Justin Griffith has the story of another soldier who was forced to take part in mandatory prayers and abusively berated by a drill instructor for asserting her right not to take part in religious exercises she does not believe in. It’s an all-too familiar story:
Second – and this infuriates me to no end – was the compulsory participation in the prayer at the Eagle, Globe and Anchor ceremony (and also later at graduation, but by that time it was a moot point). A little background first: everyone in my platoon knows I’m an atheist, and I had a lot of really interesting conversations with my fellow recruits about it, all part of my goal to be open but not pushy about my atheism in the hope that I can positively influence people’s perception of atheists while remaining keeping my integrity intact. Anyway…
The second night of the Crucible, after staging all our gear in our hooch, getting a quick hygiene break, we stood on line to learn about and practice what we’d do during the ceremony. The first thing we were told was that we’d be standing at parade rest, and the Chaplain would come out and give an invocation. When he said, “Let us pray,” we all were to snap our heads down so our chins touched our chest. Our heavy hat gave the order, and everyone snapped their heads down — everyone except me. Our heavy screamed, “(NAME/RANK WITHHELD)! You aren’t special, bow your fucking head down, recruit, and pray with the rest of us!” I yelled back, “Ma’am, this recruit is an atheist, she doesn’t pray!” Dead silence. The other recruits looked at me in shock – we all knew I was in for it. Plus, I was one of the good recruits – I never had a bad attitude, I took my ITs like a champion, I was good about sounding off, freezing when told too… In short, talking back like that and challenging the DI at all, let alone in front of the whole platoon, was completely out of character. But I couldn’t just go along without trying to stand up for myself; I told myself I was on the Crucible, for crying out loud! The final test, the one that would make me a Marine – if I didn’t have the courage to say something now, would I ever?
Then the other shoe dropped, as you might imagine. Think “Full Metal Jacket.” The DI started screaming and ranting at me, saying that “Oh my fucking god, recruit, no one is trying to change your religion, this is part of a ceremony that’s been going on since 1775, no one else has ever had a problem with it,” and so on and so forth for what seemed like forever. At one point I started counting the logical fallacies she made just to make sure I didn’t make the mistake of trying to talk over her and explain that I didn’t think the Constitution allowed them to force me to physically conform to their prayer. Finally, she said that I could either bow my head and pray with everyone else, or she would make sure that I didn’t participate in the Eagle, Globe and Anchor ceremony, that I could watch the group on the sidelines while everyone else received their symbol that they were Marines and I could go to the PX and buy myself one on my own during Liberty Sunday.
Knowing that she was deadly serious, I did what seemed like the smart thing at the time, and shut up and bowed my head, at that practices and at the actual ceremony itself (although I refused to say the “So help me god” at the end of the oath administered at the end of the ceremony). There wasn’t an opportunity to talk with our Senior DI before the ceremony to either informally or formally complain and request to not bow my head.
The positive part of this was that the majority of my platoon came up to me over the course of the next day and said that they were really glad that I had stood up for myself like that, that I was really brave, and that they agreed that I shouldn’t have to bow my head, but it wasn’t worth the risk of not being a part of the ceremony. They told me to think of it as a drill movement, but understood when I said I couldn’t just pretend like that, and why it was like a Christian being forced to participate in a ceremony of a different religion.
It’s one thing to go to someone else’s event and sitting silently through a prayer – you chose to go to that event, you have to be nice and not disrupt someone else’s plans. But this was MY ceremony, I had earned it and was going to be damned (hah!) if I was not going to be a part of it.
But I’m sure JD will be along soon to tell us either that this never happened or that it’s perfectly okay that it happened.