- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2000

The Air Force is investigating whether its first female chaplain to achieve the rank of general made an insensitive racial remark in the presence of officers who make chaplain assignments, The Washington Times has learned.
Military sources said Brig. Gen. Lorraine Potter, Air Force deputy chief of the chaplain service, made the remark the day after her promotion ceremony in October when Gen. Michael Ryan, the service chief of staff, pinned on her first stars.
The sources said she said, "African-American chaplains are good pastors and preachers but cannot do staff work."
The term "staff work" in the military means senior positions an officer must hold to achieve higher rank, especially general.
Reports of the charge have angered blacks in the chaplain corps, who see it as a clear signal they will encounter prejudice in gaining promotions.
The Air Force has two chaplains holding the rank of general. No one who is black has held either of the top two posts in the chaplain service's 50-year history.
Lou Timmons, an Air Force spokesman, yesterday confirmed to The Times that the Air Force inspector general, Lt. Gen. Nicholas B. Kehoe III, is investigating the charge.
"What we want to do is wait for the report to come out and see what it is," he said. "The matter is still under investigation, so it would not be appropriate to make any comment at this point."
The person who answered Gen. Potter's office phone said the general was not available for comment.
A former Air Force chaplain who was interviewed by the Air Force inspector general's office said the IG is looking not only into that incident, but also into whether the chaplain service historically has discriminated against blacks.
"I think they are looking at the culture of the Air Force chaplains as well as her remarks," said retired Lt. Col. Bennie Liggins, who was the chaplain corps' personnel officer before retiring last July.
Gen. Potter, who is white and an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, is said to have made the remark during an office meeting with the chief of chaplains, Maj. Gen. William Dendinger, and three colonels who process chaplain assignments.
The meeting's expressed purpose was to discuss possible assignments for chaplains, including blacks.
The investigation presents a dilemma for the diversity-conscious Defense Department. The general under scrutiny represents a milestone in the advancement of military women. But her purported remark offends another military minority.
Sources said that after the October meeting at Bolling Air Force Base, home to the chaplain service headquarters, several officers complained to Gen. Dendinger.
Later, some chaplains also confronted Gen. Dendinger during a conference at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.
A letter to the chief chaplain said, "We are extremely concerned with the implications, which may negatively impact the future upward mobility of African-American chaplains given her declared stereotypical position."
An undercurrent in the Potter investigation is the belief by some black chaplains that they are discriminated against.
Of the service's 592 active-duty chaplains, 78, or 13 percent, are black. The Air Force has 54 chaplain colonels. Of those, three, or 5 percent, are black, according to the Air Force Personnel Center.
Col. Liggins, who is black and a minister in Alabama, said:
"There is an investigation going on. The investigation is centered around allegations made that the deputy chief of chaplains made some remarks that could be considered as racial remarks."
Col. Liggins was retired when Gen. Potter met with assignment officers. He said he was asked by the IG agent about past promotion decisions.
"I found Chaplain Potter to be a staunch advocate of what she perceived as women's rights," he said. As a personnel officer working for her, he said, "I found it very difficult to get certain people past her and normally there was no rhyme or reason for that."
Gen. Potter holds a master's of divinity degree from the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y. She was the service's first female chaplain when she joined the Air Force 26 years ago as a chaplain at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
In a February interview with the Air Force's official news service, Gen. Potter said, "Air Force chaplains have to be open to nontraditional as well as traditional methods. Many of our bases are now offering contemporary worship services that include musical bands playing upbeat religious music."
The Navy is also wrestling with complaints within its chaplain corps.
Last month, a group of Navy evangelical chaplains filed a class-action suit in federal court, accusing the Navy of censorship and of systematically denying promotions in favor of mainline-religion officers.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide