Jason Torpy, the president of the Military Association for Atheists and Freethinkers, relates to me this (paraphrased) story of a disturbing military event.
Fort Leonard Wood is a major training post in Missouri. It holds a number of different training programs, including Basic Combat Training (BCT). BCT is the first training where service members are taken from civilian life and trained in basic army actions. Therefore, during this training (approximately nine weeks), service members have essentially no rights. They are controlled in what they do and where they go. They don’t get the luxuries of everyday life. More to the point, there is no authorization to leave post. You’re stuck at the base for over two months.
With one exception.
It’s called the Free Day Away.
Tabernacle Baptist Church is authorized to pick up several busloads of trainees to be taken 30 miles away to Lebanon, Missouri where the church is located. Outside the church, the trainees are given privileges they can’t get at the base. They get candy, soda, and home cooking. They get to bowl and play sports. They can use a cell phone.
After that, they go inside the church for a “special ceremony.” It’s over the top. All fire and brimstone. As stereotypical as it can get. There’s a dunking booth in the front so you can do a walk-in baptismal. During the ceremony, people are invited up to the stage to be saved. In front of the stage are several people, waiting to give one-on-one counseling to the prospective “savees.”
So why would a non-Christian soldier take part in this?
They don’t have to, of course… in fact, the program offers trainees two choices:
- Going to a place where you can feel like a “free man,” going bowling, calling home, eating good food…
- Staying at Fort Leonard Wood where you can shine shoes, get yelled at by superiors, and go through another day of the same old stuff
There are some who can overcome the urge to go to the church. But they are automatically identified as people who are not interested in the Christian message. They’re singled out by their leadership and ostracized for their beliefs.
This wildly unconstitutional program has been going on for over 35 years.
The church and the military personnel that allow the program to continue are preying on young, impressionable trainees who dare not speak against the majority. Tabernacle Baptist Church has special access to the trainees. Catholics, Jews, Hindus, atheists — and other Christians — should all be appalled at this.
Here’s what the church’s former pastor writes about the event:
Since the program’s inception in March of 1971, more than 250,000 soldiers have attended the church and more than 100,000 men and women have walked the aisle to make a profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It was my privilege to pastor the church for fifteen years; during which time I preached the gospel to more than 130,000 soldiers and saw more than 55,000 of them trust Christ as Savior.
The evening service is thoroughly evangelistic. Familiar songs such as Amazing Grace are sung and the soldiers are encouraged to participate. The sermon is always an evangelistic message followed by an invitation for salvation. More than 100 people have been trained as counselors to deal with the soldiers as they respond to the invitation.
Jason went through the Free Day Away in 1994.
I called the church yesterday to see if the program was still going on.
It is. Almost every Sunday.
Back to the pastor:
Because of Army restrictions, a soldier may only attend the Free Day Away one time during Basic Training. The program operates on an average of 47 weeks each year and each week the soldiers are attending for their first and only time.
What do other soldiers say about this event? Here’s an Army Private (PDF):
What was underplayed was that it was sponsored and held at a nearby Christian Church. I was told that the event was actually sponsored by the Army, and it was just held at the church, but I knew that that was not true when we marched up to church buses to depart. I was never given an option by my chain of command to not go to the event, ever. No one, not Drill Sergeants, Company Commander, or First Sergeant told us that we didn’t have to attend. I had no idea that it was voluntary at all. A volunteer on the bus let us know that there would be a church service and that if we had objections we should voice them now, but I knew better than to get off that bus without having permission from a Drill Sergeant. True enough, that day we ate pizza and drank soda. At the end of the night though we were gathered in the chapel for what turned out to be the strongest hellfire sermon I have ever been subjected to. It ran the gamut from everyone being evil to burning forever in hell. It concluded with an invitation to become ‘saved’ and become a Christian.
Another atheist in a foxhole:
When I first joined the Army in basic training, [they] gave us a free day away. That was a program set up by a church to take all of us that wanted for a free meal and a day off, they provided cell phones and other recreational stuff. It was a nice thing, the only thing was they made us attend a service. OK I’m an atheist but for a free day off I’ll humor them for an hour. The thing was he gave us some bullshit fire and brimstone sermon, I think the point was if you don’t accept Jesus now you’ll die in a car crash on the way home. Then he gave us some speil about how we don’t see you guys as dollar signs but it cost over $100,000 a day to do this (total bullshit right there) then after all this we don’t want to take your money but I’m going to guilt trip the hell out of you they passed out the collection plate and put up on the screen in the back a bible verse that said The Lord loves the generous giver. To tell you the truth I was impressed at the audacity of this guy. Then I get into the actual Army and I hear from some of my friends about these mega churches that actually request your tax return forms (W2) so they can make sure they are getting their 10%!
And one more, describing his day to day life in training camp (see March 16, 2003):
There was a convenience store where were able to get all kinds of food that we can’t get on base. My list: 1 liter of Sprite, 4-pack Reeces Peanut Butter Cups, a Butterfinger, 2 small packs of Smarties, 99-cent bag of Doritos, an ice-cream Snickers, and a newspaper. And my bag was one of the smaller ones… some people were giving away candy by the end of the day because we couldn’t take it back with us.
Across the street was the bowling alley, open Sundays only to soldiers from this program. The alleys were all taken by the time I got there, but they had music and video games – original Zaxxon and Asteroids included, believe it or not.
After about 1 1/2 hours, we had to go back to the church property for the remainder of our time there. We could play basketball, soccer and football. I was able to make a phone call home and find out that my father and stepmother will be comming to graduation – it will be really nice to have someone there.
Finally, there was a church service. It was very nice… until the end. The pastor got to a point and the message became something along the lines of “be saved now or go to hell.” His technique would have made a time-share salesman proud. I was quite insulted and even regretted putting $10 in the collection plate, no matter how good the program. It made me believe the free day away program was more of a high-pressure recruiting station for the Tabernacle Baptist Church than a service to give some mental relief to some very weary soldiers. If there were another day away there during our BCT, I would choose to stay away and remain at FLW. I am currently not very religious, pretty much taking Einstein’s theory of God, but if I ever do change, it will be on my own terms, at the time of my choosing, and certainly not under the threats of eternal torture and suffering.
Why is this proselytization program allowed? Because no one dares speak up against it. As the MAAF website states:
The question in this situation involves the command structure, authorizations, funding, and lesson plans. This situation, involving an overt, mandatory evangelical event combined with an off-post trip for basic trainees, is an example of when many checks-and-balances fail to stop religious favoritism from occurring. The trainee, while surrounded by a religion he did not enlist to follow, had no recourse to question drill sergeants who clearly must have had the support of many other administration officials to make this event happen.
How do we change this?
If you’re in the military, ask your chaplain why this is allowed.
If you’re not in the military, call your representative and find out why this is going on, especially if they’re not evangelicals.
And if you’re close to Lebanon, Missouri, go get footage of all this happening.
In the meantime, if you’re a veteran, currently in the military, or a spouse of any of the above, go sign up to be counted at MAAF’s website (it’s free to join) so they can represent you when speaking to military leadership and to Congress.
[tags]atheist, atheism, army, navy, air force, proselytization[/tags]