I don’t know a lot about General Jay Silveria’s past. His Air Force bio and online snippets talk mostly about his military career – 32 years of service and leadership in some of the world’s most dangerous spots. He was Vice Commander of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and previously served as Deputy Commander USAF Central Command. He’s logged more than 3,900 flight hours and received numerous honors, including the Pentagon’s highest award for service outside combat.
My guess is that the General didn’t expect to make headlines – the high-ranking men and women of the military seem to share a humility that doesn’t seek attention. They put their troops first, their country first. And so, when he confronted an incident at the Academy’s preparatory school, he likely wasn’t thinking about how far his response might reach.
“Incident” is a nice word for the racial slurs that were scrawled on the dormitory-room message boards of five black students. As he gathered all 4,000 cadets, along with 1500 faculty and staff members, the 3-Star General was blunt.
“That kind of behavior has no place at the prep school, it has no place at USAFA, and it has no place in the United States Air Force. You should be outraged, not only as an airman, but as a human being.”
It was a 5-minute speech that didn’t shy away from recent events and the racial tensions they represented. He mentioned the NFL protests and Ferguson, and referenced a talk by the Dean following the march by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Silveria was very obviously angry. His tone relayed the seriousness of what had taken place and he was in no mood to do anything less than condemn it. And yet, even with the classic military gravitas in place, the General spoke to higher goals.
“But I also have a better idea, and it’s about our diversity . . . It’s the power that we come from all walks of life, that we come from all parts of this country, that we come from all races, that we come from all backgrounds, gender, all make-up, all upbringing. The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful.”
It was striking. With no exposure or real understanding of the military, I’ve always simply seen it as this narrow place of rules, regulations, and prescribed behavior that allows no deviation. They say, you do. But even as Silveria denounced what had happened, he took the time to openly acknowledge wounds that have become a national topic of conversation and communicate a vision for the academy that looks forward.
So much of the time, we look to eliminate the things that make us different. I know that as someone who yearns for a conflict-free life, it is often most comfortable to quietly urge peaceful resolution at all cost. It has made me a generally nice person, but too often, it leaves me hesitant to speak out or make waves.
By not just reducing a racist act to an ordinary infraction – and by actively extolling the very diversity it tried to destroy – Silveria took center stage as a leader who could be trusted to value each cadet’s history and the strengths that come from their individual life experiences. The goal is not simply to melt everyone down into a monolith, but to create a team where each person contributes to a greater whole.
Putting a point on it all, the General advised his audience to take out their phones and record what he had to say next. It was a simple message for those who couldn’t deal with his vision. For me, the get-along girl, it was a ln important reminder of the impact a few unambiguous words can have:
“If you can’t treat someone from another race or different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”
No further words needed. If you missed the complete speech, check it out here.