Heroic whistle-blower in Army’s mandatory candlelight prayer scandal

800 junior soldiers attended mandatory suicide-prevention training, and were given plastic battery-powered candles. A chaplain talked for a while, telling the soldiers they must turn to god to keep themselves going in tough times. Eventually he dimmed the lights and instructed everyone to turn on their candles. The chaplain then lead them in a sectarian prayer to his lord and his heavenly father.

The vast majority of the 800 soldiers are fresh out of boot camp, and are being trained in the medical jobs they now specialize in. They did not know this was highly illegal and irregular. One instructor did know better.

Victoria Gettman fought back.

The incident at Fort Sam Houston is now national news, and multiple official investigations are underway. This is her story, in her words. It’s a very touching piece, and it documents incidents of mandatory religion from her 17 year career as a US Soldier.

candle prayer for suicide prevention

Justin Griffith,

I wanted to take some time to thank you. When I encountered a situation that I believed to be a violation using religion in the military, YOU were the first person that I thought about. I KNEW that you would help me. I want to give you a little background to the situation.   

I was raised Catholic. We were part time Catholics. We did Easter and Christmas and received all of our sacraments. It was during my confirmation classes that I began to question, WHY?? The religious leader was very frustrated with me and ultimately gave me Pascal’s wager to satisfy me. It did not. I stopped asking questions out loud and was confirmed.

Throughout my teens I tried New Testament Churches and Baptist Churches. The New Testament Church REQUIRED the members to listen to only Christian music. It was not for me; I moved on. My family pressured me to get married Catholic. I would have been married Catholic if the priest would have agreed to marry us at the waterfall in Hawaii. He would not. He demanded it be in the church. I chose the waterfall.

When I had a child, I was pressured to have that child make their first communion. I signed them up and went to the classes. It was then that I was handed a Catholic Parent’s Guide. As I read it, I realized that I was not going to agree to teach my child to live by these beliefs. I did not agree with them. I moved on.

I identified with Agnosticism for about 5 years, reading the Bible, and all other religious material. I ultimately decided that if there was not evidence, I would not believe it. This leads me to my Atheism.

I am Atheist. I have made a choice to not believe in something for which there is no evidence. Atheism to me does not mean to hate people or religion. I dislike religion when it interferes with my life or the life of others.

I have been in the Army for 17 years. For 17 years I have sat through countless prayers, benedictions, invocations, etc. I have tried to enjoy my Thanksgivings in military settings but I have always had to stand to the side while they blessed the food. I have always stood quietly while they prayed. I have never confronted others, even when I came out as an Atheist. My military chain of command or military coworkers would expect that of me. They would expect that I just stand silently by while they pray at events. These events were not always mandatory and I wanted to be a good sport.

There were a few times in my career where I was forced to go to church. I was one of those in basic training that had the choice of go to church or clean the barracks. Of course I went to church. I was also afforded the opportunity to get on a bus and go to a shoppette during basic training. I was so happy at the thought of soda and candy that I jumped on that bus. When we got to the shoppette, we were told that we had to sit through a church service first. That church pushed so hard to “save” us. Everyone felt the pressure to be “saved”. I was one of the few that continually refused. One of my battle buddies said something about it being no big deal. Just do it so we can get to the shoppette.

I still did not do it.

I was so angry that I was forced to attend church while in the Army. Although you already know this, I want to explain it a little more.

On Wednesday, 26 September 2012, I had to attend a mandatory suicide prevention training. I was in the theater with about 800 students. The suicide training ended after an hour. The master resiliency training began and during the training it was mentioned that a chaplain would follow.

I was irritated.

The training ended and the chaplain took the stage. I rolled my eyes and decided I was not going to sit through another prayer in my military career. I know prayer is not mandatory. I stood in the back of the theater to give the chaplain a chance to remain secular. Plastic, light up candles were handed out. The chaplain did not remain secular. He began with needing something bigger in our lives and NEEDING something divine in order to make it through adversity. I removed myself and walked towards the door. I could not leave the area because of accountability issues but I was NOT going to listen to another forced prayer. And as I thought that to myself, I remembered that I had a Buddhist student. I saw her at the training. I thought that she would likely choose to remove herself. Then I remembered that I had a Jewish student that had put in leave to be off that day for a special holiday. I wondered how many other Jewish students were in the theater being forced to listen to a prayer by a chaplain using the words “heavenly father” and “lord” on a special Jewish holiday. I realized that those students do not know that prayer is optional. 

I became ANGRY.

I was so angry that I took pictures to prove that this event occurred. Standing in the lobby of the theater and listening to the prayer that sounded very Christian to me, I posted those pictures to your facebook with a rant.

When you contacted me, I felt validated. Your encouragement to go to EO and IG empowered me. I just wanted to make sure that this was a clear violation and you completely agreed that it was. You offered me the chance to remain anonymous in a complaint to American Atheists. As you know, I accepted the anonymity.

I am not sure that I told you but my decision to allow my name to be used was not solely my own. My husband was proud that I made those complaints but asked me if I truly believed in standing up against this. I said I did. He asked why I was hiding. I told him I was worried about my career, my promotion potential and any backlash. He asked me again if I believed in it. I again said that I did. He said that I needed to stand ALL of the way up.

You were very supportive of both decisions. Your daily support through all of my panic attacks has been greatly appreciated. I knew that you were in school but that you would get back to me as soon as you could. You’ve never let me down. You published my story and forwarded it throughout the Atheist community.  You let me know to contact Mikey. His assurance that he would fight for me and had lawyers to help me gave me further support.  

I was terrified.

I felt like I was about to vomit every second of every minute of every day after I told you to use my name. Of course you already know that because I constantly told you. You always responded with support and encouragement.

After all of the stress and anxiety, you know what happened?

My brigade commander told me that an investigation was opened. 

My company commander counseled me on my rights and protection under the whistle blower act.

That is all.

I still feel a little queasy about the media having my story but I know it was right to fight for the rights of these students. I swore to uphold and defend the constitution.

Victoria Gettman

UPDATE:

Despite whistle-blower protection, she’s still facing some nastiness from the very people she has to file with. She reported the incident up official channels. One side (‘IG’) has been doing the right thing, and so have her commanders.

Unfortunately, a team of investigators that are supposed to protect her Equal Opportunity rights has been consistently attempting to stop her. Inexplicably, they took no action on her behalf for 11 days. She had to repeatedly approach them, eventually with her supervisor having to tag along too. They tried to convince her not to file a formal complaint, and that an informal would be better (um, no.) Recently, she was even told to write her complaint on an official form… it had a section for her name but it was labeled “INMATE”. It was the wrong form. Totally innocent mistake, I’m sure.

They’re not going to shake Staff Sgt. Gettman. She’s not going away. She stuck out her neck – by name. She doesn’t see an ax arcing down. Rather, she sees a glimpse of people running away, knowing what they did was wrong. They’re just bumbling defensively to cover their ass.

That’s the real difference right there. Gettman is not just covering her ass, she actually gives a damn.

About Justin Griffith
  • https://www.facebook.com/AtheistEmpathy?ref=ts EllenBeth Wachs

    This woman is awesome and courageous. I am so glad she had you to turn to. I am spreading this story and will do my best to make sure as many people know about this as I can.

  • Todd Carter

    Lab Tech School?!?!

    Army Lab Techs have a higher percentage of non-believers than any other career field. Plus that company also has X-ray techs. Unbelievable.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bryan.trim bryantrim

      Wow. I was at that same school. Good job, SSG Gettman. People seem to forget that the First Amendment protects us as well as them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/yovonnea yovonneaallyouneedtoknowistheinitial

    Thank you, SSG Gettman! And thank you for helping her, SSG Griffith (please forgive me if I have your rank wrong). Knowing that there are those who are willing to stand up and publicly call onto the carpet these people who so blithely go against our Bill of Rights makes me want to stand up and cheer them. Keep up the great work!

    • Justin Griffith

      SGT :)

      SSG on the horizon. I chose activism for a year over professional development… Now I’ve gotta get boarded at my new PCS into USAREC. DOH!

      • http://www.facebook.com/yovonnea yovonneaallyouneedtoknowistheinitial

        Best of luck in USAREC! And thank you from the bottom of my heart for your activism to help safeguard the rights of our military personnel.

  • Jon Ransom

    Bravery isn’t limited to foxholes.

    This soldier put her career on the line to stand up for her rights and the rights of those less informed.

    As she’s signed on the dotted line to protect our freedoms, we need to lend our support to protect hers.

  • Matt Penfold

    …and were given plastic battery-powered candles.

    They don’t even have any class when breaking the rules.

    • Kim

      Well, at least they were being safe so no one would light themselves on fire when they dropped the candle after falling asleep.

      And think how long it would take to get everyones candle lit. How many smokers are there and have lighters handy?

    • F

      Class isn’t necessary when invoking a ritualistic environment and using anything that functions in a hypnogenic manner. Hell, people do this themselves, holding candles like it means something (‘candlelight vigils’), out of weird associations people make regarding candles, which are almost entirely religious at root.

  • Pete L

    “He said that I needed to stand ALL of the way up.”

    This. So very much this.

    We all need to stand ALL the way up – for ourselves, for each other, and right now now for SSG Gettman.

  • hexidecima

    I am very proud of Staff Sgt. Gettman. You go, soldier!

  • geocatherder

    What hexidecima said, except: You GO, soldier!!!

  • gwen

    We would all be better off were the military filled with people like Staff Sergeant Gettman!

  • mithrandir

    Tangentially from the idea of standing up for what is right… I wonder how history would be different if the tale of Abraham being ordered to sacrifice Isaac had ended with Avraham saying, “No, o LORD. I shall not become a murderer, even if you demand it,” and God had replied, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. If even the fear of your LORD cannot induce you to commit evil, then no force on Earth can tarnish your righteousness.”

    But then, the OT always did answer the Euthrypho dilemma in favor of God defining right and wrong rather than the other way round.

    • Justin Griffith

      I wonder how history would be different if the tale of Abraham being ordered to sacrifice Isaac had ended with Avraham saying, “No, o LORD. I shall not become a murderer, even if you demand it,”

      Yeah… that’s why chaplains don’t carry weapons and are officially ‘non-combatants’. Therefore, “There are no chaplains in foxholes” – Justin Griffith

  • kevinkirkpatrick

    Thanks for all you do Sgt Gettman. Likewise Justin – you all rock!

  • thebookofdave

    “The vast majority of the 800 soldiers are fresh out of boot camp, and are being trained in the medical jobs they now specialize in. They did not know this was highly illegal and irregular. One instructor did know better.”

    The tragedy is that the majority of Americans do not know it is illegal, fresh out of high school. Remedial US Constitution Studies is now in session. Meet your instructor, SSgt Gettman.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    When I was in basic (Ft Dix summer of 1983, D-5-3) we got the same “clean barracks or go to church” alternative on sundays. I cleaned barracks. It was the same at AIT (Ft Lee, VA) I’d sort of hoped christian privilege had ramped down a bit but I guess self-perpetuating stupidity is self-perpetuating.

    • Justin Griffith

      It’s not usually there at AIT anymore. Basic and military academies have a huge problem still.

      • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

        Thanks to folks like you and Sgt Gettman!

  • Kathleen

    Thank you, SSG Gettmann and SGT Griffith, for bringing another example of unconstitutional proselytizing by our military to light, for standing up for those who don’t know that they can stand against it, and for setting an example for those who know they should stand up but don’t.


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