Atheist soldier killed in action, family proselytized due to NO-REL-PREF

Atheist soldier killed in action, family proselytized due to NO-REL-PREF December 12, 2011

Another debate-ending story on whether or not it is important to get ATHEIST on your records, rather than the inaccurate and inappropriate NO-REL-PREF.

Text below the fold…

Ok guys, here is perspective: my sons father was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan 2 years ago. He had no religious preference on his papers. The army sent a chaplain to tell me and pray with my sons. I was forced in what was already a horrible experience to politely demand that the chaplain be made to stand quietly as we did not share his beliefs. They also sent a chaplain to his service. The problem is, is that no preference is not a real statement and is not really respected by the military.

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  • MrsW

    This is why the military needs to have completely secular “chaplains” on hand. A person schooled in grief counseling is the correct choice for someone who has listed “no pref” not just whichever chaplain is handy.

    • Couldn’t agree more.

      BTW, I’m extremely sorry for your loss Kim

    • Craig Pennington

      I am also sorry for your loss.

      I started the process of joining the Navy in the mid ’80s and clearly stated “Atheist” as my rel-pref. Loudly. Saw the recruiter write down “None.” Did not end end up joining, but that always stuck with me. I just assumed that there were a fixed number of categories. Advice to new recruits: insist! They want your healthy ass more than they want to save your heathen soul. It could save your loved ones grief in the end, and if your loved ones want the proselytizing over your darty carcass, there’s always a kind soul there willing to oblige regardless.

  • I guess I was a fortunate one to have a Drill Sergeant who actually listed me, as well as one other fellow soldier, as “Atheist” when they asked in BCT. I know when I said “atheist” when asked my religious preference at MEPS they looked at me like I had 2 heads and both wanted to blow the world up.

    Thank You DS Byles of Ft. Jackson’s Foxtrot 1-13 for being one of the understanding ones. Hooah!

  • I know some people think that NORELPREF is the same as atheist. I explained it to my teenager like this. If you go to 31 Flavors and someone asks what kind of ice cream you want, you can say “I have no preference” but that just means that you don’t care which flavor you get, you still want the ice cream. If you said “I never eat ice cream and I don’t think I ever will” then no matter what flavor you are served it will be the wrong one.

    This family would have been better served by having either a humanist chaplain or a secular counselor being present. It is offensive that these families who go through so much have to deal with this at one of the worst points in their lives. My heart breaks for them.

    I only hope that their story will push those in a position to do something about it to take this seriously and prevent these types of uncomfortable and hurtful events.

  • annie

    I am so sorry for Kim’s loss, and for the fact that she had to endure proselytizing at such a devastating time in her life. Regardless of what the dog tags say, there should be some sensitivity to every service person’s wishes. I’m so saddened that this was not the case for Kim’s husband.

    On another note: I misspelled “proselytizing”. The first choice in spell check was “story telling”. Perhaps we should go with that?

  • Childermass

    “No religious preference” will be interpreted as “Don’t care” by most so if someone really cares they probably should be more specific. But they are probably afraid to put “atheist” on their tags and probably for good reason. Sigh.

    With computer technology the military should not have to rely solely on a one line on the dog tag for last wishes anyways. They should be able to leave written instructions in their own words if they so wish. They will have to put in heavy-duty regulations that any sort of last wishes filed can only be accessed upon death.

  • Erp

    I suspect the dog tag was and is for immediate action where looking up on a computer would take time.

    The other thing the army forgot in the story is that the soldier’s religious beliefs may not be the same as the spouse or parents. Now it is probably too much to ask that the soldier detail the religious beliefs of his closest kin, but, a good counselor/chaplain should suss out the feelings of those involved and offer the appropriate words (identify herself as a chaplain and listen, give information [e.g., when the body will be returned], ask neutral questions [e.g., is there anything I can do], don’t offer to pray unless first asked or it becomes obvious that the person is of a religion that would appreciate it).

  • Steve

    “No religious preference” just means that any (Protestant) chaplain will do, but they aren’t required to get one of a specific sect.

    Still, this problem wouldn’t exist if Chaplains just took “no” for an answer. If they are told to go away or that they can attend a function if they are content with praying silently to themselves and they accept that then things would be fine.

  • Vin Rohm

    I was fortunate that my dog tags read “ATHEIST”. I was hit by a mortar round in November 2003 in Iraq. The chaplain came into the first aid station, looked at my dog tags and announced, “I don’t think there’s anything I can do for you.” To which I replied, “Good. So what can I do for you instead?” I joked, I made light of my wounds. The chaplain and I laughed together, along with the medics who were working frantically trying to keep me alive and treating the wound in my tent mate’s leg. Morphine only made me loopy and made me seem even funnier….at least to me. Thank goodness he didn’t prosylatize, and in truth, that he bothered to engage me in humour instead made everything better.

    Just because they are men of god does not mean they have nothing to offer the godless. There is real hope (your wounds don’t look too bad), and humour (look at that…direct access to your stomach!), or maybe just a light conversation to get our minds off of the pain.

  • @Vin Rohm: I agree. When I was in Baghdad my only interaction with the chaplains were getting cookies and such from their tent. They were just friendly people handing care package type stuff out for people that stopped by to say hi. You had to go to services or into their offices to get the religion business.

    I think there is potentially more to getting your tags updated “accurately”. If you haven’t come out to your family that you are an atheist I imagine this would be a pretty horrible way for them to find out.

  • Art

    This points up the problem with atheist soldiers avoiding the hassle of having their personnel records changed to reflect their true beliefs. You can go off base and have dogtags punched to reflect your atheism but the official version remains in the personnel records. It is that version which will decide how the person who shows up to report your death and attend the funeral acts.

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  • John Gilbert

    Sgt Griffith,

    I sincerely support your actions and appreciate your insight and devotion! Please keep up the good work and don’t let the “man” keep you down!


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  • Pherd

    > I explained it to my teenager like this. If you go to

    > 31 Flavors and someone asks what kind of ice cream you

    > want, you can say “I have no preference” but that just

    > means that you don’t care which flavor you get, you

    > still want the ice cream. If you said “I never eat

    > ice cream and I don’t think I ever will” then no

    > matter what flavor you are served it will be the wrong one.

    This is a *great* example.

    Lactose and gluten intolerance are starting to get acknowledgements from “those who make decisions about what food will be served” in the more progressive areas. (and where required by law).

    I’d love for there to be the concept of “I don’t wish to consume any of your religious offerings” that doesn’t come off as intolerance or hostile. The RWNJs do a great job of making any refusal of their faux-xti-inanity sound like a jihad against all christians.

    I am a true atheist, but I also hate intolerance and treasure diversity; be it biological, environmental, or literary. The bible is great fiction, and a bit too sexist and violent for me, but others will say the same about “The Empire Strikes Back.”

  • Carla

    I am a casualty notification officer, and the service member’s ID tags do not dictate what type of Chaplin accompanies them to the notification. The Chaplain is also a great help to the notification officer. It is the toughest job an Army Officer or NCO will ever do, but it is also the most important job they will ever do.