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INTERVIEW

Linell Letendre - Justice Requires a Culture of Leadership, Professionalism and Respect

US Air Force Academy professor discusses repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and inspiring the next generation of leadership in the military

Linell Letendre at the 15th symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA)

Oscar Tollast | 05.02.2018

As Colonel Linell Letendre spoke in front of her fellow participants at the 15th symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA), her charge was to discuss how the concept of justice and diversity has changed in the United States military over the past 70 years.

Letendre, permanent professor and head of the Department of Law at the United States Air Force Academy, reflected on integration efforts concerning race, gender, and sexual orientation. This approach was to see if any lessons could be learned for society-at-large – both the good and the bad.

In March 2010, then-US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates issued a directive for a working group to conduct a comprehensive review of the issues linked to repealing the policy “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). The policy had prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing service personnel and applicants about their sexual orientation (“don’t ask”) – but it had in turn also prohibited all servicemen and women from being open about their sexual orientation on threat of dismissal (“don’t tell”). Letendre was a part of this group, working as a legal advisor and as an editor for the subsequent report.

During their research, Letendre and others looked at integration efforts involving race and gender and the responses from serving personnel interviewed about it at the time.

Speaking to Salzburg Global during the symposium, Letendre says, “In the mid-‘40s to the late ‘40s, when the service members were interviewed, over 80 percent were violently against any sort of racial integration of the services. We saw similar percentages with respect to gender when we began more gender integration across specialities and particular jobs across the service.

“In contrast, in 2010, when a very large survey [on DADT] was done of the Department of Defence, we saw almost a complete reversal of that [percentage]. Approximately, 70 percent of the service members essentially said, ‘Well, this isn’t  going to be that big a deal,’ and only 30 percent had any sort of concerns about open service of gay and lesbian service members.”

In July 2011, after receiving recommendations from military leaders, then-US President Barack Obama certified to Congress that the US armed forces were prepared for the repeal of DADT. On September 20 that year, the policy was successfully repealed and no longer in effect in the Department of Defense.

Letendre admits there is speculation as to why the survey responses differ for each experience of integration. She says, “When we were racially integrating the military, that was taking place in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, and we still had Jim Crow laws across the South that had a required societal segregation as opposed to integration. The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in contrast was coming at a time when LGBT rights were an integral part of society. It’s just a very different aspect when you think about the civilian versus military and where each was at the time of integration efforts.”

From a military perspective, Letendre says there are three things which are fundamental for justice to take place. She says, “It requires a culture and a climate of leadership, professionalism, and respect. If you can foster that climate where everyone – from the private soldier or the young airman all the way up to the senior leaders – is demonstrating those three attributes... I think it goes a long way toward achieving that ideal that we talk about, the American Dream: that ideal of justice and fairness and an equal opportunity for all to succeed.”

Last year’s SSASA program – Life and Justice in America: Implications of the New Administration – was divided up into three themes: 70 years of trends and events, quality of life and opportunity, and fairness and justice.  Letendre says the conversations taking place were “critically important.”
She says, “I think conversations like the ones we’re having here in Salzburg where we think about how various disciplines are concerned about what justice means can only help us to inform and have better dialogue in the pursuit of what the American Dream is.”

In her position at the United States Air Force Academy, Letendre leads a team of staff, which is responsible for the design and teaching of 19 core and elective law courses, legal support to the administration of the Cadet Honor System, and the development of officers of character for the US Air Force.

When asked what inspires her to do the work that she does, she says, “One amazing part of being a professor is that you’re part of the education and learning of the next generation and the next leadership generation. That’s no different at the United States Air Force Academy where we take very seriously the idea of developing leaders of character.

“Being a part of  that   – to develop our nation’s future leaders who have within them a sense of purpose, a sense of character and understanding of the rule of law and the appropriate place for justice and so forth – that’s what   inspires me not only to come here and have that conversation with other individuals from around the world in Salzburg, but that also inspires me to be a professor at the United States Air Force Academy.”


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Colonel Linell Letendre was a participant of the Salzburg Global program Life and Justice in America: Implications of the New Administration, which is part of Salzburg Global’s multi-year series Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA). More information on the session can be found here. You can follow all of the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SSASA.

05.02.2018 Category: CULTURE, SALZBURG IN THE WORLD, SALZBURG UPDATES, SSASA
Oscar Tollast