Atheist in Foxhole Award

Jeremy Hall – 2008

Second Recipient of the Atheist In Foxhole Award

Jeremy was born in Richlands, N.C. He was baptized Baptist. He entered the Army in April 2004. He plans to go to college when he separates from the Army this spring.

Jeremy Hall is the second recipient of the Foundation’s Atheist in Foxhole Award–an award suggested by Foundation Lifetime Member and Board Member Steve Trunk, himself a Vietnam War veteran who is now the plaintiff in a major state/church battle.

Jeremy is a young Foundation member who first contacted the Foundation office about a year and a half ago–calling from his base in Iraq and wondering if the Foundation could spare some of its literature, because he wanted to form a freethought meeting on his base and he wanted something that he and his other atheist in foxhole buddies could enjoy. He went through the proper channels but his first freethought meeting was disrupted and he was threatened with reprisal, and those threats have only grown as Jeremy, with the help of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has sued the military for discrimination against freethinkers.

Threats of fragging, forced the military to inaugurate around the clock security on his Iraq base, and then to send him to Ft. Riley, Kansas, shortly after the lawsuit began a year ago last fall.

Steve Trunk presented Jeremy with a plaque and a medal on behalf of the membership of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Steve Trunk, in presenting the award: “A couple of years ago, I was working with a good friend of mine, Phil Paulson, a Vietnam veteran, two tours, and he sued for the removal of a cross off a mountain in San Diego, a case which now probably most of you are familiar with. Phil died a couple years ago, and I took over. This case has been going on for 20 years. And I thought that it would be important for the Foundation to begin to recognize atheists in foxholes, because we’ve all heard there aren’t any.

“But there’s a lot of us out here who are proving that not only are there atheists in foxholes, there are atheists on ships, there are atheists in fighter jets, and there are atheists driving tanks. Now, when you join the military, you sign an oath, you swear an oath, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. It’s not to defend the CIC, Exxon Mobile, or Wall Street, it’s the Constitution. And some of us took that seriously. Jeremy Hall is one of those guys, and I am very, very proud, very honored, and very humbled to be able to present to him the second Atheist In Foxhole Award. So like the commercial says, there’s strong, and then there’s Army Strong.”

Jeremy Hall’s acceptance speech was delivered on Oct. 10 at the 31st annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

By Jeremy Hall

Good evening, everybody. This is a lot of atheists in one spot! I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many. It is quite comforting to see. I’m honored to be here tonight. First, I want to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation for being the first to reach out to me, and I also want to thank the Military Religious Freedom Foundation for supporting me and making things happen.

I’ve been in Iraq twice. The first time, I went over as a religious person, and when you’re on that side of the fence, you really don’t see the magnitude of how much religion plays a part in the military today. I came back from my first tour quite changed: you don’t appreciate freedoms until you see other people without them. I came back, and I had a deconversion of sorts. It took about five or six months. It wasn’t easy. You don’t just give away something you’ve believed your whole life to be true. I guess logic won out.

After that, it was really no big deal. I didn’t parade it around or anything. The first time it ever became an issue was Thanksgiving 2006. I was with a bunch of soldiers, and there were noncommissioned officers at that table. I had been invited to this table and had accepted their invite, sat down with them, had my tray in front of me, a little Mountain Dew, turkey and trimmings–all freeze-dried, I’m sure. Then one of the soldiers offered a prayer. Well, coming from a religious family, I knew the etiquette. I waited until they were done. That was my intention.

When I didn’t hold hands to the left and right of me, I was asked “Why?” by the senior noncommissioned officer sitting with us. I replied, “I’m an atheist, Sergeant.” He wanted to know what that was. I elaborated and said, “Well, it means, in a nutshell, I don’t believe in God, and it means I don’t pray.”

This really offended him. He said, and I quote, “Well, you can just sit somewhere else, then.”

I still stumble on that, because I have never experienced discrimination. I’m a white guy from the South–come on! So, I really did not know how to handle it. Actually, it was a Mormon soldier that took up for me. And I respect her for that, because she herself had gotten lots of flak for her non-mainstream religion in the military.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation represents almost 10,000 service members, and 96% of those are actually Christians themselves. We get a lot of hate talk or trash talk about how we’re anti-Christian. I want to say we’re pro-Constitution, because it not only protects atheists and nonbelievers, it also protects Christians, Jews, Muslims. And the Constitution allows us all to be here today, to freely assemble without being harassed, and that is beautiful.

You go to somewhere like Iraq, which is my only experience outside the United States, and you see people who, I remember on election day, were holding their thumbs up because they got to vote. You see somebody without that freedom, and then they have it. I don’t think I’ve seen so many smiles on such sad faces. It’s quite a revealing experience.

I’m going to extrapolate on my experiences as far as this lawsuit. I think this group here today will be the first I tell that my lawsuit was dismissed–the reason being we have to keep my personal interests in mind. The threats, the harassment, have taken quite a toll on me, but I will still be representing the Military Religious Freedom Foundation as an enlisted liaison for the soldiers who contact them.

I plan to separate from the military and go to college and further myself, and hopefully continue activism. I plan to do that for the rest of my life. And with my leaving the military, I will lack standing in federal court.

But I do have good news! Dustin Chalker is a friend of mine whom I met in Iraq; he came to my second atheist meeting there. After the first one, I really didn’t have any meetings for a few weeks. I’ll get to that in a minute. But Dustin has filed a lawsuit, just this past week, I believe, and it’s not only including what I’ve encountered and what I’ve uncovered, but also it’s more baseline as far as prayers to Jesus. Dustin encountered prayers in the military naming a specific religion being endorsed by the machinery of the state, which is totally and wholly unconstitutional, and I will die fighting that. Chalker’s lawsuit is going to go further than mine ever would.

We are going to continue to find violations. I can walk around base–give me two hours and I’ll find something unconstitutional. You’ll probably see it on the news that night.

I’m going to go into the incident with Major Freddy Welborne, and what happened to me over there. I had my atheist meeting. I had it all set up. The actual group was headed by Kathleen Johnson. She’s the founder of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. So I had started a group at COB SPeicher. I had permission from the Chaplaincy, and the Garrison commander. Okay, I’m good, right?

No. No, not good. Major Freddy Welborne saw one of my flyers on a bus stop. So he comes by. At first, I’m pretty excited to see a field-grade officer at my meeting. I think this is pretty cool. I’m like, wow, neat. Okay, I’m not alone. There’s someone up in rank, too. So I felt comfortable.

Well, that didn’t last long. The first words out of his mouth, more or less, were: “In the dictionary, atheist is defined as ‘someone who does not believe in God, but also has no morals.’” Now, I don’t know what dictionary he’s talking about, but I called BS on him, which in turn tee’ed him off. But I was respectful, you know, “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” position of attention, parade rest, all that.

Well, some soldiers went out to go smoke, and they came back, and we had to move out of the area we were in originally because the karaoke was starting. So we moved to the library, and Welborne starts going off about how we’re wrong. And okay, I can have a difference of opinion, I can have a debate. But when you use your military rank to hold me at the position of attention, and to “at ease” my mouth, and you’re telling me that Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 134, to be specific, can be used against me because I’m having a meeting of atheists and freethinkers, that I am disgracing all those who fought and died for the Constitution by holding a meeting such as this?

There’s things called MWRs, Morale Welfare Recreation centers, and I thought his analogy was pretty funny. I still laugh about it. He says, “You’re disrupting the morale! MORALS!” He was citing the semblance of the title of the building we were in. I’m like, “What? They don’t even rhyme.”

But anyway, that was one of his reasons to berate me. We had a Buddhist civilian contractor actually get up and leave due to the fact of Welborne’s tirade, talking about “Your CEO is President Bush, and he doesn’t”–or his dad, I forget who it was–”doesn’t believe that Wiccans should be considered a religion, so why do you think you should be here?”

He goes on about that, and I’m shocked. I still am. I can’t believe that, in a free country, that can happen. That’s why I started my group. I wanted to fight discrimination, and show support for others who believed as I did, because everywhere you went on base, you see a bible class given by an enlisted soldier.

So I thought, “Why can’t I?” I’d go to check my flyers, and they’d be ripped down 90% of the time. I’d get off a mission or work, and I’d go out and I’d staple more up. I had the chaplain let me use his printer. I had permission. But I see things like “faggot,” “Jesus loves you,” “You’re going to Hell,” “You’re going to burn forever,” written on my flyers. I just wonder, would they say that to my face? I think they would. Lots of love there.

I went to Qatar, and my lawsuit broke out on the news. Well, my face is in the photograph. They saw me. “Hey, are you that guy?” I’d say, “I’m that guy.” Okay, what’s coming next, you know? So these, I believe, six to eight soldiers, were following me around, calling me an “atheist ass-pirate” and a “faggot.” I don’t know what it is about homosexuality and atheism. I believe maybe they’re both genetic? I don’t know.

The soldiers were following me around accosting me. The one part that really disturbed me was the fact that I was sitting in this Internet cafe, with 30-plus soldiers and civilians around, and they’re saying this stuff to me, threatening to beat my ass, all this stuff–excuse my language–and nobody said a thing. Like, oh, that’s supposed to happen.

That’s not supposed to happen. Not in a free country. Not in a free military. Granted, we have limitations, but I still have a First Amendment right. I still have a right to safety. There’s policies in place which prohibit these practices of religious unconstitutionality. It’s not like we’re making this up. The Constitution’s being violated by senior-ranking officers, in the Pentagon, on video, all the time. I take pictures at Fort Riley of stuff. It happens all the time, and they get away with it. Why? Because no one can stop them? People are afraid to speak out? They’re just people.

I just got an e-mail on my Blackberry about a Jewish soldier in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., who was beaten to the point where he had to be sent to the hospital. The soldier that hurt him does not face criminal charges. He’s facing nonjudicial punishment. The drill sergeants, who are your life in basic training, trust me–anybody who’s in the military knows what I’m talking about–called him “Juden,” which is a German word for Jew. They made him take off his yarmulke when he was in the dining hall. What if a drill sergeant came up and told a soldier, “Take off your cross”? No, that would never happen.

You hear all this talk on the news and media about national security. I think a military that rapes soldiers’ First Amendment rights and religious freedom, to put in practice their own brand of religion, is the biggest national security threat. Look at the Taliban, look what happened in that country.

Before I forget, I want to make a disclaimer: anything I say is not in behalf of the US Government, and I’m speaking as my private self. I have time for questions, if anybody has any.

Question: Can you finish the story about the Thanksgiving table?

Jeremy Hall: I ended up sitting there, but I didn’t very much enjoy my meal. Q: As somebody who has sworn an oath to defend the Constitution, what is your opinion on the president stripping away our Constitutional rights?

JH:As a soldier, I cannot comment on the CEO, but as Jeremy Hall, I think anybody, president or not, should leave the Constitution sacred, and should do everything they can to ensure its safety, and that it is carried out forever.

Q:Have you ever seen soldiers actively proselytize Iraqis to convert them to Christianity or any other religion?

JH:I have not personally seen it, but I have heard talk that “if these people would just be Christian”–this was my team leader, by the way–”this would all go very well.”

Q:An associate of mine was in the army, and he made the mistake of irritating a superior officer, and found himself with a general discharge as opposed to honorable. Are you faced with the same issue?

JH:No.

Q:There’s been a lot of people who say that when they go into the military, and they’re an atheist, they cannot have on their dog tags. Have you had any experience with that? Do you have a religion listed on your dog tags?

JH:They misspell it a lot. It depends on the person. The way it works in the military, there are soldiers who work in personnel actions. These soldiers make up the dog tags. It depends on the soldier doing your dog tags. I believe, but don’t quote me on this, the worst ones are where you enter the military, which are replacement companies, where everybody goes and they get their uniform issued and all that. Those are, I believe, the ones who give people flak about getting “atheist” on their dog tags. But I personally have never had a problem. I just have a problem getting them to spell “atheist” right.

Q:I made my own dog tags, which is why they said atheist on them.

JH:Nice. There are surplus stores that are near bases that you can actually do that, I believe.

Q:Why did you become a freethinker?

JH:The reason I changed from being religious to nonreligious, or more specifically atheist, was because I read the bible. It was easy. Talking snakes–what? I think my favorite story is how the Tower of Babel got so tall–God didn’t like it, so he made everybody speak different languages. Tell me their architectural technology at the time? Because last time I checked, you go into space and there are stars and no air. Q:Could you elaborate on the little bit of good news coming out of the MRFF, that they actually got a Christian organization’s support?

JH:Yes. It was in California. A Christian organization has actually endorsed the MRFF. Over 90% of our clients are Christians. I don’t have the exact tallies and totals, but you can go to militaryreligiousfreedom.org, and you’ll find it, and you can see all the weekly updates, and all the advances we’ve made. I believe the biggest advance we’ve made is public awareness.

Nobody even thought about atheists in foxholes until just recently. It’s kind of a new thing. We’ve been around for a while. You’ve got countless soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, that have all perished for this country, who held no belief at all. I believe that’s a brave thing to do. That is selfless. That is selfless service at its highest. Religious or not, you give your life for something greater than yourself–in this case, the Constitution.

Q:I’m just curious if your parents are still believers, and how have they supported you?

JH:Yes and no. My parents are still believers, and they do not believe in what I’m doing, but I still love them to death and they still love me. I believe love like that transcends all boundaries, such as religion or ethnicity.

Q:You said that 90% of the membership of MRFF is Christian. Is there discrimination against people in the military who are Christian, but aren’t the right kind of Christian?

JH:That’s exactly what it is. They are not Christian enough, or they don’t have the right ideas. And as you know, there are several brands of Christianity out there, and everyone is right. Everybody’s right. But you can go on MRFF’s website and find that out, sir.

Q:What kinds of harassment have you had since this all began, since coming back to Kansas?

JH:Well, after the Qatar incident, I had a bodyguard, and then they sent me home because they couldn’t protect me over there. I came back to Kansas, and I’ve had people I don’t even know come up to me–and I’m off-duty at a bar–and they say, “Hey, are you Jeremy Hall?” “Yeah, what’s up, man?” He goes, “Tell me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you.” I’m like, “What?”

So immediately after that one, I believe that was in February, I got my concealed carry permit. I’ve had numerous e-mails saying people like me should be exterminated, people like us should be exterminated. We see how that goes in history. It’s a scar that won’t heal. I recently had a death threat from a noncommissioned officer, a sergeant in my battalion, saying how my mother’s throat will be slit, he’ll blow off my knees, kill me, rape my mom, all kinds of vulgar things, on my voicemail. I’ve been recently moved to another unit, which I’m much happier in. It’s a lot better. I think they’re finally realizing that the press coverage they get when they screw with us is not too good. If anybody can do anything, it’s raise awareness. That’s what I’ve done, and it’s helped a lot, because people see us now. We’re not just an A-word. We are 14% and climbing. Let’s keep it up.

Q:What’s in it for them, to want to insist people believe the way they do? Does it makes the soldier more eager to do things, thinking he or she is going to Heaven?

JH:Well, if you look through history, religion has always been a motivator to kill in some form. There is killing for that, and there is killing for the Constitution. I believe for the Constitution, it’s necessary. As far as a motivator, there’s been several videos and books made by generals in the military–you can find it on YouTube, I’m sure–that have endorsements saying “The Spiritual Guide for the Soldier,” which actually refers to “the supposed wall between Church and State.” “Wow, that’s one hell of a thing to say.”

That’s all I have tonight, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a pleasure being here, and I’m glad to see all of you tonight. Thank you.

Army Spc. Jeremy Hall, 25, a Foundation member, is now stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, after two tours of duty in Iraq. He was threatened with fragging (murder via friendly fire) after becoming a plaintiff in federal lawsuit last year charging religious discrimination by the Pentagon.

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