Jan 3, VCS in the News: Army Illegally Promotes Religion to Combat Suicide Epidemic Among U.S. Soldiers

The Public Record

The U.S. Military is barred from enacting or supporting policies that advance, promote or endorse religion. But according to the amended Military Religious Freedom Foundation lawsuit that is exactly what the military has been doing.  Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a veterans advocacy group who said suicides among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has reached epidemic proportions, said his organization “strongly supports” MRFF’s lawsuit against the Department of Defense “because we believe in supporting religious freedom.  We call upon President-Elect Obama and Defense Secretary Gates to end the illegal practices cited in the lawsuit,” Sullivan said.  

January 3, 2008 – The U.S. Army’s suicide prevention manual advises military chaplains to promote “religiosity,” specifically Christianity, as a way to deter distraught soldiers from taking their own lives, according to an amended federal lawsuit filed last week against Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Department of Defense.

The 2008 Army Suicide Prevention Manual says “Chaplains… need to openly advocate behavioral health as a resource” to treat suicidal soldiers and instructs behavioral health providers “to openly advocate spirituality and religiosity as resiliency factors.”

“Spirituality looks outside of oneself for meaning and provides resiliency for failures in life experiences. Religiosity adds the dimension of a supportive community to help one deal with crises. Both embed themselves in a relationship with God, or a higher power, that provides an everlasting relationship. Bottom line, Soldiers should not base their reason for living in another human being!” says a slide included in the Army’s “Suicide Awareness for Soldiers 2008” PowerPoint presentation.

The inclusion of Christianity and spirituality a new addition to the Army’s 2008 suicide prevention manual.

According to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), the watchdog group that is a co-plaintiff in the federal lawsuit filed against Gates and the Defense Department, the PowerPoint presentation “is not only an unconstitutional promotion of Christianity for the soldiers who are mandated to attend it, but for the behavioral health providers and non-Christian chaplains who must present it.”

The lawsuit alleges a “pattern and practice of constitutionally impermissible promotions of religion by the military.”

Another PowerPoint slide says, “Soldiers need to take care of each other and rid any thoughts of survival of the fittest. Almost all religions adhere to some form of Christianity’s Golden Rule, or the Categorical Imperative of Immanuel Kant.”

This PowerPoint slide includes an image of a group of silhouetted soldiers with one soldier up in the clouds looking at a large cross. In 2007, during a similar presentation, the same image was used but it did not include the image of the cross.

Slides two through four state: “Connectivity to the Divine is fundamental to developing resiliency that allows one to deal with disappointments,” “Emphasize the importance of spiritual health, connectivity with a faith community, and a relationship with God,” and, for a slide that follows a DVD of former football star Terry Bradshaw talking about his battle with depression, “Terry is very open about his faith in God and his relationship with his church. Spirituality is an invaluable ingredient in his battle with this disease.”

In one of the presentation’s last slides, the presenter is instructed to have the audience adopt a word rooted in Christian scripture as a “motto or mantra.” The talking point for that slide is: “Emphasize the phrase ‘that you persevere, that you stay alive.’ This is derived from the Greek word ‘Hupomeno’ which is used in Christian scriptures, particularly in the Pauline epistles. It is also used by James, the bishop of Jerusalem, as Jerusalem was in devastation and about to be destroyed. He wanted all Christians, despite the persecutions and violent times, to not lose hope, to keep on enduring. Encourage the audience to repeat this word and use it as a motto or mantra when in difficult times.”

Last year, in a stunning admission, top officials at the Veterans Health Administration confirmed that the agency’s own statistics show that an average of 126 veterans per week — 6,552 veterans per year — commit suicide, according to an internal email distributed to several VA officials.

Brig. Gen. Michael J. Kussman, the undersecretary for health at the VA, sent the e-mail, dated Dec. 15, 2007. Kussman had inquired about the accuracy of a news report published that month claiming the suicide rate among veterans was 18 per day.

“McClatchy [Newspapers] alleges that 18 veterans kill themselves everyday and this is confirmed by the VA’s own statistics,” Kussman wrote. “Is that true? Sounds awful but if one is considering 24 million veterans.”

In an e-mail response to Kussman, Ira Katz, the head of mental health at the VA, confirmed the statistics and added “VA’s own data demonstrate 4-5 suicides per day among those who receive care from us.”

Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a veterans advocacy group who said suicides among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has reached epidemic proportions, said his organization “strongly supports” MRFF’s lawsuit against the Department of Defense “because we believe in supporting religious freedom.”
“We call upon President-Elect Obama and Defense Secretary Gates to end the illegal practices cited in the lawsuit,” Sullivan said.

But that’s proving to be difficult.

Mikey Weinstein, the founder and president of MRFF, said Obama’s transition team is “unapproachable.”

“Let me make this damn, crystal clear to the currently unapproachable and disinterested Obama transition team, the equally supine United States Congress, all Americans and the rest of the world: MRFF’s just amended, landmark Federal lawsuit is NOT trying to say, ‘Houston we have a problem.’ It’s NOT a ‘problem’. It’s NOT an ‘issue’. It’s NOT a ‘concern’. What MRFF’s lawsuit IS primal screaming to the aforementioned parties IS a blaring siren of immediate disaster wrought by nothing short of a wretched, out-of-control, national security threat. 

“Why? Because the military command and control of our nation’s nuclear, biological, chemical, conventional and laser-guided weapons has been unconstitutionally compromised by a tsunami of unbridled fundamentalist Christian exceptionalism, triumphalism and proselytizing. All of the forgoing is massively exacerbated by the fact that we’re currently engaged in two wars with the Islamic fundamentalist mirror versions of these very same American forces of religious supremacy infamy.”

Spokespeople for Obama’s transition team did not return numerous phone calls or e-mails for comment.

MRFF’s complaint was originally filed last September and accused the Army of subjecting soldiers to fundamentalist Christian prayer ceremonies against their will during mandatory military events. Army Spc. Dustin Chalker is the other co-plaintiff in the amended lawsuit.

On at least three occasions beginning in December 2007, Chalker claimed he was directed to attend military events, one of which was a barbecue, where an Army battalion chaplain led a Christian prayer ceremony for military personnel. Chalker, who said he is an atheist, asked his superiors for permission to leave the prayer sessions and on each occasion his request to be excused was denied, according to the lawsuit.

Despite Chalker’s objections to being subjected to fundamentalist Christian prayer sessions, his Army superiors continuously forced him to attend other military events where the prayer ceremonies continued.

“Plaintiff Chalker is an atheist and as such does not voluntarily participate in religious services, ceremonies or rituals that are conducted either on and around Fort Riley other military installations to which he is assigned. Plaintiff Chalker has sought relief from mandatory attendance at the subject functions/formations through his chain of command and the equal opportunity process. Neither has yielded satisfactory results.”

“The requirement for plaintiff Dustin Chalker to attend military functions and formations where sectarian Christian prayers are delivered is evidence of a pattern and practice of constitutionally impermissible promotions of religious beliefs within the Department of Defense and the United States Army,” the lawsuit says. Chalker is stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas.

Previously, the Defense Department tried to have a similar lawsuit MRFF filed dismissed, claiming that the soldier who alleged he was being forced to embrace fundamentalist Christianity failed to resolve his complaints through the proper military channels.

The amended lawsuit, however, shows that Chalker and others in the military have taken the appropriate steps to file complaints but their concerns were not addressed.

Weinstein, said his group has learned of additional cases since the lawsuit was filed last September and decided to amend its complaint in order to demonstrate “the noxiously unconstitutional pattern and practice of fundamentalist Christian oppression in our U.S. armed forces.”

“The list of amended items is at once quite literally shameful and astonishing,” Weinstein said. “It includes military-sanctioned missionary proselytizing of Iraqi and Afghan citizens, an official [United States Air Force] sponsored evangelical motocross team ministry, the prominent featuring of a Christian/white supremacist in the USAF’s flagship quarterly professional magazine and the unbridled Christian supremacy espoused in a U.S. Army suicide prevention program, to name just a few. Our amended complaint is specifically designed to further stab at the throbbing unconstitutional heart of darkness that comprises the systemic fundamentalist Christianity so pervasive and pernicious in today’s American armed forces.”

The U.S. Military is barred from enacting or supporting policies that advance, promote or endorse religion. But according to Weinstein’s amended lawsuit that is exactly what the military has been doing.

For example, the U.S. Air Force was an official sponsor of the Evangelical Christian Motocross Ministry known as “Team Faith,” who says their mission is “to infiltrate professional racing circuits and other Action Sports events all over the US and Canada” and “lead extreme sports athletes to Christ and disciple them so that they will in-turn, lead others involved in or interested in the sport to Christ.”

“Team Faith’s” uniforms contained a logo that was a combination of the U.S. Air Force and Team Faith logos, and the U.S. Air Force logos was also visible on team members motorcycles and on ramps.

In 2006, the Air Force adopted new religion guidelines, in the aftermath of a proselytizing scandal at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, that said the Air Force will “remain officially neutral regarding religious beliefs, neither officially endorsing nor disapproving any faith belief or absence of belief.” Those guidelines specifically state that prayer cannot “usually be a part of routine official business.”

Recently, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin-based watchdog group, wrote to Gates on behalf of a noncommissioned officer who contacted the organization late last year claiming two Army chaplains and one Air Force chaplain led mandatory Christian prayer sessions and Bible study as part of daily shift change briefings in the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC), Iraq. The 3rd ESC works 12-hour shifts, meaning mandatory Christian worship and ritual, occurred at least twice a day.

The non-commissioned officer, who identified himself as an atheist, objected to the denominational prayers. He was told by one of the chaplains, Lt. Col. Chaplain Harrison, that he could be “excused” from the Christian prayer sessions and the chaplain advised the non-commissioned officer that his goal was to turn soldiers into “his congregation.”

The chaplain’s remark led the non-commissioned officer to e-mail to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who then sent a four-page legal brief to Gates and demanded an investigation.

Prayer sessions in the military “must have a secular purpose; the primary effect of the prayer must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and finally, the prayer must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion,” according to a 2003 U.S 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that struck down meal-time prayer at the Virginia Military Institute as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.  

Gates never responded to the group’s Nov. 5, 2007, letter, but the noncommissioned officer informed the organization that the mandatory prayer sessions were replaced with “This day in history” and “a moment of reflective silence.”

MRFF’s lawsuit also includes examples of the Pentagon’s involvement in the production of two cable programs, one of which featured two so-called “extreme” missionaries embedded with a U.S. Army unit in Afghanistan trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

The popular reality series, “Travel the Road,” aired on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, featuring Will Decker and Tim Scott, the two so-called “extreme” missionaries who travel the globe to “preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth and encourage the church to be active in the Great Commission.”

The other cable program in which the Pentagon appears to have played a role in producing was “God’s Soldier.” The show aired in September on the Military Channel and was filmed at Forward Operating Base McHenry in Hawijah, Iraq. It featured an Army chaplain openly promoting fundamentalist Christianity to active-duty U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

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