Cadet Leaves West Point After Resiliency Programs Fail
(no military endorsement implied)
Blake Page was scheduled to graduate in the summer of 2013 after four years at West Point. Instead, he will return home to Minnesota and seek a new profession outside the military. Why? More than most cadets, he struggled with the military oversight, the academic pressure, and the long hours. Whereas many cadets have command programs for “resiliency” which is assistance with morale and stress, Blake was an atheist. The overt religiosity Blake experienced at West Point, the lack of accounting for nontheists in resiliency programs, and many instances of overt discrimination directly toward Blake and toward atheists in general, all proved too much in the end. The direct reason for Cadet Page’s departure was his inability to deal with the pressures of Academy life, but this underscores the need for equal treatment and support to nontheists. Improved culture and services for nontheists may have helped Blake continue to graduation.
The AP reports, “a determination this semester that he could not become an officer because of clinical depression.” Due to that, he faces no military commitment and will not have to repay his educational costs. His disaffection with an overly religious culture unsupportive of him and his beliefs have convinced him to resign rather than pushing through two more grading periods at the Academy.
As a result of many years at war and away from families, disturbing rates of Post-Traumatic Stress and even daily suicides continue throughout the Armed Services. One of the top focuses in the military is personal well-being to mitigate stress. This well-being and stress resistance is termed “resiliency”. Across the military, resiliency programs have focused on dimensions including social, family, mental, emotional, and the quasi-religious “spiritual” fitness. The military no longer relies exclusively on mental health professionals to step in after-the-fact when there are problems. Commanders are now required to take a proactive approach to assess and support overall well-being. The problem is that atheists like Blake have been left behind.
Christian cadets have many clubs to attend, chaplains to attend to their needs, and officers ready to pray with them and to support their beliefs. Jewish cadets have a large synagogue at the Academy, chaplains, and groups to congregate with as well. With 9 general Christian clubs, 2 Catholic, 2 Jewish, and 1 Mormon club, support is widespread for those fitting the “Judeo-Christian” belief system. While no ‘minority’ clubs are recognized, even smaller groups like Wiccans, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims have clear and formal support from Academy officials, chaplains, and training developers. The Spiritual Fitness resiliency programs lean toward prayer, gratitude to God, and other belief-based remedies. The availability of these belief-based programs helps many cadets get through the tough days as a cadet, but there nontheistic alternatives are often left out or marginalized.
Midshipman Kyle Cregge hosts a humanist meeting at the Naval Academy
Blake, his successors at West Point, and the nontheist cadet leaders at the Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, and Coast Guard Academy deserve congratulations for their willingness to support their fellow cadets and midshipmen. Also critical are those officers, civilian faculty, and local-area civilians who support events. Events like the one at above show how much interest there can be when nontheists are given the opportunity to meet, but such events are rare and almost unheard-of before this year.
Only since 2011 have there been nontheist alternatives to chaplains time during high-stress cadet basic training. Only since this semester has there been a nontheist group, the West Point Secular Student Alliance (SSA), with official recognition from the Academy. Nontheist alternative to chaplain’s time and official recognition for the group are great steps forward that must continue. Some limited funding and event approval has also been provided for the club. Larger events and trips are steps forward yet to be realized. And this is all in a command climate where prayer is ubiquitous, one cadet regimental crest includes a crusader cross, and from many reports, there continues to be direct discrimination against atheist cadets. And it is always possible to find cadets who haven’t been the target of discrimination, especially those not in leadership positions and those who haven’t needed support and been unable to find it.
It’s a wonder any atheist cadets make it through West Point considering the climate and challenges. Christian cadets would have similar problems if their support structures were removed. I graduated in 2000 without any resiliency programs, groups, or alternate chaplains time. The head chaplain at the time (who is still presiding) told me I couldn’t be a Freethinker Rep even though there were official Protestant and Catholic Representatives in my company. Many other cadets in the West Point SSA are staying on, as are cadets and midshipmen at the other military academies. As reported in military.com, Blake Page lost his father to suicide. Blake also struggles with depression. He faces more challenges than most and the culture in the end was too much.
West Point accounted for these challenges in the timely processing of Blake’s resignation and in releasing him without a requirement to reimburse the Academy for his education. The media is eager to report a big story – Cadet resigns to protest proselytism, will be charged $300,000. That narrative is enticing, but misses some important points. The deeper message of the story is that reform is necessary. There are many cadets and many academies and really all throughout the military that struggle with a climate of religiosity and lack of support for nontheistic beliefs. West Point’s provision of nontheist alternatives to chaplains time, their changing of the “Crusader” motto of company C-1, and the official recognition of the West Point Secular Student Alliance (SSA) are all moves in the right direction. Next steps should include equal support for trips and supplies for the SSA and an Academy (and Army) review of resiliency programs to better accommodate atheists like Blake. There must be continued progress in opening hearts and services to nontheists at all Academies and the military at-large. Failing that, we will continue to have a divided military where atheist leaders may not stay.
Edit 12/7: An earlier draft said that the Secular Student Alliance was not listed on the club website. The Academy posted the SSA at the request of MAAF just prior to the publishing of this article. One reference to the unlisted club was erroneously left in the report. That has since been corrected.