The West Point Cadet
“Truth is generally the best vindication against slander.” – Abraham Lincoln
Since my resignation from West Point, one of the most frequently asked questions sent my way has been whether or not I have any regrets. Certainly, I have spent a few minutes contemplating the potential alternative timelines that could have come to be if I had stayed. But, no, I do not regret my decision. Countless events, observations and conversations since then have left me vindicated. Time and time again I have been shown that many in our military suffer from dangerous ideological pollution in the form of Christian supremacy, Dominionism or intolerance in general. Every day as the Special Assistant to the President of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and Director of MRFF Affairs at West Point I see redundant and nauseating examples of the same old hat. Memorial Day weekend, MRFF sent me to West Point to see first hand how things have been developing since I left.
Friday evening, I was invited by a former classmate to meet his family at a pre-banquet reception that just happened to be going on around the same time I was visiting other cadets for other reasons. Understanding my reputation there, and not wanting to cause any disruptions, I was hesitant to accept his offer to go inside at first, but he persisted and ultimately I acquiesced.
After a round of introductions and few minutes of conversation, it was time for that friend to leave to attend the graduation banquet. We said our goodbyes, “nice to meet you”s, and then I left. While on my way out, I ran into two characters I had known since Plebe year: cadets (now lieutenants) Charlie Gerber and Oliver Flynn. They each looked quite nonplussed at my presence. We had a very short conversation, from which I gladly walked away once it became apparent that it would not be civil.
Gerber and Flynn followed a few paces behind me, but not so far that I could no longer hear what they were saying to one another. Flynn started an exchange by saying that upon seeing me he experienced a strong impulse to practice some punitive physical violence (although with a less palatable choice of words, imagine what you must). Charlie laughed, “Haha. I was thinking the exact same thing… ” Finally they decided that they would not be following through with this fantasy beating because it would infringe their ability to graduate the next day.
Really gents? The only thing stopping you from resorting to violence against a non-violent civilian is fear of punishment? How wonderful to know that America’s alleged best and brightest, on the night before graduation, are still making ethical decisions based on reward/punishment as children do. By their own words, the only thing stopping them from assaulting me was not that it would be wrong, criminal, and unjustifiable, but that it might possibly cause them some hardship later on. And people wonder why there are problems with assault in the military…
Of course, I would hardly have been doing my job as the Director of MRFF Affairs at West Point if I were not attuned to the religious atmosphere of the academy. Since my departure, one very noticeable concession has been made at West Point. Now during prayers with compulsory attendance (such as at graduation), those reading them include the phrase “if you so choose” before giving the captive audience an “opportunity” to hear a prayer. How generous! Recent events in the Arizona senate demonstrate as clearly as ever that the practice of blessing state events is a perversion of religious freedom that does not truly accommodate the acceptance of all people equally. Would West Point allow a Humanist invocation at graduation? Polytheist? Muslim? With all the varieties of belief structures in existence, an invocation (even when delivered in their most watered down version) continues to be exclusionary. This is nothing less than ceremonial religious supremacy…if you so choose to be required by law as a member of the military to attend.
While my concerns with invocations and benedictions may appear abstract to those unsympathetic, there was an event of particular interest that is much more easily understood as a conflict with separation of religion and state. A friend of mine invited me to attend his commissioning ceremony in the garden of quarters 100 (the Superintendent’s house). Originally, it was scheduled for 2:30 that afternoon, but his “spiritual commissioning ceremony” was taking longer than expected. A spiritual commissioning ceremony is an event hosted by the infamous Officers Christian Fellowship (OCF), in which cadets are reminded of the Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all men, and are also prayed over for safe and successful military careers. Strangely, there are no videos of this ceremony or transcripts of the spiritual commissioning oath publicly available. I am curious to know what these officers are swearing to uphold that takes precedence over their oath to defend the Constitution. Once he had finished that ceremony, I met my friend and his family in the garden to wait for Major Jeffrey Pickler to finish performing the commissioning ceremony for other new lieutenants.
Major Pickler is currently serving as the Aide-de-Camp to the Superintendent of West Point, Lieutenant General (LTG) Huntoon. He is also very involved in the OCF and was a mentor to my friend, whose ceremony he would be conducting that Saturday afternoon. Around 3:45 the ceremony began. It was going along wonderfully for a while. Then Major Pickler pontificated: “Mike is
exactly the sort of junior officer I would want in my battalion!” Here he issued a long list of adjectives. Things like strong, intelligent, honorable, etc; all traits that are quite desirable in a good officer. After he appeared to be done with the list, he paused for a second and looked off into the sky before adding with emphasis, “Christian.”
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is exactly the sort of officer Major Jeffrey Pickler would like in his battalion. A Christian. Not a Muslim, Jew, Wiccan, Mormon, Humanist, or atheist. He prefers his subordinates to be Christians, and was confident enough to say it loudly and proudly. As an officer in the Army of a pluralistic society, this way of thinking is a problem. There is no difference in kind between public expressions of Christian Supremacy and that of misogyny or homophobia. Imagine if MAJ Pickler had added Caucasian heterosexual male to his description of preferred junior officers. Would that be tolerable? By saying he prefers Christian subordinates, MAJ Pickler acknowledged that he would rather not have non-Christian subordinates.
When I resigned from West Point I gave credit to then-Commandant of Cadets Brigadier General Theodore Martin for his clearly heartfelt desire for equality in the ranks of the Academy. I also mentioned a gulf that exists between the intent of general level officers and the execution of their intent with good faith that at least the highest echelons our military’s leadership would not tolerate such bigotry. In this case, it is very difficult for me to continue to maintain such faith because those clearly unlawful comments were delivered by LTG Huntoon’s Aide-de-Camp in his presence, quite literally in the man’s back yard! What clearer expression of complicity can there be?
No, I do not regret my resignation. I have been vindicated daily, in more ways than will ever be made public. I now have the opportunity to defend the Constitution of my country by working with Mikey Weinstein and the MRFF and several other organizations in ways I never would have been able to as a member of the military. If there ever were any doubt that what I’d seen in the past was anomalous, this weekend proved otherwise.