I Freakin’ Get It – Why It’s Important That I Support Military Atheists
Recently, I was at an event hosted by one of the many Atheist groups in the D.C. area, with several of the movers and shakers in the atheist/humanist community here. I chatted for a bit with a few of these folk, in between the other things going on at the event, about the work I’ve been doing for MAAF, how our determined organization is growing, how beneficial it’s been to the community we serve and so on. Then, just like every other work related event I attend, the inevitable question or comment pops up that outs me.
You see, I’m not an atheist.
I’m sure you’re currently asking yourself how the person MAAF hired to organize the nontheist military community into successful, thriving MAAF affiliates, who works to bring together virtual strangers in places all over the world because of common values, could be a person who isn’t firmly on the atheist side of the lawn. It came up in my interview (I volunteered the information, it wasn’t asked for) and we discussed my values, rather than my beliefs. Suffice to say, I was eloquent and passionate enough to get the job. At these events and functions, I’m invariably asked by someone else in attendance about my beliefs, because all people, whether they like to admit it or not, want to relate to other people through common values – and religion, or lack thereof, is always one of the top five things that bring people together. Or, tears them apart, as history likes to remind us.
I can understand why I’m an oddity. Most people who get deeply involved in movements like these believe very strongly in the cause, because they’re part of the demographic served by the cause. And I do, just for different reasons. Atheists want to help other atheists who may not be able to help themselves, just like any other cause and the people who organize them. It’s important to them, and it is important work -other wise it wouldn’t be done. I can see the moment it happens, in the eyes of many of the people I speak to, when they mentally disengage from our conversation, after learning I’m not an atheist. It happens a lot more often than you’d think. I used to feel the need to validate myself when it happened, to prove that I have what it takes to defend the rights of others as an ally. Then I realized how common it was to overhear things like, “Oh, you’re agnostic? Well, that’s okay,” or statements like, “at least you’re a skeptic,” and so on. I sometimes wonder if anyone notices that I never ask the beliefs question, or make statements that generalize or trivialize the values others hold. I wonder how often people notice that they themselves make them. It is interesting to me that a community of people who tout science, evidence, and fact are still as human as the rest and many make those same assumptions. I’ve guilty of it too. But I’m done validating, and now I’m asking you to stop making assumptions.
It feels like that it is often assumed that unless you are an atheist, you couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to be persecuted, discriminated against, or hated for being who you are.
That’s an assumption I can emphatically prove to be incorrect.
It’s important work, protecting, defending and promoting the rights of others. I believe that so strongly that I donated five years of my life to the United States Marine Corps. I have a perspective that no one else could have because it’s mine; because I have experienced that persecution, discrimination, and hatred -just from a different angle. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and previous military code of conduct and laws before it, subjected thousands of military servicemembers to hateful, shameful treatment. Lives were ruined, people shunned and abused, careers ended wrongfully; all because someone lived differently than another. I lived it. If you can call that living.
It’s terrifying, to have no control over your life, once that contract is signed, knowing that at any moment, someone could discover your not so little secret. That someone with a heart full of hate could make or break your career, that a religious person who had been indoctrinated since birth to hate you, could be your superior. The superior who holds your career and life in their hands, because in the service, it’s essentially the same thing. That people you thought were friends could turn on someone like you at the drop of a dime because you live differently than what they find acceptable. Being afraid for your personal safety, because going to places where you could meet others like you could result in verbal abuse, physical abuse, assault, and perhaps death. Staying instead in your barracks room, deeply depressed and angry at yourself for not living true to who you are, isolated and alone because it was safer. Knowing that discovery of anything that could remotely tie you to ‘deviant’ behavior meant the end of your life as a military member, and that not every commander who signed your separation documents would assign the same level of honor to your discharge. I watched my best friend lose everything because our battalion commander was a homophobic asshat, who turned my friend’s honorable discharge to an ‘Other than Honorable,’ which cost him all his benefits, despite an exemplary record of service, despite no actual PROOF, merely a propensity to commit homosexual acts. I watched, and was forced to be a ‘witness,’ in his proceedings, extremely reluctant to participate in that witch hunt, terrified they’d find out my secret.
I lived as a fearful shadow of my true self for so long, in a miasma of guilt, pain, and loneliness for so long that it literally took years to open up again once my contract completed. I wanted to stay in the service, but I recognized the severe blow to my mental health and knew that it would destroy me to stay. Even to this day, I have a hard time admitting this to be the real reason I left the service when I talk to people; I’m leaving out a lot here, as it’s still too personal.
Rosalind with the joint service choir.
Military experience does vary person to person, and command to command. While much of my service is colored by DADT, I did make many wonderful friends, with whom I’m still relatively close to today. I started singing in a Joint Service Military Choir, and volunteered as a Big Sister for Big Brothers Big Sisters. I lost several friends over time to major differences in religious beliefs and personal lifestyle choices. I had many amazing experiences once I made the choice to get out of that barracks and into the community outside of the military. The people your surround yourself with make or break your experience; sadly the bad often outweighed the good for me, and I needed to leave the service behind. I often find myself missing it, despite the bad. Ten years later, and I often wonder if it would have been worth it to suffer until the repeal of DADT.
The day the repeal of DADT was signed, I cried, and teared up again anytime someone mentioned it for weeks afterward. It was a bittersweet moment, knowing that future servicemembers would NEVER have to face the kind of emotional and physical torment those who came before had. Like I had. Like some servicemembers still do, but for different reasons. Like religion. No one should be forced to be someone that they are not, or forced to kowtow to things they do not believe in. So I get it. I understand why it is important to speak up, to be heard, and fight for equality and fair treatment.
I made a choice to give my life over to the service of others when I joined the military, and that desire to make a difference has not faded with time. That’s the question that should have been asked, not what do you believe, but “why is this work important to you?” I NEVER want you to experience anything remotely close to what I have, we all deserve better than that. Our diversity is what makes us unique and interesting; no one should have to stifle that because others may not approve. I don’t care about what you look like, who you sleep with, if you have religion or not, etc. I simply hope that you do good for the sake of simply doing good. While my values may be different, I will fight for your right to have your own with everything I have, because it is the right thing to do. Protecting and defending the Constitution shouldn’t end with military service, it should give you a basis for the Code of Conduct you live by for the rest of your life, religious or not.
My experiences have shown me the value of having a community of like minded people around me. It reduces the isolation, and makes it easier to cope in stressful situations far from home. I was on my own, thousands of miles from my parents and sister. When I finally found a solid group of friends to lean on, it made my life much, much more bearable. I was happier, healthier, and found it easier to remember who I wanted to be. That is why our MAAF Affiliates around the globe are vital to the well being of our servicemembers who participate, and why we need strong volunteers to keep them going. You never know who might be depending on it for a lifeline. I want you to reach out to MAAF, to know that you are not alone, that there are like minded people out there, and we’ll do our very best to get you the support, the resources, and the community connections you need.
So next time you see me, remember that I freakin’ get it.
The people who join this movement who are your allies all get it, at least on some level. Hopefully you’ll recognize an ally, because that’s how I see all of you. Allies in the community, who are trying to make things better for those who will come after, those who are here now and need a voice, and who need someone able and willing to stand up and demand the equality that all people deserve. While not everyone has a story like mine, they have their reasons and their values, and they are just as important as your own. Please don’t minimize that contribution, because it is extremely valuable, whether you realize it or not. Take a moment to consider what you say to people you meet, ask more inclusive questions, make more inclusive remarks, and try not to be surprised when you find that every advocate for your rights isn’t necessarily an atheist. Ask the right questions; ones that move the cause forward and encourage participation and diversity, rather than grudgingly deigning to acknowledge the differences.
10/16/2014 Written by Rosalind Eaton, MAAF Outreach & Operations Coordinator