Military Religious Freedom at Work

It is not uncommon for people of a religious faith–Christian or not–to occasionally speak of the difficulty of celebrating their faith while in the military.  This is particularly true in intense training environments, as well as the obvious restricted areas of combat.  The military culture is sometimes hostile (even unintentionally) to the spirit of a religious faith, and the logistical environment sometimes restricts the ability to fully exercise one’s faith.

Despite the challenges encountered, it is important to highlight the fact that the US military has a responsive environment of both commanders and Chaplains to see to the religious needs of all of its servicemembers.  Though there are obvious logistical hurdles in some cases, there is no institutional support for or bias against any particular faith.  In fact, the opposite is true.

For example, the Aleph Institute, a DoD Chaplain endorsing organization and valuable support agency for Jews in the US military, recently said they had to come to the rescue of a Soldier seeking spiritual resources, and because of “red tape” a Jewish Soldier has “almost no chance” of getting spiritual resources like prayer books and kosher field rations.

History, however, demonstrates the opposite.  In fact, Jewish military members gathered and celebrated Seder in Baghdad (just a week after the regime was ousted), courtesy of the spiritual support resources of the US military.  Chaplains had prepared for the event for weeks, even including the required Pesach preparations alongside the weapons and ammunition readied for the invasion.

“Here we were ready to invade Iraq,” says [Chaplain] Rabbi Huerta. “Everyone’s checking their weapons, and I’m in the back of a moving truck making sure all my matzot are covered with three plastic bags so that they’ll survive [the mission].”

There were still challenges; the Chaplains scrounged to find acceptable kosher foods for the celebrations.  By 2007, the Army was issuing Seder “kits” containing the required resources, and these kits were transported by helicopter to the worship sites.

While it is possible the Jewish Seder kits are unique in the lengths to which the US military has gone to accommodate its Jewish troops, it is more likely Christian, Islamic, and other faiths’ resources have received similar support in their transportation to and within the AOR.

The military has gone out of its way to accommodate religious faiths, including providing 200,000 kosher meals and 1.32 million halal meals last year alone.  (There are an estimated 4,000-5,000 Jewish members of the US military.)  According to the company making the kosher meals:

“For the most part, there are kosher and halal meals in theater at all times…If someone tells you there aren’t, they’re wrong. They’re in Kuwait, they’re in the [United Arab Emirates], Iraq, Afghanistan. They’re everywhere.”

The Seder kits also contain prayer books and robes.  The military distribution agency has been planning since last November to support not only Jewish troops’ needs, but also plans to provides palm fronds for Christian military members to celebrate Palm Sunday.

Again, there may still be legitimate obstacles to finding or obtaining spiritual support resources, but it is a mischaracterization to say military “red tape” proactively inhibits members of the US military (of any religion) from obtaining the resources they desire for their faith.  It is also not a fair statement to accuse the US military of improper support of Judaism or Islam when it spends extra money, effort, and energy to prepare and deliver special meals for troops who hold those faiths.

The US military actively works to accommodate the spiritual needs of all of its troops.  Such support may include the construction of Chapels in the AOR, the presence of Christian Bible studies and Buddhist gatherings in military facilities, active support for atheist fellowships, and the financial and physical support of the special celebrations of the “holy days” of a wide variety of faiths.

For an organization of nearly 3 million total force members–which represents the cross-section of American (and even some foreign) societies–the US military does an admirable job of providing opportunities for its troops to exercise their faiths.  It is by no means perfect, and at times it opens itself up to legitimate criticism, but its foundational and intentional support of religious freedom most often make it an enviable model, even to those who may not share the American goal of supporting of human liberties.