in his remarks.

Another airman in 2014 was denied re-enlistment after he refused to swear under oath because it contained the phrase "so help me God." The technical sergeant, an atheist, crossed out the words "so help me God" when he filled out re-enlistment paperwork; the Air Force later allowed him to re-enlist and changed its policy, giving airmen the option to omit the phrase.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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