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Leadership perspective: Tearing down the walls of intolerance

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Aaron Walenga
  • 22nd Operations Support Squadron
MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. — I am a Christian, and my faith defines me. It provides the foundation of my values, attitudes and beliefs.

To know me, to know the lens I view the world through, you must know my faith. Prior to taking command, I feared how to introduce myself to the new squadron. I wanted to tell them about myself, but I did not want to seem intolerant due to my faith. I agonized over it. Should I truly introduce myself to my Airmen and give them an opportunity to understand me, or do I keep them at arm’s length and talk about the aspects of my life that describe me but don’t define me?

During the process of this internal discourse, I became convinced of two things: The U.S. military defends a constitution that ensures our freedom to believe differently from others, and that you can’t truly understand or care for others unless you attempt to comprehend their values and beliefs.

Voltaire was a French philosopher in the 1700s who is famously quoted as saying, “I may not like what you are saying, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Tolerance allows us to disagree with a person’s beliefs while allowing the other person to speak and to value their right to hold views different than our own. Unfortunately, many who wear a uniform feel that tolerance means either having to accept everyone’s view as true or having to keep who we truly are deep inside like a secret no one can ever know. I took a different approach.

In my squadron, you are encouraged to be who you are. We teach people how to conduct conversations about difficult and taboo topics, not how to avoid the beliefs that define us and matter the most to us. I encourage idea sharing and getting to know those who work around you at as personal a level as they want to be known. How can anyone truly understand the perspectives and attitudes of others if we don’t know what they value and believe?

With that said, I believe creating environments where Airmen freely share ideas and don’t avoid conversations leads to learning and the understanding of others. We must create environments that foster innovation, thought and mutual respect, even if that means listening to others who we fundamentally disagree with. When Airmen feel free to truly be themselves and open up without fear of judgement, great things happen, and words like “retention” are replaced with words like “family.”