Americans United Asks Department of Defense to Investigate Proselytizing Military Base

Earlier this year, I wrote about the “Free Day Away” program at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Here’s what I wrote then:

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.”

Americans United for Separation for Church and State is finally investigating this base.

… “The coercive religious practices at Fort Leonard Wood are an outrage,” [Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director] continued, “and the Department of Defense should put a stop to them immediately.”

During the church service, soldiers are told that they are all sinners who must repent and that they “must be saved now or go to hell.” Soldiers willing to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior are instructed to step into the aisles of the church and enroll in a six-lesson correspondence course that will lead to their “personal salvation.”

Americans United, in its letter (PDF), urged Gordon S. Heddell, acting inspector general for the Department of Defense, to conduct a full investigation into the Army’s “Free Day Away” practice.

Hopefully, they can find a secular alternative to help troops get a well-deserved break from their duties, if only for a day.

  • http://noadi.blogspot.com Noadi

    My brother mentioned something about this to me once, he’s in the Air Force but was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood for some additional training. He said something like he was glad he hadn’t had to go through basic training there because of some crazy church in the area. It didn’t make sense to me at the time but I guess this must have been what he was talking about. He really liked being stationed there because the surrounding area is forested and he had a lot of fun in his free time hiking and riding ATVs in the area, so for those not subjected to that crap it’s a nice base.

  • Oldman

    As a recently retired Navy vet, I have to say, I personally found little active discrimination in the Navy. Wiccan and other non-Christian groups were common, though I never saw an atheist group.
    The only thing that ever bothered me even a little was the insistence of the powers that be, to have prayers and invocations at every major event, though many of those were easy to escape.
    Still it is horrendous, what I read has happened at the academies and a couple of other places. — Simply intolerable!

  • Jason

    I’m currently active duty Air Force and, fortunately, I haven’t run into that sort of thing. I’m actually planning on starting an atheist group on base.

    Wish me luck, and that I won’t be the next Jeremy Hall.

  • Ron in Houston

    Regarding Oldman’s comment:

    I think anytime you get an organization as large and diverse as the US military, you’re going to get quite a few bad apples. I think we need to be careful not to jump to the conclusion that the whole barrel is bad.

    I think part of the problem is that the military doesn’t like to effectively deal with the bad apples.

  • http://www.merryatheist.net/blog MerryAtheist

    I would think a natural alternative to forced religious indoctrination would be a “Free Day Away” sponsored in part by the VFW (or some other veteran/military group). I can envision seasoned war-veterans mentoring the next generation of warriors, offering them many of the goodies they get at the church event, but with the added dimension of a sense of pride in being part of a tradition of service to the country.

  • Doug

    I’ve actually been to Free Day Away, back in 2000. It wasn’t mandatory to go, just strongly encouraged. Hemant’s description is accurate in my experience. The food and accommodations were what one would expect of a small town Missouri baptist church.

    During the church service I read my army manual, but didn’t get hassled by anybody. By the end, I was one of around a dozen – out of over one hundred – that hadn’t gotten up to be “saved”.

  • Adam

    Luckily, I just went to AIT at Leonard Wood. I know that at Ft Knox, they had a similar program, but I don’t think it was religious based. I think that there were religious people there and groups of people gathered but no one was pressured.

    The base I am at now has started renovating a building for a “Religious Education Center” that has at the beginning of its name USAG (U.S. Army Garrison). I need to go in and see what it is all about before I jump to conclusions, but I have a feeling that I won’t like what I have to see.

    Adam

  • http://openthreat.blogspot.com OT

    Yep, I remember the Free Day Away. I did basic at FLW in 2005, and went on it. It was not advertised as church-sponsored beforehand, but it was pretty obvious what was going on as soon as I arrived. The service itself was exactly as described: fire and brimstone. I thought it was hilarious, and I could predict exactly where it was going to go every time.

    If any good observations can come from it, the only people it seemed to affect were the ones who were already susceptible to its “message”. That’s not the point, of course: it is a clear violation of the wall of separation, and is an example of state sponsorship of a particular religion.

    It was the most blatant endorsement of fundamentalist Christianity I encountered in the Army until I was stationed in Georgia.

  • http://hereticsaltar.blogspot.com Parker Thomas

    I used to live out near there (FLW) for a little while, and having to drive through some of the towns around the base like the aptly named St. Robert, if left to my own devices on “free day,” heh, I think I would have headed to some of the more “titillating” areas that surround it…hah!

  • http://freewebs.com/churchofathiesm/ Rev. Aaron O’Donahue

    I don’t have a problem with it as long as everyone is allowed to have soda, use cell phones, eat well, etc.

    I do have a problem with the way it was for me in basic. On sundays, anyoe who wanted to go to church could sleep in the pews. All those who didn’t want to go to church had to strip and wax floors while being occasionally yelled at by Drill Instructors.

    -Atheist and former Airborne Ranger.