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Air Force Academy general’s fight against racism resonates

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — A month into his tenure as Air Force Academy superintendent and before Black Lives Matter sparked a nationwide discussion on the treatment of minorities, Lt. Gen Jay Silveria pulled his 4,000 cadets and hundreds of officers, civilian professors and airmen into cavernous Mitchell Hall.

A racial slur had been written on a white board at the academy’s Preparatory School.

“At the time I was so hurt by a racial incident at the Air Force Academy,” Silveria, who will retire this month after 35 years in uniform, told The Gazette in an interview.

A story above them on a podium, there was a flush of angry red skin beneath the general’s closely shorn, salt-and-pepper hair. With cadets at stiff attention, Silveria barked at them in a manner that would have made his Air Force sergeant father proud.

“We have an opportunity here, 5,500 of us in this room, to think about what we are as an institution,” he told them.

Then he did something that may have had a bigger impact than any bomb the former F-15E Strike Eagle pilot ever dropped.

“Reach for your phones,” he ordered the cadets. “I’m serious; reach for your phones.”

The cadets pulled out their phones and, in unison, pressed “record.”

Silveria spoke in the crisp tone military leaders use to deliver orders.

“If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out,” the general told the thousands of cameras and, unintentionally, every social media site his young audience frequented.

It was a no-compromise message on racism and other societal ills that reached far beyond the academy’s gates. Just one of the videos was viewed 1.4 million times on YouTube.

“It wasn’t intended to be that big,” Silveria admits.

Earlier in 2017, Silveria had been in fighter pilot heaven.

After 30 years in the cockpit, he was leading swarms of fighter pilots who were raining hell on the Islamic State as American and allied troops rolled back the terrorist group’s hold on Iraq and Syria. As the deputy commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, Silveria was leading an air war, with hundreds of strikes a day erasing a threat which could have given rise to another 9/11.

“In context, when you’re a fighter pilot … the pinnacle of that was to be at the operational level,” Silveria said.

Silveria had spent most of his life in the sky, putting in 3,000 hours in the cockpits of F-15s, the new F-35 stealth fighter and even mastering the HH-60 Black Hawk rescue helicopter. He spent eight years wearing captain’s bars, because that’s the rank that gets the most flying time.

It must have been a letdown when the general got a call from a member of his boyhood Boy Scout troop. The friend was Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force’s chief of staff, who was sending Silveria to do something entirely different: run the Air Force’s college in Colorado Springs.

Pinning on a third star on his first day on the job, Silveria learned that running the Air Force Academy, the school that gave him his bachelor’s degree in 1985, makes flying an F-15E in combat look easy.

He was used to leading airmen. At the academy, he picked up leadership of cadets, parents, alumni, community leaders and well-wishers.

“It’s about leadership in all of those constituencies,” he said.

In three years, Silveria faced the biggest challenges he would face in uniform. The general worked to end hazing on teams, incorporate the new Space Force into the ranks and kicked off a review that changed how the academy looks at diversity and race.

In 2018, Silveria relieved commandant of cadets Brig. Gen. Kristin Goodwin after an investigation revealed that she charged personal travel to the government, billed the government for work when she was on vacation and lied to superiors, investigators and subordinates while creating what workers called a “toxic” environment in her office.

Goodwin was a month away from leaving for a Pentagon job. Many commanders would have let her next superior deal with the mess. On a personal level, Silveria says, “I have nothing but the highest regard for Kristin Goodwin and her family.”

But Silveria thinks the academy must uphold the highest standards.

“It was what was right for the institution,” he said.

Even those Gordian knots weren’t the biggest challenge Silveria would face.

Coronavirus can’t be bombed, strafed or ordered out of existence, even by a man wearing three heavy stars on his collar.

Silveria learned about leadership at an early age. Master Sgt. Walter Silveria died six days before his son took command at the academy, but what he taught that son endures.

The younger Silveria first dreamed of an Air Force career as he walked flight lines with his father at bases around the world. And he learned what that career meant from his father at the family dinner table.

“Those talks about core values, his sense of duty, his sense of purpose — they were formative,” Silveria said.

In March, as coronavirus crept closer to the academy gates, the military had ample plans for facing biological weapons in combat, but little on a global pandemic threatening troops. So, Silveria leaned on the basics drilled in by Dad.

The general got three-quarters of his cadets packed up and moved home in a 48-hour time frame and moved a campus that relied on in-person teaching online in days.

Controversy swirled around how Silveria dealt with the school’s nearly 1,000 seniors. They stayed on campus in quarantine as the academy closed its gates to the public. Classes for seniors were accelerated as the general firewalled the educational throttle toward the first early graduation in the school’s 66-year history.

“The whole purpose of the institution,” Silveria said, is providing America the lieutenants it needs.

“They are part of the national security system.”

Two of the seniors died, one death later ruled accidental and another deemed to be a suicide. The general mourned with his cadets but kept pushing.

“You don’t get a reprieve from preparing the force,” he said.

The class of 2020, seated 8 feet apart, graduated April 18. The academy sent a record number of cadets to pilot training, helping address a severe pilot shortfall that threatened Air Force missions overseas. And 86 of the graduates became the first lieutenants in the new Space Force.

Silveria spent three years teaching cadets how discipline, dedication and duty will make the world a better place.

And those cadets taught the fighter pilot something about himself. He’s a teacher.

“I admit,” he said. “I have been bitten by the higher education bug.”

So, as he readies to leave the Air Force, Silveria is looking for a new college job where he can use what the academy taught its superintendent.

“I am going to be part of something that has a mission that I want to be part of,” he said.

And Silveria’s tenure might have prepared the battlefield for the man who will become the new superintendent Sept. 23.

Lt. Gen. Richard Clark will become the academy’s first Black leader at an institution that over three years has worked to stamp out racial bias in the ranks.

“We have to acknowledge we have racism, we have bias,” Silveria said. “We have to find it and we have to fix it.”

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