Friday, September 21, 2007

Heroes

I found out about four heroes yesterday.

Three of them were wounded in Iraq. One was hit by an IED, and lost one leg below the knee. Another was hit by shrapnel, receiving damage to his arm and torso, with one piece penetrating his liver. The third was blown from his position in his HMMWV’s gun turret when a car bomb went off next to it. He flew 50 feet through the air and came down, impaled on a fence post. He was, fortunately, not hit in the ensuing firefight that delayed his treatment.

None of those horrific incidents make them heroes – at least, no more than any other volunteer Soldier who is over there right now, bearing the same risks. They merely had the bad luck to be one of those for whom the risks became reality. No, their heroic acts came later – which is how I met them. All three have declined medical discharge or retirement, and are currently performing duties at a major Army command near Washington D.C. Their willingness to stay in uniform to accomplish necessary duties here frees up three other Soldiers to perform necessary duties elsewhere.

The fourth hero’s acts have little to do with combat. SPC Jeremy Hall is a Soldier. He is also an atheist. While in Iraq last Thanksgiving, he declined to join hands and pray when others around him formed a prayer circle to say grace. Challenged by the ranking NCO, he explained his beliefs, and was ordered to find somewhere else to sit. Bravely, SPC Hall refused the illegal order and stayed put.

Last month, SPC Hall asked for permission from his chaplain to hold a meeting for fellow atheists and other free-thinkers. The chaplain, realizing his duties towards ALL Soldiers, including atheists, granted his request. However, his supervisor, MAJ Paul Welborne, intruded on the meeting, disrupted the discussion, and verbally attacked the attendees. In particular, he threatened SPC Hall with criminal charges and a bar to reenlistment, simply because SPC Hall had organized a meeting that offended the Major’s religious beliefs.

SPC Hall, with the assistance of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has filed suit against MAJ Welborne, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and the Department of Defense. He isn’t asking for money – instead, he’s only asking for an injunction on those parties to prevent them from interfering with other’s religious beliefs. Or lack thereof.

I don’t know if his suit has any chance of success. I do know that, no matter what the outcome, he is likely to receive retribution in any number of ways, from any number of people. There will be Soldiers angry at him for challenging the military structure, and causing damaging news stories. They will be Soldiers angry at him for challenging their fundamentalist religious beliefs, and their intent to evangelize. There will most certainly be Soldiers angry with him for BOTH reasons, and sooner or later, some of them will be his immediate supervisor, or his first sergeant, or his commander. If he chooses to stay in, he’s likely to have a rough career. If he chooses to get out, any potential civilian employer who Googles his name will find it – and may illegally choose not to hire him for his beliefs. In fact, the threat may be both more severe, and more immediate. In a response to my e-mail of support, SPC Hall told me he has already received threats of violence.

With all these reasons to swallow his anger and his principles, he has instead chosen to stand up for them. In this, he has been true to his oath to protect and defend the Constitution, and amply demonstrated three of the Army Values: Selfless Service, Integrity, and Personal Courage. He won’t get a medal for it…but he’s a hero, nonetheless.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Of course this fellow should have the right to do, in pursuit of his own beliefs, whatever the Christians are allowed to do in pursuit of theirs.

On the other hand, having a right, and exercising it, are two different things. I have the right of divorce, but no intention of exercising it.

I'm an atheist, but if I were involved in an important collective mission with a group of believers, I would put my non-belief behind my desire to accomplish the mission.