Beliefnet News

By Kay Campbell
Religion News Service

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — In the midst of their fight to bring freedom to Iraq and Afghanistan, some American soldiers say they are finding their own freedoms threatened by the troops on their own side.
Though the U.S. Constitution mandates that the government apply no test of faith for employment (and presumably deployment), soldiers who are open about their non-belief can face harassment and ostracizing from fellow troops and their officers, some say.
“We didn’t let anyone know we were atheists,” said Steve Moore of Huntsville, who served two tours in Iraq as an Army staff sergeant.
Moore and his wife, Renee, also an Army veteran, were taking a break a couple of weeks ago from packing goody boxes for non-believing soldiers as part of Operation Foxhole Atheist, sponsored by the North Alabama Freethought Association.
“We didn’t want any stigma to thwart our career,” Moore said. “There is nothing more frightening than a radical fundamentalist with an assault rifle.”
Chaplain Maj. Rajmund Kopec, a veteran of Serbia and Iraq now stationed at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, has seen it all — both the violation of military principles that call for respect of each soldier’s conscience, and the heroic support of it.
As a Catholic, he’s been assured of his own eternal damnation by some Christians, he said in an interview. He’s not surprised some atheists would rather keep their beliefs to themselves, though he remembers long conversations and friendly debates with one atheist stationed in Iraq.
“The soldiers reflect our society,” Kopec said. “We don’t come from the moon. By being a reflection of society, we also reflect the faith attitudes. We will have the militant factions.
“Should that happen? Of course not,” Kopec said. “But it doesn’t matter what the differences are. Sooner or later, you’re going to get it from somebody.”
What most soldiers do not get, however, are threats of “fragging” — military slang for death by friendly fire — because of their beliefs.
That’s what Army Spc. Jeremy Hall, 22, said happened to him after he organized a meeting of atheists at his base in Iraq in August.
The threats came after Hall filed suit last month against the Department of Defense and Maj. Freddy Welborn. Hall said Welborn told a group of atheists that their unbelief was disgracing their country, and threatened to bar Hall’s re-enlistment.
Since the threats, the Army has assigned a bodyguard to Hall for protection from his colleagues in arms.
“We’re fighting the Christian Taliban, pure and simple,” said Hall’s attorney, Mikey Weinstein, speaking by phone from his office in Albuquerque, N.M.
Weinstein is an Air Force veteran and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. His 2006 book, “With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military,” will be issued in paperback this fall.
Since he began his campaign for religious freedom in the military, Weinstein said he has received regular death threats by phone and e-mail. Dead dogs have been dumped in his yard. The front window of his home in Albuquerque has been shot out twice.
Weinstein’s foundation has received reports of religious intimidation from more than 6,000 troops, including from liberal Christians being harassed for not being “Christian enough.”
In a 2005 New York Times story on the growing numbers of evangelical and charismatic Christian chaplains in the armed forces, Chaplain Brig.
Gen. Cecil Richardson said, “We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched.”
The distinction is impossible to square with constitutional prohibitions against government-established religion, Weinstein said.
“Imagine what the furor would have been if he had said `to atheize’ or to `Muslimize,”‘ Weinstein said.
Other soldiers say the problem of an intimidatingly Christian atmosphere is not widespread in the service.
“Aside from an occasional rude comment, I haven’t had any problems from other soldiers due to my lack of religion,” Spc. Dustin Chalker, a medic from Mobile currently stationed near Tikrit, Iraq, wrote in an e-mail.
“Most of the guys in my unit are pretty apathetic — we have more important things to worry about than invisible men,” Chalker wrote, referring to invisible deities.
But Master Sgt. Kathleen Johnson, 40, a career soldier from north Florida who enlisted in 1985, said many soldiers do worry about invisible things and pressure others to do the same.
“Being an atheist in the military can be isolating and lonely — this environment is very much about `God and country,’ and patriotism and religion are closely linked in the minds of many,” Johnson wrote in a recent e-mail from her current posting in Iraq. “The biggest issue we
(atheists) have with discrimination right now is trying to assert our individual rights to live a religion-free life in the face of fundamentalist Christian commanders who see it as their duty to bring others to their worldview.”
Johnson said she has been threatened with failing a mandatory course if she didn’t bow her head during prayer. One military chaplain bragged to her about how he had stalled some Wiccan soldiers when they asked for a place to gather until they finally just gave up.
As the military director for American Atheists, Johnson founded the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers to provide education to chaplains and soldiers about respecting and protecting the beliefs and unbeliefs of others.
Kopec said he considers it part of his calling as a priest to minister to soldiers on their own terms, whether they are Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, atheist or something else. He says he is always careful when praying at mandatory gatherings on behalf of a retiring commander or a fallen soldier. He prefaces his prayers with a statement of support for soldiers who prefer to pray silently in their own tradition or not at all while he prays in keeping with the beliefs of the soldier being honored.
Ideally, Kopec said, the military’s forced camaraderie of strangers, the compression of various groups together for a common cause, can create a better soldier and a better society.
If a soldier comes to him for counseling, he said, he asks about a soldier’s own beliefs — not to change them, but to find out what tools the soldier brings to the problem at hand.
“It’s kind of fascinating when you hear how people talk, how they come to certain solutions, how they live their lives,” Kopec said. “I’m not in the conversion business — that’s His (God’s) work. I can help, but I hope the way I live my life may be some inspiration for you in your life.”
(Kay Campbell writes for The Huntsville Times in Huntsville, Ala.)
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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