2008 Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award
by Julia Cicci
I am a staunch believer in the separation of church and state. Although I have always believed that a person’s religious views/beliefs are a personal affair, over the past year, I have felt a deep and moral obligation to begin voicing my opinions on the continual degradation of the constitutional rights of nonbelievers. When my commander presented me, on July 31, 2008, with the rare opportunity to write a secular invocation for the following day’s commissioning ceremony, without hesitation, I took on the challenge.
My story begins eight months ago when I contracted with the Army ROTC Program at the University of North Dakota. I had just completed roughly eight and half years with the U.S. Air Force and was excited to continue my dedication to my country and begin my new mission as a commissioned officer. Fortunately, I had contracted just in time to attend the annual Army ROTC Military Ball. There I had my first encounter with the Army’s tradition for invocation/benedictions at a public function. I remember being perplexed because I couldn’t recall at any time during my career in the Air Force ever hearing a Christian prayer at a public ceremony. Later on in the semester, it happened again at an award ceremony. Ultimately, I felt the Christian invocation/benediction was unnecessary and unjust because it excluded not only the people of other faiths but also people of nonfaith. If something cannot embrace and/or address all faiths and beliefs, or nonbeliefs, then it is best, even imperative, for the sake of our country’s diversity and basic liberties, that it remains separated.
At the end of the semester, my commander asked for an After Action Review and I mentioned my concerns. As a future lieutenant and leader in the U.S. Army, it will be my duty and responsibility to ensure the well-being and that the needs of all of my soldiers are met, regardless of faith. I could not understand how a Christian prayer could possibly apply to every soldier, and assist in uniting us under one nation, one flag. I knew the invocation needed to be either improved or eliminated. On July 31, as we began to set up for the commissioning ceremony, my commander said that the August 1 commissioning ceremony would be an ideal occasion to present my “secular invocation” to a small audience, an experiment, if you will. I thought, “Great, my time to shine!”
But I had no idea where to even begin. I felt my secular invocation needed to be, at the very least, patriotic and inspiring. In desperate need of some direction, I called the Freedom From Religion Foundation for some advice. Dan Barker graciously took some time out of his busy day to provide me with some insight on how to accomplish such a feat because, after all, this was an extremely important day for the graduating cadets and I did not want to disappoint. That night, I spent four or five hours writing my version of a U.S. Army secular invocation.
On the morning of August 1, after some revising, I finally received the approval of my commander. I was overjoyed! I delivered my invocation without a hitch. After the ceremony, I received quite a few compliments. I am very proud of my secular invocation and consider it a victory because it focused on the true meaning of the commissioning ceremony—the cadets —opposed to a higher being.
As a child, I was told I was Roman Catholic but I always questioned the bible. The stories seemed unrealistic and illogical. I didn’t like being treated like a “sinner.” Funny, I didn’t feel bad or evil, but that was exactly what I was told. I remember feeling like I was always having to repent for something. Repent? At age 12? I was rebelling and struggling like any other kid but I grew very tired of being sad and finally came to the conclusion that no god would ever put an innocent child through these circumstances or any other horrific experience that I so often hear on the news (e.g., rape, molestation, etc.).
I denounced religion in pursuit of science and reason at the age of 14 and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Instead of looking to the bible, I look within myself for the answer. Now, if I am ever feeling sad, I know I can always turn to myself for inner strength and the love of my family, friends and the companionship of my beautiful Siberian Husky, Alcatraz.
My life has been filled with so many lovely experiences and honorable accomplishments because I no longer have anything in my life attempting to punish me or make me feel inferior. I feel free and empowered. Over the years, Christians have associated my lack of belief with anarchy, devil-worshipping and evil, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Call me what you will (infidel, blasphemer, nonbeliever) but I am a good person. Just consider me a U.S. Army Soldier.
University of North Dakota Army ROTC Commissioning Ceremony Invocation, August 1, 2008
Commander, Cadre, staff, families, friends, believers and nonbelievers; we have come together to represent our diverse cultures and beliefs on this beautiful and prestigious day to honor the past, present and, now, future, leaders of the United States Army. For this invocation, I come to you, not as a chaplain or any other person of God, but, as a U.S. Army Soldier in hopes that we can take a moment for ourselves and reflect on the true meaning of today’s University of North Dakota Army ROTC’s commissioning ceremony.
Let us recognize the devotion and sacrifices that the cadets have made and will continue to make throughout what I hope will be long, prosperous and fulfilling careers as commissioned Army officers. Yet, I imagine these sacrifices could not have been accomplished without the love and support from all of you. Therefore, we wish to continue to invoke your strength, love and wisdom so that our future leaders will always know that they have the continual and undivided support of the United States of America behind them throughout their entire lives. So, I now ask, on this grand day, August 1, 2008, let us unite as one today in celebration, and recognize the exemplary and dignified achievements each cadet has earned.
May they invoke the power and courage to remain forever faithful to the U.S. Army values in which they will bear true allegiance to our nation’s most sacred document, the U.S. Constitution, as well as maintain the integrity and honor necessary to lead this great nation to victory.
We should also take a brief moment to remember the family members and friends that could not be here with us today and may we never forget the fallen soldiers who died for us so we didn’t have to; we are grateful and forever in debt.
It has been a true honor serving with these cadets. I thank you for your magnanimous service and abiding dedication to one of our nation’s finest military branches, the United States Army. On behalf of everyone here, let me wish all of you all the happiness and success in your future endeavors. Thank you for your time; please be seated.
Cadet Julia F. Cicci
UND Army ROTC
Foundation member Julia Cicci is the 2008 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award, a $1,000 cash scholarship generously endowed by a West Coast couple who are Foundation members.