How Non-Religious Soldiers Are Often Treated

Justin Griffith documents some of the treatment of non-believing soldiers who resist being forced into going to religious services by their superiors. A former Marine NCO writes to him about his experiences in boot camp when he requested permission not to attend church services on Sundays. As usually happens, he was forced to clean the barracks instead; he was also berated repeatedly by his drill instructors.

July, 7th 1998 I went to Marine Corps Basic Training in San Diego, CA. Shortly after being assigned to Platoon 1103 and meeting our Drill Instructors, the first Sunday of my enlistment rolled around. We sat in one of the theaters and listened to a Chaplain speak, telling us that they offered services for almost any form of religion and that after he was finished we were to get in line for our appropriate religion. He also said that there was a non-denominational group that would discuss our relationship with god. Lastly he said that we did not have to attend any church services if we did not want to.

I looked for the “not attending church” line, but could not find it. I was instead ordered to line up in the non-denominational line.

I sounded off, “Sir, This Recruit requests permission to not attend church services, Sir!”

Another platoon’s Drill Instructor interrogated and berated me for quite some time as I continued to respond with that phrase. Finally he gave in and took me back to the barracks where my Drill Instructor did the same. Eventually he too gave in and put me to work cleaning different areas of the barracks.

My Senior Drill Instructor (a church choir singer and devout christian) was then informed. He attempted the interrogation and berating, having the same effect. Later he had both a private and a public “Hats off” more polite conversation urging me to attend church services. Again I sounded off with the phrase that became my mantra. ”Sir, This Recruit requests permission to not attend church services, Sir!” He then seemed to want nothing to do with me since I wouldn’t “Do this for him.”

At least he stopped trying to force me to go.

As Justin notes, this is a story that you hear constantly from atheist soldiers. The experience seems to be so routine as to almost be a matter of official military policy. This particular soldier was even arrested for refusing to attend a religious service, though no charges were filed because the arrest was clearly illegal.

Here’s Justin’s own story:

There are two choices we can make when faced with this in boot camp.

1) Clean up and get yelled at every week – a punishment for not believing in god. 2) Go to a religious service and tune it out.

I tried both. I was not allowed to write letters, sleep, or even sit down. If for even one second I wasn’t actively cleaning, the Drill Sergeants would throw sand across the (freshly) waxed floor, or otherwise punish me. They get really creative. I was a special case because just before graduation, I was seriously injured. This extended my stay from the standard 9 weeks to a grueling 30-something weeks long.

This is why what Justin is doing in organizing Rock Beyond Belief and and in giving a voice to all atheist soldiers is so important. Atheist soldiers can no longer just sit back and take the abuse, they must speak up if they have any hope of ending it. By holding that event at Ft. Bragg, we are getting the attention of the Pentagon and letting them know that the rights of atheists are just as important as the rights of Christians — and that we’re going to be watching to make sure they get the point.

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  • Nancy New, Queen of your Regulatory Nightmare

    Chris Rodda, over at This Week in Christian Nationalism, has posted a blog that links to a White House petition of unequal treatment of athiest warfighters.

    It needs 5000 signatures by the end of October to be official attention. I was about number 933. Go sign it!

  • If a commanding officer doesn’t respect the religious freedom of his subordinates, how can we trust him to stand up and fight for our country’s promised freedoms?

    The answer: We can’t.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Nancy New, QoyRN @ # 1 – You broke their poll!

    Your link now produces an interesting picture of construction work at the White House with this caption:

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  • Cliff Hendroval

    Basic training, Fort Leonard Wood, 1984. If you didn’t go to religious services, you had to clean the barracks. Didn’t get yelled at, though.

  • Nancy, I will sign the petiton when I get home, and I am spreading the word about it as well. Thanks!

  • Die Anyway

    I was drafted in 1969 and went through basic training at Lackland AFB in the Aug – Oct timeframe of that year. That was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten some of the details but I don’t recall being forced to attend church services. I wonder if things have changed? If they have, then I suspect it’s the difference between a drafted service and an all-volunteer service. As draftees, we were a varied lot… rich/poor, conservative/liberal, pro-war/anti-war, religious/non-religious. Most of us didn’t want to be there and were not going to easily cave in to infringements. I’m betting that the atmosphere is different now that everyone who joins is motivated to be there and to be part of the group. The atheists and pacifists are going to be a much smaller minority now.

  • Aquaria

    Lackland Air Force Base, circa 1986: Pretend to go with everyone else, step aside for a smoke break, don’t go back until they shut the doors, say you didn’t make it back in time, go back with everyone else at the end. If you were an alpha who already had your betas squared away within the first week, you didn’t have to worry about them ratting you out when it happened every week.

    Worked like a charm.

  • chilidog99

    I wonder if this is a religious issue or simply DIs being DIs?

    Hartman: After you two finish your bunks, I want you to clean the head, I want that head so clean that the Virgin Mary herself would be proud to take a dump!

    Cowboy and Joker: SIR YES SIR!

    Hartman: Do you believe in the Virgin Mary, joker?

    Joker; SIR NO SIR!

    Hartman: I dont think I heard you correctly, pvt, what did you say! Do you love the virgin Mary?

    Joker: SIR NO SIR!

    Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Why you little maggot, you make me want to vomit……..You Goddamn communist heathen, you had best sound off that you love the Virgin Mary, or I’m gonna stomp your guts out. Now you do love the virgin Mary don’t you?

    Joker: SIR NO SIR! Sir, the private believes that any answer he gives will be wrong, and that if the private reverses himself, the Drill Instructor will beat him harder if he does it.

  • Taz

    They need to come up with some suitable not-very-attractive alternative. They know damn well that if the alternative is lying around goofing off, church attendance will plummet.

  • brandondavis

    That was pretty much my experience in Army basic training back in 1989. Sunday mornings were almost punishment as not only did myself and another soldier have to clean the barracks, but we were treated unusually harshly during that time, trying to make us feel like we weren’t “team players.” Granted, I knew a few soldiers who decided to go to church anyway to avoid the cleaning detail and there was an added benefit apparently: church was the one location where male recruits could interact with female recruits from a nearby battalion. So basically, it was like a reward system to be a Christian soldier: don’t have to clean for 3 hours and you get to hang out with females. No wonder so many found Jesus during those 8 weeks.

  • In 1983, my copy of Plato’s The Republic was taken from me, on the grounds that “the only book you’re allowed is the ‘good one'”

  • If you didn’t go to religious services, you had to clean the barracks.

    Same at Ft Dix.

    BTW, doesn’t having sundays off got some religious basis…? I seem to recall sunday was special to one of those cults. Or was it friday?

  • shadowwalkyr

    Air Force Basic Military Training, Lackland Air Force Base, August-October, 1997:

    I didn’t go to any religious services. I did make a deal with our Dorm Guard Monitor, however. I’d pull Dorm Guard every other shift (we weren’t allowed to pull consecutive shifts) on Sunday with the understanding that I wouldn’t do it any other time. Worked out for everybody: the other guys got to go to church and I got a full night’s sleep.

    Nobody said “boo” to anybody about it.

  • michaelcarlo

    I was in boot camp in 1970 and tried to get out of church on Sundays but when given the choice of cleaning or service, I decided to attend a service. Each week I would line up in a different line and go to a different religious service. I managed to attend each of the 6 or 7 services offered. I thought it was good fun to see the similarities and differences. I was an atheist then as well but being young, naive and not confrontational, I never felt upset about it. I would probably do the same now.

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