Atheists in Foxholes: Why I Didn't Earn My "God and Country" Medal

My deconversion began in a most fortuitous way. While in the Boy Scouts, at about 12 years old, I really wanted the nifty-looking "God and Country" medal. As part of the procedure, I had to meet with a local minister to have the prerequisites signed off. The minister suggested I read the bible. I did. Somehow the warm and fuzzy stories we were taught in Sunday School dissolved into the nightmarish tales of rape, killing, pillaging, lying, deceit, genocide, animal cruelty and some just plain nonsense. By 13, I was an atheist and an avid bible reader. Through my teen years I would often debate religion.
I was 18 my entire senior year in high school and had been issued my friendly draft card. While watching the protests (and even joining a few in Seattle) over the war in Vietnam, I wasn't too worried since the lottery was in place and I was still in school. Then my luck began to change.
I graduated and within a week I got a new draft card--1-A; and, to make things really interesting, the new lottery drawing gave me a nice low number. Not exactly being college material at the time, or having the wherewithal to run to Canada, or finding the Army option very appealing, I did the logical thing: joined the Navy. Better education programs, better travel opportunities, and less possibility of ending up in Vietnam was my justification.
During the first few days of boot camp, we were organized from a ragtag bunch of civilians to a crack group of moronic sycophants. Like some folks, I did ask for "atheist" on my dog tags, but was designated "NP"--no preference. As part of our recruit organization, the Company Commander selected various people to fill some positions, such as recruit leader, co-leader, yeoman, company idiot, and that sort of thing. He then came to the volunteer position of Company Recruit Chaplain. My eyebrows raised as did my hand and since nobody else's did, I suppose he had to pick me and unceremoniously did so. My duties were to assist the "real" Chaplain for Sunday services and say a prayer every night before taps. No more sweeping, cleaning cigarette butts, running here, doing this, doing that. All I had to do was keep my personal religious non-preference to myself.
But when it came to the prayers, what an opportunity! Every night I would stand on the center board table and read a passage from the bible and say a prayer. I read the passages that contained the pillaging, murders, incest, etc., and then made up some sort of silly prayer (author's note: aren't they all?).
After one particular and somewhat dubious prayer, this big (and not too smart) southern boy came up to me and drawled, "Haay Hill, just what the f--- kinda prayer was that anyway?"
Boot camp became a breeze. When the twelve weeks came to an end, the school/fleet assignments came up. Looking down this list I found my name and the ominous words, "Fleet, deck force, USS Tacoma PG 92. Current Station: Da Nang." It would seem that one part of my plan had gone just a little askew. I joined the Navy to see the world. I didn't really think that would include being part of the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.
The Tacoma was a 165-foot coastal patrol boat with five officers and 20 crew who would lend "lethal fire power and logistical support" to nearby shore troops, protect larger ships operating on the coast and in the Tonkin Gulf, as well as engaging in special operations with a bunch of homicidal lunatics called seals or green berets. A .22 shell would penetrate our aluminum hull, but we could hit 40 knots if necessary. We also did river patrols from the mouth of the Da Nang to Vung Tu and Saigon and just happened to be at Cam Ranh Bay when the tet offensive in '72 was touched off. (See a picture at: http://www.gunboatriders.com/theboats/92_tacoma/pg92.html.) We certainly didn't see the kind of action of in-country troops, but had our share of enemy encounters, shelling and close calls. I spent over a year and a half in Vietnam before I won reassignment to the East Coast.


John Hill today
With respect to religion, I found that those who had deep religious convictions supported the war and were more gung-ho than those who (quietly) did not. Believers were also more prone to a "God's Will" mentality when it came to living or dying. I cannot remember how many times I told some Christian that it was fine with me if he wanted to die, but he wasn't going to take me with him and he'd better damn well do his job and not just hope some silly prayer would help. When self-preservation kicks in there is no room for God, Jesus, or some sort of mythical eternity. Those who took that time to acknowledge the deity in a combat situation usually ended up dead.
I knew many more atheists in the service than most people would like to think or admit are there. Sure, there is the nod and wink during some chaplain's speech or the skipper trying to placate everybody with some god-talk. The Captain once told us before an important squadron event, "If you're a believer, you put your head down and pray when the Chaplain prays; if you're not a believer, you'd better be checking your shoeshine."
There are plenty of atheists in foxholes and on decks and in the air and it just makes me cringe when I hear or read someone ludicrously assert the opposite.
After I left Vietnam, I was accepted to Submarine School in Groton, Conn. I made one patrol on a nuclear missile-carrying sub and then was discovered to have contracted tuberculosis in the Far East. I was placed in both naval and veterans hospitals for over a year and finally returned to society. I entered college, eventually studying philosophy and religion, which still hold the fascination they once did. I failed to get my "God and Country" medal, but received something far more valuable in return . . . freedom of thought, conscience, and reason, and all because a minister asked me to read the bible.

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  • byline: J.E. Hill

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