I get a lot of touching comments, and letters of support from inside and outside of the military. The Rock Beyond Belief team has a few officers on board, but this letter comes from a Captain who understands the complications keeping most of my fellow team members, and foxhole atheists in general, from publicly identifying themselves.
In case the reader is unaware, simply speaking out in the military is not easy. And standing up for what is right when it comes to religion and proselytism is extremely tough at the local unit level. Speaking out at the national level is exponentially more difficult, but is simply not a path that most people can take. This letter really meant a lot to me – and it illustrates that even just enforcing existing rules, regulations, and laws can be hazardous to your career. The author has clearly made tough choices, and at great risk to his own professional development.
I would like to commend you on your incredible efforts to galvanize support for and organize a truly one-of-a-kind secular event. Those of us who are of like-mind on this issue (whether atheist, humanist, or just strictly secular on governmental affairs) have nothing but respect for the work you have done, even if our own work precludes any reasonable chance of our participation. You are — without a doubt — a credit to the NCO Corps and this grand profession of arms we share, and the fact that you persist in the face of such strong opposition (which consistently demonstrates no shame in using unethical and unconstitutional means to push its ends) shows who is truly committed to our National and Army Values. Hooah!
I have gone through my own battles against the pervasive attitudes of religion in the Army, although nothing so dramatic or public as your recent affairs. Starting with my commissioning, I had to file an IG complaint and push it along all the way to Cadet Command to get my ROTC to allow me to say the oath of office without “[S]o help me God” appended to it’s conclusion. My original oath of office document, with those last four words crossed out, is now framed on the wall at my house and I never spoke those words during the ceremony.
Since then, I’ve seen a number of discriminatory religious practices, almost always pushed by Unit Commanders who seem uncaring as to the legal limits of their authority or rights of their subordinates with regards to religion. I had a Reserve Company Commander who allowed Evangelicals a two-hour “bible study” (which was almost always just goofing off) on Sundays while everyone else had to clean weapons or PMCS vehicles, including theirs. I’ve seen a Brigade Commander require participation in prayers, with the Sergeant Major singling out those who didn’t bow their heads and say the right magic words for “remedial training” punishments. I’ve been lectured by a Chaplain for an Army 3-Star Command that Atheists and Humanists are incapable of being good Soldiers after I “failed” the spirituality portion of the fitness tracker (this BS affects Officers just as easily). Hardest of all, I’ve had to counsel a Platoon Sergeant on his unconstitutional use of coercion to get his platoon to attend religious services.
In some ways being an Officer has made dealing with the pervasive push of religious elements easier, as I felt less inclined not to push back against clearly wrong actions of my superiors, peers, and subordinates. In other ways it has been more challenging, as career progression (promotions, assignments, and ratings) amongst Officers is much more of a political affair if the “wrong” information about you is public, resulting in an inclination towards self-censorship for career preservation. All I wish to do – and we seem to have this trait in common – is serve my nation honorably, and yet for a decade I have been embroiled in an internal war of religious rights just to prove that I am fit to serve.
I applaud you and your efforts, especially your tricky decision to go public, and want you to know that you have my full support for everything you have been doing. I have, for some time, been toying with the creation of a similar atheist/humanist support organization at my own duty station, and may seek your advice as to lessons learned in the near future. I am also a supporter of gaining acceptance for humanists within the chaplaincy, and have some thoughts on the matter (pertaining to legal strategy) that I would very much enjoy sharing with you. Wherever our paths should take us, however, I wish you the best of luck.
CPT [Name withheld]
United States Army
[Duty Station / Location Withheld]
Name, Location withheld for very understandable reasons. I’ve had many other letters in my inbox that were just as well written and eye opening – but few give me permission to print (even anonymously).
There are many more brave Soldiers just like this one. I’ve described the situation previously like this:
We find ourselves in the curious position of being on the front line of two types of war. One is tangible and you see it on the news every day, the other is the subterranean ideological battle that unfolds as the evangelical Christian groups work against the separation of church and state.