FEATURED INBOX POST – MRFF Client SSgt Victoria Gettman on Forced Prayer “Vigils”

Dear Mikey,

I wanted to take some time to thank you and your organization.

I was raised Catholic. We were part time Catholics. We did Easter and Christmas and received all of our sacraments. It was during my confirmation classes that I began to question, WHY?? The religious leader was very frustrated with me and ultimately gave me Pascal’s wager to satisfy me. It did not. I stopped asking questions out loud and was confirmed.

Throughout my teens I tried New Testament Churches and Baptist Churches. The New Testament Church REQUIRED the members to listen to only Christian music. It was not for me; I moved on.

My family pressured me to get married Catholic. I would have been married Catholic if the priest would have agreed to marry us at the waterfall in Hawaii. He would not. He demanded it be in the church. I chose the waterfall.

When I had a child, I was pressured to have that child make their first communion. I signed them up and went to the classes. It was then that I was handed a Catholic Parent’s Guide. As I read it, I realized that I was not going to agree to teach my child to live by these beliefs. I did not agree with them. I moved on.

I identified with Agnosticism for about 5 years, reading the Bible, and all other religious material. I ultimately decided that if there was not evidence, I would not believe it. This leads me to my Atheism.

I am Atheist. I have made a choice to not believe in something that there is no evidence for. Atheism to me does not mean to hate people or religion. I dislike religion when it interferes with my life or the life of others.

I have been in the Army for 17 years. For 17 years I have sat through countless prayers, benedictions, invocations, etc. I have tried to enjoy my Thanksgivings in military settings but I have always had to stand to the side while they blessed the food. I have always stood quietly while they prayed. I have never confronted others, even when I came out as an Atheist. My military chain of command or military coworkers would expect that of me. They would expect that I just stand silently by while they pray at events. These events were not always mandatory and I wanted to be a good sport.

There were a few times in my career where I was forced to go to church. I was one of those in basic training that had the choice of go to church or clean the barracks. Of course I went to church. I was also afforded the opportunity to get on a bus and go to a shoppette during basic training. I was so happy at the thought of soda and candy that I jumped on that bus. When we got to the shoppette, we were told that we had to sit through a church service first. That church pushed so hard to “save” us. Everyone felt the pressure to be “saved”. I was one of the few that continually refused. One of my battle buddies said something about it being no big deal. Just do it so we can get to the shoppette.

I still did not do it.

I was so angry that I was forced to church while in the Army.

On Wednesday, 26 September 2012, I had to attend a mandatory suicide prevention training. I was in the theater with about 800 students. The suicide training ended after an hour. The master resiliency training began and during the training it was mentioned that a chaplain would follow.

I was irritated.

The training ended and the chaplain took the stage. I rolled my eyes and decided I was not going to sit through another prayer in my military career. I know prayer is not mandatory. I stood in the back of the theater to give the chaplain a chance to remain secular. Plastic, light up candles were handed out. The chaplain did not remain secular. He began with needing something bigger in our lives and NEEDING something divine in order to make it through adversity. I removed myself and walked towards the door. I could not leave the area because of accountability issues but I was NOT going to listen to another forced prayer. And as I thought that to myself, I remembered that I had a Buddhist student. I saw her at the training. I thought that she would likely choose to remove herself. Then I remembered that I had a Jewish student that had put in leave to be off that day for a special holiday. I wondered how many other Jewish students were in the theater being forced to listen to a prayer by a chaplain using the words “heavenly father” and “lord” on a special Jewish holiday. I realized that those students do not know that prayer is optional.

I became ANGRY.

I was so angry that I took pictures to prove that this event occurred. Standing in the lobby of the theater and listening to the prayer that sounded very Christian to me, I posted those pictures to SGT Griffith’s facebook with a rant.

SGT Griffith contacted me. We chatted. I told him I was going to go to EO and to IG. I just wanted to make sure that this was a clear violation. He completely agreed that it was and offered me the chance to remain anonymous in a complaint to American Atheists. I accepted the anonymity.

My husband was proud that I made those complaints but asked me if I truly believed in standing up against this. I said I did. He asked why I was hiding. I told him I was worried about my career, my promotion potential and any backlash. He asked me again if I believed in it. I again said that I did. He said that I needed to stand ALL of the way up.

I contacted SGT Griffith and told him that he could use my name. From there, he contacted you and your organization. He published my story on his blog and forwarded it to you.

I was terrified.

I felt like I was about to vomit every second of every minute of every day after I told him to use my name.

After speaking with you several times, I was assured that I was doing the right thing. You have been there every time I was in a panic about what might happen. I believe [in] you and I believe in your organization.

You know what happened?

My brigade commander told me that an investigation was opened.
My company commander counseled me on my rights and protection under the whistle blower act.

That is all.

I still feel a little queasy about the media having my story but I know it was right to fight for the rights of these students.

I swore to uphold and defend the constitution.

Staff Sergeant (U.S. Army) Victoria Gettman

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  1. SSG Kristina Andrea

    Thank you for standing up. I am a former Christian who is now studying Taoism. Whenever we have a forced prayer at some military event I try to let my mind wander to happy things like rivers and trees. I have become fairly successful at not hearing the spoken word, but the rhythm of my heart as it beats in sync with nature. I am unable to ever leave these events because I am in an MOS that puts me right in the middle of ceremonies, so I just suck it up and press on like a resilient soldier.

  2. Mike


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