Atheist Philip Paulson, Present, Sir!

I have seen people pray during a firefight, putting their buddies’ lives at risk by wasting precious time with their superstitious gibberish and psychobabble.

Philip Paulson, as both a vet and the indefatigable plaintiff in a 17-year-old state-church lawsuit in San Diego, was honored as the Foundation’s first “Atheist in Foxhole” awardee at its 29th annual convention in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 2006. Phil had won a complicated lawsuit seeking to remove a huge cross from public land in San Diego, but Congress recently intervened to thwart removal, by declaring the cross a federal memorial.

The lawsuit is proceeding, with the addition of Foundation Board member Steve Trunk as a plaintiff. Steve introduced Phil, who was given two inscribed medals from FFRF, one to wear around his neck.

Phil died of liver cancer on Oct. 25.

By Philip Paulson

According to the public opinion polls, we have been told that about 17% of the American people are just like us. Millions of Americans are atheists. We have strength in our numbers. Moreover, there are atheist veterans in this room right now.

How many of you here in attendance at this FFRF convention are veterans?

Would you please stand up? Please, stand up!

Give these brave atheist veterans a warm round of applause!

And I salute you, atheist veterans! It’s great to see you here today. Thank you for your service to our country.

Today, atheist veterans are present and accounted for. Annie Laurie Gaylor, let me proudly announce my presence:

Atheist Philip Paulson, present, ma’am! [Salute]


Wearing his “Atheist in Foxhole” medal
Photo by Brent Nicastro

Today, I will talk about my war stories and how they have affected this atheist. Most importantly, I fully intend to debunk those six insulting words, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

World War II journalist Ernie Pyle is the one attributed to the statement “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Those six words were constantly repeated by Readers Digest, and those six words were spoken in the 1942 World War II movie, “Wake Island.” Atheist veterans have been vilified because of those six words–“there are no atheists in foxholes.” Their reputations as patriotic Americans have been defamed and the faith communities in America did nothing to stop those false and outrageous lies.

Let me set the record straight about foxholes. Foxholes are dug only big enough for one soldier to fit into. The Army stopped digging foxholes after WWII and the Korean War. Instead, Nam vets built bunkers. Bunkers are fortified positions, usually six feet long by three feet wide. Bunkers provide more room to move around. Also, bunkers are safer because one could place sandbags with big thick logs overhead to provide better protection from rocket fire, artillery or mortar rounds.

On a typical day in Nam, we would walk through the jungles, rice paddies, and valleys or climb up mountains to our destination point. When we finally settled in, we would circle as a company-sized group of about 190 soldiers into a parameter and immediately dig in and build our bunkers.

To say that there are no atheists in foxholes or in bunkers isn’t an argument against atheism. Oh no! It’s an argument against foxholes and bunkers. If foxholes and bunkers could talk, they would tell you that this atheist was in a bunker in Vietnam. Atheists who lived and died during previous wars were atheists in foxholes!

I vividly remember many battles in Vietnam. The Battle of Dak To was one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. It took place between November 3 and November 22, 1967. I was there. I carried some of my buddies in my own arms to hospital helicopters, some were seriously wounded, others dead. I saw the bodies of cold, dead enemy soldiers scattered over the mountainsides. It did not matter whether the dead bodies believed in God or not. They were dead.

And you know, I have seen people pray during a firefight. Those who prayed put their buddies’ lives at risk by wasting precious time with their superstitious gibberish and psychobabble.

For example, I was on guard during an overnight outpost with a buddy of mine. I was looking out in the dark jungle and saw ground flairs lighting up the night’s sky in front of me. And there they were! “Charlie,” or the Viet Cong were sneaking up to my bunker.

My buddy was sleeping. So I slapped him alongside the head to wake him up and told him, “Get up! Get up! Charlie is out there!”

Suddenly, small arms fire was ricocheting off the bunker along with lit-up tracer bullets. It scared me.

I got my head down away from the small arms fire. I then grabbed the detonators of the ground mines set out there in front of our bunker, pulled the trigger, and those Claymore mines exploded. Many Viet Cong guerillas fell to the ground. Then the others retreated.

While all of this was going on, my buddy got down in the hole and prayed. And what’s worse, he prayed aloud.

I said, “What are you doing?”

He said, “I’m praying.”

I said, “Get your big ass up and start shooting.”

He said, “Please! Give me more time to say my prayers.”

He was concerned about going to heaven before he died. Can you imagine that? I have not figured out yet what’s worse–getting shot at or listening to someone pray while getting shot at. And I don’t believe in the bye-and-bye-in-the-sky-when-you-die.

When I joined the US Army Paratroopers, I was just your average, boring kind of a kid from Northwestern Wisconsin. The Army was training me to become a soldier. I was told that I would get battle-ready after six months of training.

First I was sent off to Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., for basic training, otherwise known as “Boot Camp.”

Next, it was off to Ft. Gordon, near Augusta, Ga., for advanced infantry training.

Finally, I became a paratrooper at Ft. Benning, Ga., where I did my five-jump requirement out of an airplane to become what was referred to as a “five-jump commando.”

This training prepared me for war. I wanted to go to Europe. But I was told that “you are going flat-ass to Vietnam.”

When I arrived in Vietnam, I joined an infantry brigade, and we called ourselves the “Sky Soldiers.” I was assigned to 1st Squad, 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, and 503d Infantry of the 173 Airborne Brigade. Let me break this down for you in terms of soldiers. My 1st Squad had 10 soldiers. My 1st Platoon had about 44 soldiers. Company C had about 190 soldiers. The 1st Battalion had about 1,000 soldiers. And the 173d Airborne Brigade had about 5,000 solders.

Although I didn’t jump out of a plane in combat, the soldiers from the 2nd and 4th Battalions made combat jumps near the Cambodian border in Tay Ninh province. I was there on the ground with the 1st Battalion to see the spectacular sight of about 2,000 parachutes open up above me onto an open clearing and landing zone..

I was a rifleman and served much more than my share of time as a “Point Man.” A Point Man was the soldier who led his company with a machete in hand, cutting a trail through the jungle. Each stroke of the machete could be heard by the enemy in front of us. I was the guy often at risk of being picked off first by enemy fire. But I am alive to tell you that I survived in the jungles of Vietnam. And I hasten to add, it was not a miracle that I survived. I’m skeptical of such claims about miracles. Miracles are based on superstition.

Moreover, I am an atheist and do not have the fear of going to heaven or hell. It never entered my mind.

In Nam, and I’m sure throughout our armed forces, religion was carried to the troops by the chaplains and it’s virtually always endorsed by the officers and noncommissioned officers. To do their duties, the chaplains had access to our military service records. Almost everybody had some sort of religion. I had “none” in my record and on my dog tags.

Early on, I was approached by a chaplain, an officer whose name I don’t remember, not that it’s important. Throughout my two-year stint I was badgered by several Christian chaplains for not being religious enough.

I recall a chaplain asking me, “Paulson, why do you have your religious preference listed as ‘none’ on your name tags around your neck?”

I said, “It’s a personal matter, sir.”

The chaplain persisted, “We would really like to see you at worship services next Sunday. I’m sure when you feel the Lord comes to visit you and your buddies, you’ll understand the inspiration we get from our faith.”

I answered, “No thank you, sir, but I really don’t want to.”

The chaplain got in my face, looked me in the eye and said, “I really insist on you doing so.”

I thought that I could simply skip worship services without anybody noticing. But that week my platoon sergeant, whom we referred to as Old Leather Lungs, passed the word: “Every swinging dick is going to church, and that’s it, and I don’t want to hear one more word about it.”

I whispered to him, “Do I really have to go?”

“Paulson, I am going to have to kick the hell out of you until you get right with God,” my platoon sergeant shouted.

Anybody who doubts that a platoon sergeant had the full support of officers in the battalion level doesn’t understand how the chain of command works in the U.S. Army, indeed in all of our armed forces. The concept of freedom of religion doesn’t extend to freedom from religion for those who fight our country’s wars.

So on that day in Vietnam, I was forced to go to church and listen to an unpleasant sermon about paratroopers by a bible-thumping preacher paid by the U.S. taxpayers.

Well . . . the Protestant army chaplain preached his sermon that day. The sermon was about an atheist paratrooper who was making his first jump out of an airplane and was scared out of his wits. So the chaplain preached a fire-and-brimstone sermon that morning in the jungle. I suspect the sermon was intended to scare people into believing in Jesus. Oh yes, I remember his sermon about a paratrooper. The sermon actually amused me: it went something like this:

“If anything goes wrong when jumping out of an airplane,” preached the chaplain, “just say ‘Help me, God! Oh help me, God,’ and you will be saved.”

He preached on, “So the paratrooper jumped but, frozen with fear, forgot to pull his rip cord. ‘Help me, God! Oh help mem God,’ he called, and a hand came out and saved him.”

The chaplain paused. “The atheist paratrooper then said, ‘I am an atheist! And immediately the hand of God dropped him.”

Everyone at church service laughed, except me.

I piped up and said, “Thank God, I am an atheist!”

One thing I did learn about being a paratrooper is that if by chance my parachute did not open, then I could pull my rip cord and a reserve parachute would save my life. But at that moment I came out of the closet and let everyone know that I was an atheist. Actually, it felt good to come out of the closet.

Let me be clear here about being honored as an “Atheist Veteran in a Foxhole.”

I am not expecting you to feel my pain or that I am a victim. Oh, no.

I did not get sent to Vietnam by my government because I was gung ho. Oh, no.

Years later I found out that the Bay of Tonkin Resolution was a sham. The United States was involved in an unwise, unnecessary, unprovoked and unjustified war in Vietnam.

Isn’t it strange that the same can be said about the unprovoked and unjustified war in Iraq today?

I am amused to watch flag-waving Americans drive past Army recruiters with “God Bless America” and “Support Our Troops” bumperstickers on the back of their RVs, pulling into a Wal-Mart parking lot. But they would be the last ones to sign up, join the Army and go to Iraq.

No! I am not that kind of a veteran. But I am a godless American and an atheist veteran.

Do I come across like a patriotic American? Let me be clear here. Patriotism is not about nationalism or having some separate identity from the rest of humankind. Patriotism is not about chauvinism or an excessively prejudiced loyalty to America. Patriotism is not about jingoism or hostile, belligerent nationalism. . . . It’s not about war profits or big-daddy warbucks and political corruption. Patriotism is really not about flag-draped coffins. It is not about xenophobia or a fear-driven attitude toward strangers or people that look and think differently from us.

Instead, patriotism is about an attitude of “my country, right or wrong” without the remainder of this saying: “if right, to keep it that way; if wrong, to make it right.” Without the addition, you get the immoral life-stance that, “I support my country no matter how brutal its rape, torture and murder practices in the world may be.”

Yet, some veterans, like the members of the American Legion, get all worked up and then wrap themselves up in the Cross of Jesus and the American Flag. They would have us believe that they are “super-patriots.” And some of those radical “super-patriots” are same ones who divide us with the trite phrase, “For God and country.”

As for this atheist veteran, I volunteered to go to Vietnam to get my military obligation out of the way. I volunteered to go there because I was sent there by my government. I volunteered to join the Army because I was a grown-up and needed a paycheck.

And most importantly, after arriving in Vietnam and being placed on the front lines of battle, I recognized that I was there to try to save my life and defend the lives of my army buddies–who were also there for the same damned reason. And as a young man away from home, I really wanted to go home to the loving arms of my family and friends.

Except I left out one significant fact. I learned that I was there as a hated “godless atheist” in a foxhole fighting what I was told to believe to be the enemy, the “godless communists.” So I had to keep my atheist attitudes about supernaturalism and superstition to myself in fear of reprisals by the noncoms and officers.

That was then. Atheist veterans were suspected to be “godless communist sympathizers” (that’s right, “godless communists”) during the Korean and Vietnam wars. So now, I can argue that atheist veterans can be called “motherhood and apple pie atheists.” Iraq is a religious war. And we atheists warned you about getting into religious wars. We are no longer fighting the “godless communists.”

When I got back from Vietnam, I walked into an American Legion Hall and saw a huge banner across the wall that read, “For God and Country.”

The American Legion Hall had two metaphorical water fountains. One water fountain was for the “God-fearing” American Legion members inside and the other water fountain was for the atheist veterans outside and who were told to stay out.

When I walked into the American Legion Hall in Northern Wisconsin, I saw a few old World War II and Korean War vets sitting on bar stools, getting senselessly drunk on beer.

I said to one drunken vet, “I just came back from Vietnam and I am out of the Army now.”

The drunken vets sitting on the bar stool said, “Give this guy an application so he can join up!”

Well, I looked over the application and it read “For God and Country,” and I read then that it had a strict condition for membership. You had to show your military discharge papers. And, you had to believe in God.

I said to the drunken vet, “Well now, I don’t believe in God. Will the American Legion take me?”

The drunken vet looked at me and said, “What did you say? You must be joking! Did I hear you right that you don’t believe in God? And you know what? There are no atheists in foxholes. Bartender, give this guy a beer. I think he needs one.”

I said, “No thank you. I don’t drink and I don’t believe in God. But I will have a 7-Up.”

The drunken vet said, “I don’t believe that you are a vet. All vets believe in God. Every vet I know believes in God. Hey, you guys, do you know any vets that don’t believe in God?”

Everybody there spoke up in their drunken stupors, answering “no!”

The drunken vet said, “Hey, just don’t tell anybody that you are an atheist, and I will try to sneak you into the meeting. Nobody needs to know.”

I said, “You just told everybody that I don’t believe in God.”

He said, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. All you have to do is say out loud the words ‘Under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance at the meeting and that would be enough to prove you believe in God.”

I said, “I don’t think so.”

The discussion at the bar was about “godless atheists.” The conversation got so bad that I left the American Legion Hall and never went back. And the American Legion is getting worse with their holier-than-thou talk against their fellow veterans who just so happen to be atheists.

Why is it that they would have us believe their false and outrageous claim, that if you are an “atheist” you must be a “godless communist?” The American Legion members would have us believe that I cannot be a “godless American” and oppose totalitarian communism. They are delusional and they are wrong. In my opinion, communist party line is not much different than rigid religious dogmatic articles of faith that the American Legion members espouse.

At this year’s American Legion convention, a speaker got up and made the false claim that a Christian cross in a San Diego public park did not show preference to the Christian religion and the cross on Mt. Soledad should stay up.

It puzzles me that the U.S. taxpayer supports the American Legion when it represents veterans fighting for benefit claims before the U.S. Veterans Affairs Administration. I oftentimes wonder whether they will be willing to represent atheist veterans.

It just seems in the American Legion it is more important for them to push their God bit on atheist veterans rather than focusing on fighting for veterans’ benefits. Isn’t it apparent that the American Legion is intent on destroying democracy by making this country a theocracy?

It is difficult to not talk about politics when the subject of war comes up. So here goes.

During the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City, President George W. Bush gave a talk with a rousing applause by saying, “For almost 90 years, Legionnaires have stood proudly ‘for God and country.’ “

Excuse me, President Bush, do you know the difference between Vietnam and Iraq? The difference between Vietnam and Iraq is that Bush found a way to get out of Vietnam. President Bush, don’t give me this holier-than-thou crap at the American Legion convention. You have not earned the right to speak up on behalf of America’s veterans.

After 90 years of being flat wrong, it is now time–way past time–to remove the motto “For God and Country” from the American Legion.

I have a message for the American Legion veterans, whose motto is “For God and Country” and who continue to vilify atheist veterans:

We atheist veterans have earned and deserve your respect! The American Legion is just flat wrong to suggest that there were no atheists in foxholes, and if they want our respect, then take down that motto in your legion halls, “For God and Country.” The motto is a lie because not all veterans believe in God. Get the drift?

I have to wrap this up. The 100-year old comedian George Burns once said, “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, then having the two as close together as possible.”

You have been a great audience. So, for my appreciation, I’m not going to end this off with “God bless you.” Oh, no!

Thank you for honoring me as your “Foxhole Atheist.”

Philip Paulson was a Vietnam-era US military veteran, who served as a combat paratrooper, light-weapons infantryman and point man. He was an active member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Association chapter, San Diego. Paulson v. City of San Diego is his 17-year federal challenge of the constitutionality of a 43-foot “Mt. Soledad Easter Cross,” Mount Soledad Public Park, San Diego. A federal judge ruled in Paulson’s favor on Dec. 3, 1991, and a California Superior Court judge also ruled in his favor on July 13, 2005. The City of San Diego and Congress have put up legal roadblocks in the remedy phase. Paulson had a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin, and Masters degrees in Management of Information Systems and Public Administration. He taught undergraduate and graduate students computer information technology and electronic business courses in San Diego.

Freedom From Religion Foundation