“There are no atheists in fox-holes,” it is a phrase I have heard throughout my basic training, my AIT (advanced individual training), and from the handful of chaplains I have been required to talk to. During my basic training I had to fill out a survey that went to the chaplains’ office. Most of the questions on this survey had to do with our mental and physical well-being, as suicide rates in the military are higher than the rest of the nation. I answered every question truthfully, I am use to being away from family, and I never had an issue, or thoughts of suicide while at basic. The last question on the survey asked for your religious affiliation, we were told that the reason for this question was to get numbers for setting up religious services. I knew that there was a stigma to being an atheist in the Army so my first instinct was to mark LDS for this question, but my Army values training – that we had spent the morning drilling – took over. I thought to myself “a soldier has Integrity, not only to his unit and his command, but to himself.” If I marked LDS on the survey I would be lying to the chaplain, and not being true to myself. I marked atheist on the survey. In my mind the issue was settled, over the next few weeks I embraced my atheism and “came out”, while some of the other soldiers were supportive, or at least indifferent, most came back with the “there are no atheist in fox-holes” line.
About two weeks after filling out this survey, my Drill Sergeant came into the bay and called for me. I responded with the “Drill Sergeant moving Drill Sergeant!” that is programmed into you from day one, and ran to my Drill Sergeants Office trying to imagine what I had done to warrant this. Going to the Drill Sergeant’s office was normally a sign of pain and suffering to come. After knocking on his door and identifying myself I was told to enter. In the office there was my Drill Sergeant and the Chaplain. My Drill Sergeant quickly told me that the Chaplain wanted to speak to me, and then stepped out of the office. Now I don’t remember the conversation word for word – I was running on 4 hours of sleep a night for the past 4 weeks and was in one of the most stressful situations someone could be in- but it went something like this.
Chaplain: “I understand from your survey that you’re an Atheist.”
Me: “Yes sir.” (The Chaplain, being a Major, got the title sir.)
Chaplain: “Well Private, I’m worried about you. Without a strong religious faith to support you through basic, I fear for your safety.”
After this I was starting to see what was going on. This Chaplain believed that me not being religious made it more likely that I would commit suicide. I will admit, it made me angry that I would be singled out for my beliefs, or lack of beliefs, in a nation that was based on secularism and freedom of religion (in this case lack of religion). It felt like a betrayal of what I had sworn to fight and protect. I had sworn to protect the constitution of the United States of America, and this Chaplain was spitting in the face of the most important document of this country. With my anger boiling I bit my tongue and replied.
Me: “You don’t need to worry about me Sir. You may need to worry about the Catholic kid in the bunk next to me. He cries for his mom every night.”
As a lowly just-in-the-service private, a major was a scary person to talk to. I “remember” saying this next part, but I find it hard that I would, so whether or not I actually did say the following is unknown to me. Nevertheless these were, and still are, my feelings and I would like to say that I did in fact present them to the Chaplain.
Me: “As an atheist, I only have one life to live. If I die thats it! There is no resurrection, no halls of Valhalla, no seventy virgins, no reincarnation. when I die I die, why would I want to commit suicide? It makes no sense.”
After our conversation the Chaplain asked if I would like a blessing, which I declined. I have been to multiple Chaplains since then – it’s required for different things like deployments etc.- and while none have been as upfront as the first with their dislike in my lack of faith, they have all shown alarm and concern over it.
So how does this tie into the phrase “there are no atheist in fox-holes”? I’ve been to war. Now I may not have had people shooting directly at me but; I had mortar and rocket attacks almost daily; I drove one of the most deadly routes in Iraq (route Irish) 4 times a day as a gunner; I drove the 300+ miles from Baghdad Iraq to Ali-al-salem Kuwait. I had tense moments, moments when I was scared, but never once did I thank “God”, or ask for protection from a “higher power”, unless you consider my chain of command a “higher power”. To me “God” was the men and women who operated the CRAM (counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar), the soldiers who manned the towers and checkpoints, the route clearance teams whose sole job was to blow up IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) by driving over them before I did, the inventors and scientists who developed my body armor, and the engineers who created the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle that I drove down the road. These were the people keeping me alive, these were the people who deserve my thanks, not some “God”.
Too many people thank God when something good happens,when a medical treatment works, when a car’s airbags deploy to save their life, or even just when the airplane they were in lands safely. But the real thanks should go to the men and women who developed the technology, who went to school to learn about their fields, who sacrificed their time and energy to make us safe. Too often people forget about thanking these people. The idea of thanking “God” for what these people do never crosses my mind.
I was an Atheist in a fox-hole. I don’t owe thanks to “God” for my survival, I owe thanks to the men and women who came before me, and who developed the technology that kept me safe, and most importantly to the Soldiers who risked their life beside mine everyday. These were my “Gods” my “higher power”, the achievements of the human mind and the strength of my brother and sisters in arms.