By DAN ELLIOTT
DENVER (AP) — The Air Force Academy will make a smooth transition when the military ends its "don't ask, don't tell" rule this year despite a history of problems in the academy's treatment of women and religious minorities, according to gay and lesbian alumni.
"I don't think it's going to be a big issue, honestly," said Greg Mooneyham, a 1987 academy graduate and executive director of the Blue Alliance, an association of gay and lesbian alumni. "I think the (AFA) administration is going to do the right thing."
The Defense Department is moving to lift the ban on openly gay and lesbian service members by the end of the year at the direction of Congress and President Barack Obama, but timetables for training and implementation aren't final.
On Friday, the Pentagon distributed training guidelines to top officials of each service branch and ordered them to report on their progress every two weeks starting March 1.
Air Force Academy officials said last week they couldn't discuss their preparations because they were waiting for guidance from Air Force higher-ups. But the academy superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michael
Gould, told cadets, faculty and staff in late January that "we will get this right."
"We will follow the letter of the law, and we will follow the spirit of the law, and we will do it together," Gould said in remarks quoted on the academy's website.
Commanders at the school outside Colorado Springs have confronted other tolerance issues over the past decade. A 2003 scandal prompted the ouster of top academy leaders after female cadets said they were ignored or ostracized by commanders when they reported sexual assaults by other cadets.
Reports in 2004 and 2005 found chaplains and other officials had been proselytizing cadets in settings in which such actions were forbidden by school rules and that the academy failed to accommodate the religious needs of some cadets and staff.
Mooneyham, who went on to pilot A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft before leaving the Air Force as a captain in 1994, said history "sometimes makes you wonder" whether the school's tolerance issues have been settled. While gay and lesbian cadets should encounter few problems overall, Mooneyham predicted,
they may run into obstacles in individual areas such as athletics or appointments to leadership roles in the cadet wing, as the student body is called.
"Are you going to have some kid who doesn't know any better do something stupid? Yes," he said. "They're not going to have all 1.4 million (personnel in all the services) on board."
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, an openly gay congressman and member of the academy's Board of Visitors, predicts gay and lesbian cadets will get a better welcome than did the first women admitted to the academy in 1976. Some women in the first co-ed class reported harassment and said male colleagues attributed their promotions to tokenism.
"There's a very high degree of professionalism in the Air Force Academy, as well as in the Air Force as a whole," said Polis, D-Colo.
The Board of Visitors reports to Congress and the Pentagon about academy matters.
Trish Heller, a 1987 graduate who is on the Blue Alliance board, said the academy and other service schools have invested time and thought to the transition.
"You're going to have your hiccups, just like anything. I don't expect it will be completely smooth sailing," said Heller, who left the Air Force about five years ago as a lieutenant colonel after piloting cargo planes and working on Capitol Hill as an adviser to a senator.