The “Free Day Away” Program

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]

  • Francia Barksdale

    My husband was trained in Fort Leonard Wood after being drafted and before being shipped out to Viet Nam back in the sixties. He said his experiences in Viet Nam including winning two purple hearts and various other medals for saving lives and being brave only confirmed his atheism. According to him there are many atheists in foxholes, and more are made during each and every war. I don’t know if this was going on back in the sixties, but as a recent transplant to Missouri I will definitely look into this.

  • mousefeathers

    The problem is, that if we (as sort of organized atheists) raise enough stink over this, the program will be totally canceled, and NOBODY will have any Free Day Away, and it will be OUR fault, at least as seen by the young men and women who suddenly don’t get that day any more. My son, who is NOT an atheist, did his basic at FLW, and enjoyed his Free Day tremendously. He’s not into the hellfire thing, so probably just ignored it. I’ll ask him about what he remembers about the choices, but he’s not all that observant about divergent viewpoints–I’m lucky he loves me enough to cling to the “God loves everybody” line. *laugh*

    Unfortunately, I’m convinced that the loss is the only thing most people will see if we make our point. That would be the OTHER reason it’s still going strong. Nobody really wants to take away what few treats the trainees get. I wouldn’t even fuss about the sponsorship if the preaching weren’t attached–free-will offerings and voluntary attendance at the service only. *sigh*

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Seems to me that the problem is not with the church offering this for the troops (as long as it’s at their own expense), but that there appears to be no other options for soldiers that don’t want to participate in this kind of religion. Perhaps one solution would be for secular groups to organize an alternative “Free Day Away” that includes all the same perks as the church program, but without the church service. As long as the soldiers are informed as to their options, they can then decide for themselves whether or not they want to go to church without losing any of the extra benefits of their Free Day.

  • Karen

    That’s pretty typical fundie behavior – bait-and-switch, fear tactics, high pressure. The worst thing about it is that they see nothing at all unethical or immoral about it.

    I have a friend who went through boot camp and the way he described it was absolutely brutal. Anyone who was offered one day away from the intensity would be crazy not to accept. Taking them to something that frightens and pressures them on their “day away” is disgusting.

    And counting how many converts they make under these circumstances is ridiculous. The guys are so disoriented and stressed from boot camp that it’s no wonder half of them crumple under a high pressure hellfire sales pitch.

    Mike C., I’m thinking there’s probably very little chance that what must be highly Christian camp hierarchy (heck, they’re probably members of this church!) would ever allow a secular alternative. However, it could be a basis for a lawsuit if a secular group offered an alternative and they kiboshed it. That would be discriminatory, it seems to me. Although this practice should be able to be challenged legally even without an alternative.

  • Bryce

    And if you are in the Army and you’ve been through this, email Mikey Weinstein. http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org
    He’ll put a boot in their asses. Actually, I’m sure he already knows and has this on his docket after he sues the DoD for all their other unconstitutional activities.

  • Kelly

    If anyone would like to correspond with the church, their e-mail address is TBC@TheChurchFamilyforYourFamily.com

    Just putting it out there.

  • Miko

    Seems to me that the problem is not with the church offering this for the troops (as long as it’s at their own expense), but that there appears to be no other options for soldiers that don’t want to participate in this kind of religion. Perhaps one solution would be for secular groups to organize an alternative “Free Day Away” that includes all the same perks as the church program, but without the church service. As long as the soldiers are informed as to their options, they can then decide for themselves whether or not they want to go to church without losing any of the extra benefits of their Free Day.

    In principle I agree, but this has the old “voluntary-prayer-or-get-beaten-up-in-the-school-yard” problem. Why not just provide a bus without a formal program and say “see you in 24 hours”? Those who want to go to a church program can, those who don’t want to don’t have to, and there’s no (well, less of a) possibility for coercion.

    And of course, in the organized version, let’s not forget that Christian and non-religious isn’t a complete set of options.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Why not just provide a bus without a formal program and say “see you in 24 hours”? Those who want to go to a church program can, those who don’t want to don’t have to, and there’s no (well, less of a) possibility for coercion.

    Well, I’m assuming that the church is doing this of their own free will as a service to the soldiers, and that they would probably do that whether the camp helped them promote it or not. So if the camp just turns them loose, and the church is the only game in town offering all those perks, then there is still an inequity. If the concern is really for the troops and not just for winning a legal battle, then I’d like to see other groups step up and offer similar services without the religious requirements.

  • Andrew

    First of all. BCT is not “brutal”. In fact it is not nearly as difficult or challenging as one expects. In that regard, it is disappointing. And overall, it is rather boring (most time is spent sitting around waiting for lackluster training).

    Second, the reason the DS (Drill Sergeants) might not reveal that the Free-Day-Away is voluntary is because if there are no privates around, then they get the day off too. DS work 6 days a week from dawn (many times well-before dawn) to well after a normal person’s quitting time. So you can understand why they would want privates to go to the Free-Day-Away. It isn’t some kind of Fundamentalist Christian conspiracy.

    I didn’t attend basic at FLW. Where I went, we could go to church on Sunday mornings or hang around the barracks and clean (and find ways to get into trouble). Only one DS works on Sunday, and services are completely voluntary. The only reason to attend is so that you can sleep while your there. And in the regular Army, I would say one or two people in ten goes to services regulary. Even less so overseas.

  • Todd

    First of all, I don’t know when/where Andrew went through Basic, but it was brutal at FLW in 1987. : )

    Our “day away” was much different. We went to the Lake of the Ozarks and our drill sergeants went with us. It was suppose to be a new program to reduce stress of trainees. The DS’s gave us a speech about not screwing this up for them and then looked the other way so they could take a nap. We promptly rented a canoe, bought beer and cigarettes, and had a good time.

    We never went to church and we were transported on Army buses. I wonder if there were competing programs?

  • http://yahoo.com Jonathan Cano

    I am a member of Tabernacle Baptist Church. I have been a member since the age of four years old. I am now 21. Though many will not believe me most of what you have shown on your site is not true. We only care about the souls of men and women. If there is one thing I know it is this…that all powerful GOD can do anything. If He wants to keep the doors open of this ministry there is nothing that man can do to stop Him. One day in heaven you will bow before GOD and confess Him as Lord, but then it will be too late. My email is jonocano@yahoo.com if you want to talk more about this. Thank you.

  • Mriana

    :shock: Some people cease to amaze me and sadly most of them come out of my state.

    This is a prime example of why it seems I take a one-sided attitude about some groups and appear to be all inclusive. How can I help it when various members of such groups pop out of no where and they happen to be in my home state. The above example is some of the craziness I encounter some days in this state that appears to be the heart of the Religious Reich. Missouri is a great state to live in if you are so inclined to such beliefs and the above, from Jonathan Cano, is a prime example, as well as Hemant’s original post.

  • dah

    this is to hemant and jason………one day you will believe in God………..when you are dead…………..but then it will be too late.

  • http://yahoo.com Jonathan Cano

    If your from Missouri, come and visit us. You will see that there is no “dunking booth” and no big screen telling them to give. I guarantee you that for every one that hates the program there is 250 thats loves it. Missouri, show me state, come and see it for yourself.

  • Mriana

    Um… No. Been there, done that, NOT doing it again. You can have your lobe party by yourselves. Personally, I’d sooner go back to the Episcopal Church- more cerebral. Thanks for the invite though.

  • Jonathan Cano

    To dah,

    thank you for clearing that up. you are correct. i left that out on accident. i guess i was so upset over the false things that people have said thus far about our church and the ministry.

    to mriana,

    your welcome for the invite. Our church doors are always open and any questions that anyone has about the “free day away” are more than welcome to ask me about them.

  • Mriana

    dah said,

    February 27, 2008 at 9:41 am

    this is to hemant and jason………one day you will believe in God………..when you are dead…………..but then it will be too late.

    Jonathan Cano said,

    February 28, 2008 at 9:24 am

    To dah,

    thank you for clearing that up. you are correct. i left that out on accident. i guess i was so upset over the false things that people have said thus far about our church and the ministry.

    It is precisely these sorts of statements that will probably turn people here away from your church. Guilt ridden theology is a turn off to more people than you may think. However, I will recommend, since you are of that persuasion, that you read two of my favourite authors- Bishop John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal bishop’s books, specifically Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Sins of Scripture, and Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism. The other favourite author is Robert M. Price’s book The Reason Driven Life. You may become very enlightened as to how such talk even turns off some of the best of Episcopalians. It will also explain why, that if I only had two choices yours and the Episcopal Church and no others, why I’d sooner return to the Episcopal Church. I think you could learn a few things from those two Episcopalians, but they are also more than just Episcopalians too. I’ll leave that for you two to discover as you read their books. Enjoy!

  • dah

    to mriana
    i will recommend, since you like to read, that you read my favorite book- THE HOLY BIBLE, but specifically the KING JAMES VERSION because the other versions leave out alot of important words like “Jesus”, “the son of God”, “blood”, “sins”……you may become very enlightened as to ‘the truth’. it will explain why salvation is the only way to Heaven………not a religion. i think you could learn a few things from it too. i’ll leave that for you to discover as you read it. enjoy!!

  • Mriana

    dah said,

    February 28, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    to mriana
    i will recommend, since you like to read, that you read my favorite book- THE HOLY BIBLE, but specifically the KING JAMES VERSION because the other versions leave out alot of important words like “Jesus”, “the son of God”, “blood”, “sins”……you may become very enlightened as to ‘the truth’. it will explain why salvation is the only way to Heaven………not a religion. i think you could learn a few things from it too. i’ll leave that for you to discover as you read it. enjoy!!

    My dear, I have studied the Bible all my life. I probably could tell you things you haven’t realized about it, such as it being rewritten myths from other cultures- ie Babylonia, Syria, Egypts, India, Assyria, etc. In fact, I’ve taken many religion classes as well as studied under Victor Matthews (another Episcopalian and a professor at a university). Look him up on Amazon and you will find his book Old Testament Parallels, as well as some other books by him. I’ve also studied under some other well known Episcopalians too, as well as lesser known scholars who are not Episcopalians. I could explain to you the various midrashes that relate to Horus/Osiris, Krishna, Buddha, and others, that you never even realize and probably wouldn’t even believe, as well as the various literary styles in the Bible. So, don’t tell me about enlightenment. Educate yourself for REAL about it and you may find enlightenment. You may find that you are worshipping another version of Amen-Ra, which you are. The gig is admitted in Revelations 3:14. No it doesn’t mean “so be it” in that verse as well as a few others. That is a misconception. Not only that, the Bible is pure astrotheology.

    As for relationship to Krishna, he, Moses, and Jesus were all three hustled off at birth to keep from being killed by the head hancho. Jesus and Krishna were both virgin births. Krishna (related variations of the name: Kristos, Christo, Krista, Christa, Christ) is the reincarnation of Vishnu (God). Krishna is the beginning, middle and end. Christ is the beginning and end. They are the same thing.

    The virgin birth is just another pagan virgin birth story, written for a different cultural, but each culture has one.

    I could go even further into this, but I sure you, I know quite a bit about the Bible and a lot more than you appear to assume. Oh and BTW, the KJV has more Greek translational errors than a computer with a virus.

  • Siamang

    But Mriana, did your Bibles have the word “Jesus” in it?

    From what I hear, only the King James version has that.

    I hear that the NIV doesn’t have even have the word “blood” in it.

    Instead of “blood” it says “silly putty,” instead of “sins” it says “crab cakes” and instead of “the son of God” it says “JoJo the underpants kitty.”

    So fair warning, Mriana. Fair warning.

  • dah

    to mriana
    there is still hope for you. i am going to pray for you.

    i’m done.

  • Mriana

    Siamang said,

    February 28, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    But Mriana, did your Bibles have the word “Jesus” in it?

    From what I hear, only the King James version has that.

    I hear that the NIV doesn’t have even have the word “blood” in it.

    Instead of “blood” it says “silly putty,” instead of “sins” it says “crab cakes” and instead of “the son of God” it says “JoJo the underpants kitty.”

    So fair warning, Mriana. Fair warning.

    :lol: ROFLMBO! Good one, Siamang! :)

    dah said,

    February 28, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    to mriana
    there is still hope for you. i am going to pray for you.

    i’m done.

    Oh, yes. Nothing fails like prayer. Gotta love you though, even though you are superstitious and all. At least you do realize that I do know what the story book says. I’m just sadden that you missed what it really is- more of the same mythology rewritten. Anyway, while you’re at it, why don’t you pray for yourself?

  • http://yahoo.com Jonathan Cano

    to dah,

    thanks for your stand. whats funny is that all these writings they recommend are from men, human beings, men that make mistakes, sinful men, not perfect men. Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, perfect, all-knowing, all powerful, just, holy, merciful, and despite all the false things that these other people believe due to the devil blinding them, He still loves them just as much as He loves us. By the way its not guilt ridden preaching, it is Holy Spirit conviction. And something else, it is not a story book. it is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Thanks for talking and chatting about this i find it a privelage to brag on my God!

  • Mriana

    it is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Thanks for talking and chatting about this i find it a privelage to brag on my God!

    No, it was written by men and inspired by men, as well as rewritten myth. It is hardly inerrant, even on a scientific level.

  • Jonathan Cano

    please tell me the chapter and verse because i would like to know them. Your writings were written by men, No? you keep bringing up Episcopalian religion. I am not bringing up religion. Religion sends more people to hell than anything else. I only speak Bible. The final authority in all matters.

  • Jeanne

    “My god can beat up your god.”

    Isn’t that what it’s all about? Certainly the old testament is full of inter-god competition.

    I have a personal relationship with God. In fact, God and I have an agreement – I leave him alone and he leaves me alone. I did what he asked – prayed over every decision, followed his will – and he stabbed me in the back. 30 years later, it is STILL clear that he betrayed me by not being there for me. None of the horrible things that happened to me as a result of praying and following his will were necessary to make my life meaningful to me personally or to the world. To say “it is a mystery” is a cop-out. If there’s a creator, s/he gave us intelligence so that we could use it, not ignore it.

    That’s my testimony. Amen and amen.

  • jmc

    God is sovereign and his will is always best. I dont know your situation but Rom. 8:28 says “all things work together to them that love God.” I am sorry that you have had a bad experience but God is never to fault. He loves you and wants you to talk to him about your pain.

  • Jake

    I attended the free day away in May of 2007 solely to get away from drill instructors and eat junk food but was subjected to the most disturbing rant I have ever seen. I don’t remember the exact details but the sermon involved burning flesh and eternal damnation of a teenage girl because she had not been “saved.” This church is about brainwashing and uses fear and control. When i get out of the Army one of my top priorities in life will be to shut down this unconstitutional and unethical disgrace of a program. If it means moving to Missouri and suing for my right to open a competing program for service members that do not want to be preached to and working full time to provide food and activities at no cost to them, then as god as my witness I will.

    It will never cease to amaze me the amount of service members that have never read the document which they have sworn to defend with their lives.

  • ann

    good luck trying to shut the program down!

    just remember who you will be fighting against……GOD.

    you know……..GOD………all powerful…creator of everything……including you.

    do you really think you came from a big bang? or from monkeys? maybe you did come from a monkey , you sure are thinking like one!!!

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  • matt

    I have been through basic training at FLW, the free day away program was amazing! up until the church service, but like many before me wrote they give me a day way push ups, i survive a hour service. well i did, and it wasn’t too bad, in no way did they make me believe anything, they were just showing me how Christ could be my savior! which if you believe in God this is good, and those that did got that settled, but the option to go was given by the dS, the alternative wasn’t as good as going but there was still the option. the program is completely funded by the church, using church buses, using church gas, all the soda/candy…etc is sold at cost. the church is not making any money off of the program. It might not be for me but it was very insightful, the workers (church) members donate their time weekly and are dedicated to serve the soldiers. even though most of you might not agree with me i am appreciative of the program, the get away from stress and would wish that you would give it a chance, and not be so judgmental. they are just acting on what they believe to be truth.


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