During an Army-wide stand down for suicide prevention sessions, a Christian chaplain in Texas improperly led rookie soldiers in a candlelight prayer, an Army instructor said in a formal complaint last week.
Staff Sgt. Victoria Gettman, a lab technician instructor at Fort Sam Houston, told The Huffington Post that she was among 800 soldiers from the 264th Medical Battalion undergoing resilience training on Sept. 26. Almost all of the soldiers were fresh out of boot camp and in training for their first job in the Army.
After a 45-minute talk on how to cope with stress, the officer in charge turned the stage over to a chaplain for the sometimes controversial "spiritual fitness" part of the session.
Gettman did not catch the chaplain's name, and he has not been otherwise publicly identified. But as an atheist, she wasn't interested in what he had to say so she stood up and moved to the back of the auditorium. The 17-year Army veteran knew -- unlike the young soldiers -- that this part of the program was optional. Still, she could hear most of what the clergyman said from just outside the room.
"The chaplain said we have to have something bigger than ourselves. We need, and he stresses need, to have something divine in our life," she recounted, adding that the soldiers were not informed they were allowed to step out.
Gettman said the chaplain ordered the lights turned off and battery-operated candles passed around as the soldiers were told to bow their heads. "The entire theater was forced into a mass Christian prayer," she said. "I heard him refer to his 'Heavenly Father' and 'Lord.'"
Among those "trapped" in the room, said Gettman, was a Buddhist student of hers. There were also at least two Jewish soldiers who voluntarily chose not to take off the day -- it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar -- in order to attend what they were told was a mission-critical session on suicide prevention.
"This is one of the most jaw-dropping and blatant violations I've seen in a very long time," said Army Sgt. Justin Griffith, military director of the private-sector group American Atheists. "In theory, the rule is you can make it religious or you can make it mandatory, but you can't make it both."
Gettman went to supervisors to complain. On Friday, she filed written complaints with the Army's Inspector General and the base's equal opportunity office, charging that the chaplain violated Army regulations and the U.S. Constitution by forcing trainees to sit through a sectarian prayer.
Maj. S. Justin Platt, an Army spokesman, said in a written statement provided to HuffPost:
"[The Army] provided candles as a symbol of unity among all the Soldiers of the command and metaphorically to indicate coming out of darkness when one feels helpless or hopeless.
"The Battalion Chaplain spoke to the companies gathered in the theater and he encouraged the young Soldiers to lean on a higher power in their journey through life.
"The chaplain's prayer had no reference to any specific deity, and ended with the words, 'through your holy name.' This is the same ending offered during each training course graduation ceremony, or other military-sponsored event.
"The Army is cognizant of our Soldiers' religious freedoms, and would never violate their free exercise of religion or choice not to profess a religious faith."
Despite the Army's explanation, advocates say the suicide prevention session-turned-prayer meeting -- the latest in a string of alleged ethics violations involving Christian proselytizing within the ranks -- didn't offend Gettman alone.
Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation -- whose board members included one of the former Navy SEALs killed in the attack on the Libyan consulate -- said that 38 service members at the base, including 11 who were in the room, have told him they are willing to sign a federal complaint against "this unconstitutional disaster." Among that group are 24 Christians (Protestants and Roman Catholics), two Jews and 12 agnostics or atheists, according to Weinstein.
The chaplain, Weinstein argues, violated the First Amendment's establishment clause and the related ban on religious tests. He contacted the Army to demand that the chaplain be disciplined and the Army make a written apology to the troops.
Griffith of American Atheists, who was first contacted by Gettman, said there is "no one-size-fits-all prayer" and using a suicide prevention session for "mandatory Christian privileged prayer is absurd."
"Atheists commit suicide, too. The solution should not be, 'Here's Jesus,'" Griffith said. "It should be universal."