Thanks to the Soldier who allowed me to reprint his story, originally posted in the February issue of ISO Lehti.
Resilient Reflections: On Atheism, Service and Cooperation across faiths.
By A. Stringer.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and not those of the United States Army, the United States of America or any outside organizations mentioned or discussed.
A week ago I was sitting on a bus in Yongsan Garrison, when someone in a seat nearby started talking about the Religious Retreat Center, the only one of its kind in the Army. He was telling his friend about the change to a ‘Resiliency Retreat Center’, as a part of the Army’s move towards ‘Comprehensive Soldier Fitness’.
Sometimes you get the see the fruits of your labors.
Though it’s hard to pinpoint just when it began, it’s become apparent that over the last few years the case for secularism has made itself more and more distinct in the Army. Though it doesn’t by any means signal an end to religion in the force (more on why religion is not bad, later) it begins to break away some of the stigmatism that is associated with atheism and the military, and atheism in general.
Despite the cultural and societal advances of the 20th and 21st centuries, atheism is still regarded as a small and untrusted minority. Religious and political figures use the ‘secularists’ as snarl words in their campaigns, recent polls show us to be as untrustworthy as rapists in the eyes of most Americans, and atheist advertising, from billboards to nativity scenes, continues to be the target of unpunished vandalism. The often vocal majority continues to peg atheism, and atheists, as devoid of any moral compass or usefulness in society.
These views are beginning to change, through the consistent work of people in the community speaking with, and many times challenging, those of a different worldview. It’s slow going to be sure, but with organizations like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation working to make sure all faiths are treated equally, to the military office of American Atheists, headed by the mind behind ‘Rock Beyond Belief’, the Army is opening itself up to the men and women defending the Constitution without a cross.
AN ORIGIN STORY
Eight years ago I was a student in my Advanced Individual Training, the bridge between the raw talent in basic and the trained Soldier in an Army unit. In many ways it was like a more mental version of basic training: you listened to the drill sergeants, kept yourself out of trouble and got by each week.
And of course, Sunday meant Church. Or shining the hallway floors. See, you do get choices!
Basic Training was the same way: every Sunday, when the company was assembled for formation, the commander would ask the troops to raise their hand according to their religion. On most Army bases, due to the fact that it’s a small town with a small city’s population, the one or two chapels on post share time between services. So, if you were Catholic, you immediately got on the bus. Protestant and non-denominational came later.
While you waited for your bus to return, you and anyone else not lucky enough to be a Catholic got to clean the barracks again. To make sure you weren’t sleeping or playing with any smuggled cards, drill sergeants would check up in random intervals, usually making the first five or ten Soldiers they saw do push-ups ‘to improve their PT score’.
After the first two weeks, the drill sergeants compare notes to see what Soldiers go to what services. By the end of the third week the name rosters are made, and the drill sergeants call off names.
They also make a note of who doesn’t go.
My recruiter, when I told him of my atheism, told me that I would get religion in Basic. I wrote this off as a joke. Now, I know it was a warning. Go to church, or join that small group of faces that show up for trash detail every Sunday.
Once I got out of Basic and AIT and made it into ‘General Population’, I was assigned to a small post in South Korea. Back in 2004 and 2005, there were at least eight of these small ‘outpost’ bases throughout the city, as if the city had grown like weeds around them. One advantage to these small bases was the relative distance to Church, usually a 20-minute bus ride for the faithful. For what was probably the first time in my life, I didn’t wake up on Sunday morning to church bells.
Of course it didn’t last, and the posts were closed down. Our unit moved to Tacoma, Washington after that, and for the next few years things carried on without much of a change. Made friends, said goodbye to friends, and the cycle went on. My lack of faith never really became an issue around the shop, except for one NCO who took exemption to some of my jokes. Everyone else seemed to laugh when my response to his ‘Anyone want a bedtime story?’ was ‘Sure! Genesis or Revelations?’
When my Sister died, I had to go back home for the funeral and procession, as well as the custody battle between my other sister and my brother in law. Once I got back to the unit, my battalion commander asked me to recount, in detail, what had happened. After putting me through that, he then told me ‘She was in a better place.’
I never knew ‘biting your tongue’ was literal before then.
WAR IS HELL
We deployed in March 2007, right in time to read about the Surge in Stars and Stripes. There was the usual griping and moaning, but it gave me a chance to look at my recruitment options. I was getting tired of my old job, and my unit, but with little to look forward to back home and really no reason to leave, I thought a change of pace would work out for me.
It was during this flurry of paperwork and phone calls that I got the news: a friend of mine had died up north. It hit me hard: he was new to the unit, barely out of high school, and now he was gone. I was offered counseling and some time to talk with the Chaplain, both of which I refused. He wouldn’t want me to mope about it. That wasn’t the person he was.
When it came time to re-enlist, I ‘affirmed’. For those not in the know, the Oath of Enlistment gives you two choices: To ‘swear’ or to ‘affirm’ your defense and allegiance to the Constitution. I also left out ‘So help me God’, using ‘fate’ as a generic substitute. I think the only person that smiled about that part was our Chief, a Mormon.
When our tour was over, I was going through both my redeployment inprocessing and my unit outprocessing, a two-month long nightmare of paperwork and rushing about. During that time, we got even more bad news: one of the most admired Soldiers in our unit committed suicide. It devastated us; this was a person who was a paragon of what it meant to be a Soldier and a person, and now he was gone.
Counseling came up again, and this time I didn’t have a choice: most units require being signed out by the Chaplain. Since our company chaplain was busy, I was sent to the brigade chaplain to sign out and get anything I could off my chest.
He noticed my unit, gave his condolences, then said to me the words that still make me burn with contempt: “He’s safe now in the arms of the lord.”
“No, he isn’t, sir.”
I saw his eyes go wide, and his brow perked up just a little. “Excuse me, Soldier?”
“Sir, I’m an atheist. My friend isn’t ‘anywhere’. He’s gone.”
He closed his eyes, nodded a bit, and held his hands together. “Specialist, do you think we can talk again sometime? I want to talk to you about being right with God.”
I nearly shouted at him. How dare he. How dare he use my friend’s death as a wedge to try to get my ‘salvation’? I was angry. I was also outprocessing.
“Sir, can I get my outprocessing paperwork signed?”
He signed it without a word, and I was on my way. A month later I accidentally tripped the fire alarm at the barracks in Fort Meade trying to get in through a fire door. Good times.
The Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland was some of the most fun, and hardest work, I’ve done in my life. My dad was able to make it to the graduation, which was even better. And I was assigned to Fort Riley, just three hours away from home. Life was good.
I got to see a lot of things, learn even more, and gripe and complain far more than I had reason to. I met people that still leave an impression on me, and the things that my shop taught me continue to impress on me today. I also began to read more about atheism, becoming more at home with my view of the world and the arguments on which it was founded.
It came time again for deployment, this time to a post further south. This time around, three things hit me:
The first was when I and another Soldier had found some pictures on the unclassified shared drive, done in the style of demotivational posters. We laughed at the ones mocking religion, mostly, when my Section Sergeant (and roommate) finally had enough.
“You know, we don’t go around mocking your stupid beliefs, so could you stop mocking mine?”
We stopped. It made me sit back and think: Why was I mocking it? Sure, I still found it funny. But the fact that me and another Soldier were openly laughing at someone’s core belief right next to him made me feel disgusted. I was slipping into the same version of the kids in high school, who laughed at my view on the world.
I took a long shower that night, which was alright since there is no cold water in Iraq in the summer. I decided that, even though I still found the views preposterous, I couldn’t slip into that same niche that my own bullies fit into. I could do better. For all the work they did, they deserved better.
The second thing that hit me was that you never do a story on your friend’s memorial service.
The unit I was in before I changed my MOS was also deployed to the base I was on, along with several of the same people I served with the last time. Because the unit was tasked to us, I was told to get pictures of some of the people in their unit for our deployment book. He always found a way out of it, and the usual retort would be ‘I’ll get your picture next time!’
There wasn’t a next time. His housing unit was struck by a rocket. Despite a man kicking in the door of a burning building and pulling him from the fire, he still couldn’t save him.
A note to aspiring photographers: It is hard to take photos while you’re crying. Your hands shake so much the autofocus doesn’t work right. You can’t tell if your shot is clear of blurry. You can’t keep the viewfinder on the picture of his face, or the rifle and dog tags, without tearing up again.
After the service our unit Chaplain noticed me, nodded, and said ‘Good job’. It was all I needed.
The third thing was the opening of the Resiliency Center, an all-faiths gym/school/physical therapy/meditation and reading room.
Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, or CSF for short, is the Army’s new model of making ‘tougher’ Soldiers. The Army figured that you could have a world-class athlete and deadly trained professional, but if his family life sucked or his emotional stability was off he’d be worse off than the average joe who has all his affairs in order. It makes sense from a tactical standpoint: the guy who doesn’t have to worry about his family or his homelife has more of his mind on the mission, which gives him a tactical edge.
CSF was designed to help this out, and the religious side was handled by the ‘spiritual’ part, encompassing the various beliefs and faiths inside the Army. Problem was, atheism wasn’t exactly seen in a part of their ‘spirituality’ model, which meant that these reading rooms had no secular reading for an atheist looking for something to help clear up a point or two.
Noting this, I decided to do something about it. I spoke with the Chaplain, who was in charge of the reading room, and asked him if I could get some secular literature for the room. I was willing to pay out of pocket for five to ten of these books for rent, and I let him know this.
He one-upped me, telling me that as long as they put in the request, the Army would pay for the book as long as it wasn’t overly offensive or antagonistic. No ‘Death to babykillers’ or ‘all infidels must die’ literature, so no ‘religious people are diseased’ literature in turn. A fair trade.
By the time the ribbon was cut, the order was out. When a visiting dignitary made his inspection, he held a piece of secular literature in his hands and commented on the diversity of reading available.
When I re-enlisted again, I made sure to be silent when ‘So help me God’ came up. It was a group re-enlistment, so unlike a friend of mine I didn’t have much of a choice. No fuss, no major speeches. It was good.
Before we left, the reserve unit held a barbecue for us. While the rest of the unit said grace, me and one other in my shop just kept silent and watched. After the grace, the young man who led them apologized for offending me, without a shred of sarcasm. I told him I wasn’t offended. It’s his faith, and it didn’t bother me any. I don’t know why he apologized; I wasn’t going to burst into flames or start speaking in tongues, so I think he did alright.
Ironically, one of the largest influences on my atheism has been from the Chaplain’s Corps. Aside from a notable exception or two, the Chaplains I’ve met in the military have all been great leaders who try to help out everyone, regardless of who they pray or don’t pray to. It’s a part of their duties, sure, but they do it admirably.
The fact I’ve found is that the Army’s strength comes from diversity, not just in religious aspects but in other aspects as well. It’s why I’m glad there’s a strong Chaplain’s Corps to support people. There’s been a large push for a humanist chaplain to help fill the gap for those who want to talk to someone but don’t want to feel a religious barrier, and with the way the Army is focusing on CSF it could very well be a reality.
And, as the Army goes, so does the culture. In America, the military is a massively powerful cultural force, and is often a subject of contention and change. The success of the ‘segregated’ units turning into fuel for the civil rights movement is one such example, but other examples are everywhere in our culture, from our music and art to our laws and ethics. I think that the rising place of atheism in the military is another such shift.
It’s about removing the old slogan of ‘no atheists in foxholes’ by showing people serving without submission to a higher power. It’s about showing people that they can trust us, that their misconceptions and misunderstandings about atheists are just that. It’s about growing outward as well as upward in society, away from the stigma of ‘godless’ to an equal place at the table beside the believers.
And it’s about time.
This We’ll Defend.