Kathleen Johnson, Military Director, American Atheists, who is deployed right now in Iraq, sent this note talking about a disturbing incident that took place at Forward Operating Base in Iraq recently. Here is her report:
Thought you’d be interested in this report of the first-ever meeting of Atheist service-members in Iraq under the umbrella of the MAAF-Iraq chapter of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. This meeting was put together by the same young MAAF member who recently had his second letter published in the Stars and Stripes.
One of our members, a young Atheist enlisted soldier, thought he would like to see if he could generate some interest in MAAF meetings at his Forward Operating Base (FOB) here in Iraq (not the base I’m at, by the way). He got things coordinated and started hanging flyers, and after weeks of having to re-hang his flyers almost daily because some vandal kept tearing them down, he finally succeeded in having a small MAAF meeting. I wasn’t there because the meeting wasn’t on my FOB, but I knew he was holding it and was expecting to hear from him after the meeting. Keep in mind that this young soldier did everything right – he went through the Chaplain’s office and jumped through all the hoops it takes to legally hold meetings that are religiously or philosophically based. Four soldiers attended this meeting – all of them very junior enlisted soldiers with the exception of one Major (an O-4), who claimed to be a “freethinker”.
Well, to make a very long story a little shorter, the Major turned out to be a fundamentalist Christian who verbally berated the other attendees, accused them of plotting against Christians and disrespecting soldiers who have died protecting the Constitution, and threatened them with punishment under the UCMJ for their activities (said they were “going down”) and said he would do whatever it took to shut the meetings down. Keep in mind that by this point, he had two of the attendees (one soldier fled when the shouting started) standing at the position of attention so that he could yell at them, berate them, and humiliate them. This apparently went on for several minutes at which time the Major shut down the meeting by saying he wasn’t some “push-over Chaplain” and that he would not tolerate the meetings to continue.
The young MAAF member who hosted the meeting is absolutely freaked out about what happened, but he said he’s going to continue with the meetings and isn’t going to be bullied by the prayer warriors. I’ve advised him to immediately notify the Chaplain sponsor of what happened to get guidance while I try to figure out what to do next. I should hear something back from him tonight sometime and there’s even a small possibility I might be able to score a mission to his FOB and attend one of his meetings in the next few weeks (if I do, I’ll meet with the Chaplain in person).
As for immediate action, he’s going to get me the names of his Chaplain sponsor and the name of the officer who disrupted the meeting. My intent right now is to make a formal report to the most senior Chaplain I can find along with possibly an Equal Opportunity complaint against the officer if we can get him fully identified. I may not be eligible to make that complaint because I wasn’t there, but I can at least smooth the way for this young troop to make one if he elects to. At the very least, I can make the EO office formally aware of what happened there.
More info will follow when I get it, but right now, feel free to disseminate this information since I’ve intentionally sanitized it for names and locations. I will be happy to forward any words of support to him if they get mailed to my email@example.com address – he could really use some encouragement right now, I think.
This is just disgraceful that an officer would lie in order to shut down a meeting that was being held in full compliance of the rules. Don’t they have a country to bring democracy to rather than harassing soldiers?