CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Col. Catherine Barrington has been stationed in Cheyenne three times since 1998. But she said she never knew she experienced a different community than her fellow airmen.
The commander of the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base discovered not only was her command chief master sergeant encountering racist behavior, but so were families and their students off-base. She came forward in the past two weeks to ask for the support of Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins and Laramie County School District 1 Superintendent Margaret Crespo to address the issue.
“We’ve had children in our schools called a racial slur and get punished for it because it led to a fight,” said Barrington, who is white. “Those children are hurt. They don’t understand why they’re being called that. And the parents are left with the unfortunate responsibility of having to teach their children that they have to learn to endure that.”
Barrington said enduring hatred is a lesson she doesn’t approve of.
She requested commanders and senior leaders speak with their airmen and give them the opportunity to share their own experiences, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports. Command Chief Master Sgt. Nicholas Taylor joined her in the inquiry, and said many of his fellow minority airmen reported being treated differently out of uniform.
Taylor described his own hostile interaction at a local store when he purchased a weapon. Taylor originally went in uniform to pick up a gun he had bought, which required an optic to be put on at a future time. He called ahead to ask if they had any availability, and the clerk immediately welcomed him to stop by. When he arrived out of uniform, her attitude shifted, and she told him they didn’t have time to serve him. The command chief said she was very aggressive and instead of arguing with her, he gathered his things and left.
“Other airmen have also experienced this,” he said. “And when they went in to buy ammunition, they would not sell the ammunition to airmen of color at all. So, they had to ask their caucasian counterpart to go in and buy ammunition on behalf of them.”
Barrington said after hearing multiple reports similar to his about the store, she has considered approaching the Air Force Disciplinary Control Board to take corrective action. If the business, or business owner, is not treating airmen in accordance with the military’s values, they investigate and notify the business to fix their discriminatory practice in 60 days. They must respond or institute the corrections, or the commander can enact consequences.
“There is due process,” she said. “But if I do that, I’m placing that business off limits for all of our military members. And our payroll is about $357 million a year for members who work on the base, so that’s a huge impact.”
Barrington and other community and military officials spoke in recent interviews with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
Call to action
The call for action stems from more than just the treatment of her airmen.
Military member parents are speaking up for their children, who continue to withstand racism in Laramie County School District 1.
Barrington explained that multiple students have been bullied and called racial slurs at McCormick Junior High, which led to a fight where both students were suspended and fined $489. Another ninth-grade girl got off the bus for her first day of the school year and was immediately called the N-word more than one time. She decided to attend Cheyenne Virtual School, instead of going in person, two days later due to the incident.
The commander reached out to community leaders such as Collins and Crespo to look for a solution. She wants a change in policies for students who are bullied and to find the root cause of why a fight broke out, not punishing both parties involved.
“Both kids are treated the same, and the advantage goes to the aggressor – in this case, the person who used the racial slur – because he accomplished everything that he wanted,” she said. “He got the other kid in trouble, and the other kid is penalized for enduring racism. That’s not acceptable.”
After meeting with Collins and Crespo, she said steps are being taken to address community racism. The child who was suspended is no longer penalized, according to the commander, and the mayor has begun to look into how his office can have a positive impact. He’s considering bias training for businesses, as well as networking with LCSD1 officials and Sankofa African Heritage Awareness Inc. to look for support.
“We definitely want to make sure that all of our students and all of our adults, no matter where they’re coming from, or their life experiences or who they are, that they always feel welcomed and connected,” Crespo said. “And that we focus on being kind and empathetic to each other. That’s really the goal for me, and I will continue to work with the mayor.”
James Peebles, the founder of the heritage organization, has spoken with many of the parties involved to act as an educational resource. He was concerned to learn of the discriminatory practices against people of color in the community, but said he was not surprised.
Changes in Cheyenne
Peebles described watching the social dynamic in Cheyenne change, with Black families leaving after experiencing racism. There has also been pandemic-driven, anti-Asian rhetoric in the past five years.
Peebles said last year was the first time he even questioned his safety here after living in Cheyenne for 12 years. He would take five-mile walks every day early in the morning. One day, he heard someone honk at him and yell profanities out of the car as they drove down the street. He decided to stop going.
“Because the fear is hanging in the air,” he said. “You see it on TV every day.”
Although he is not a member of the military, these are the kind of experiences the F.E. Warren base commander and her command chief want to end. Nicholas said the Air Force is very diverse, and it prides itself on treating everyone with dignity and respect. He is also scared of the influence a racist comment or hostile encounter will have on soldiers preparing to potentially make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
The sentiment was shared by Barrington, who put an emphasis on military readiness.
“I want every airman to experience the Cheyenne that I have experienced,” she said. “And it’s a great city filled with wonderful people. We just have to exhibit those values all the time, to all of our members. And it matters – how we treat people matters. And when you look at the world situation today, military readiness is incredibly important, and how our family members are treated impacts our ability to be ready.”