"When one proudly dons a U.S. Military uniform, there is only one religious symbol: the American flag. There is only one religious scripture: the American Constitution. Finally, there is only one religious faith: American patriotism."
MRFF Founder and President, Michael L. "Mikey" Weinstein
Singularly Poignant & Powerful Message from Former USAF Academy Rabbi Joel Schwartzman to MRFF detractor “WE DEDICATE OURSELVES”
Dear Military Religious Freedom Organization, As a 25 year Marine and OIF veteran, I dedicated my career to providing the best air support for ALL of my fellow Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen. Several times during my career, I was humbled to visit battlefields such as Wake Island and Iwo Jima multiple times, to Ramadi, Fallujuh and Baghdad, Iraq. Yet, it was Iwo Jima that left the most lasting impression on me, especially after learning of Rabbi Rolan Gittleshon’s 1945 Eulogy for the 5th Marine Division. In fact, I used his words throughout my career and to all my Marines while commanding at two different levels. Your organization and leaders should read that Eulogy. In 1945, some Christian Chaplains were critical of having a Rabbi write the eulogy. Had the lead Chaplain (a Christian) not assigned such a somber and difficult task to Rabbi Roland, neither the Marine Corps nor the world would never have heard the Rabbi’s special and enduring words. He reminded and continues to remind that one’s particular religion, creed, color etc. matter little. He asked that “We dedicate ourselves to live in peace the way they fought and are buried in war…here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color…” As such, bickering from your leaders and organization over green wreaths, Chrisitian or not, being laid at Arlington is trivial and desecrates the sacrifice of our fallen. And to use phrases like Christian “carpet bombing” is indeed a publicity stunt and an intellectually shallow argument. And I’m certain cheap words such as that will not be as enduring as Rabbi Rolan’s words. I’m quite certain that our great American men and women buried all over the globe would appreciate a wreath during Christmas or any warm gesture during any holiday regardless if it is from a “…Prostestant, Catholic or Jew.” If only your organization’s argument over wreaths wasn’t so petty and your outlook a little closer to Rabbi Rolan’s solemn sentiment…we could certainly fulfill his 1945 wish. After I’m buried in Arlington or some other National Cemetery [hopefully I have a few more decades or more left in me], you will be welcome at my headstone on any holiday or season regardless of religion, color, rich or poor. I will be happy to see you, and then together we can realize that our’s “..is the highest and purest democracy.” Sincerely
Response from MRFF Advisory Board Member Mike Farrell
On Dec 19, 2021, at 4:32 PM, Mike wrote: (name withheld), You miss the point. An ecumenical view or speech, such as the words of Rabbi Gittleshon’s you credit for having made such an impression on you, is of course quite welcome in a eulogy. An open attitude, which you claim to have, is also welcome. But neither are what is expressed by a Christian organization presuming the right to decorate, or ‘bless’, the gravesites of those whose families neither share their belief nor welcome their gesture without first being asked permission. Such presumption is thoughtless at best and reeks of arrogance and a sense of superiority at worst. In a national cemetery this action is a violation of the separation of church and state, which is neither a trivial concern nor a petty one, as you appear to think of it. Rather than desecrating “the sacrifice of our fallen,” as you would have it, our demand is that all of the “fallen” should have their lives, their service and their beliefs equally honored and respected and our government is not seen as promoting or favoring one belief system over others. We, of course, do not consider defending the separation of church and state “bickering,” but we do find that when we act in a manner that offends the easily offended ranks of hyper-Christian zealots we tend to come “under fire,” if you will, from organizations and individuals who express themselves quite rabidly and vulgarly in what appears to this observer to be a deeply unChristian manner. If something said in response offended you,I’m sorry, but points in a passionate exchange can sometimes be made quite strongly. I hope this helps you better understand the situation. Sincerely,
Mike Farrell (MRFF Board of Advisors)
Response from MRFF Board Member John Compere
On Dec 19, 2021, at 4:53 PM, John Compere wrote:
Thank you for your military service & the civility of your communication. Please understand there are families of deceased military veterans who do not want a religious organization to which they do not belong or support profiting, promoting its religion version & marketing itself by presumptuously putting its religious wreaths on the graves of their deceased loved ones without permission. Those families consider it uninvited & unwanted intrusions on the personal burial sites of their deceased family members.The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (composed of 85% Christians) represents, when requested, the religious freedom rights of those families to object & prevent what they believe to be thoughtless trespasses on the graves of their deceased military veterans. We do so because we respect the wishes of those families & the religious group responsible for the religious wreaths does not. Religious freedom is a shield of protection & never a sword of privilege. Please see militaryreligiousfreedom.org for more complete information. Most Sincerely,Brigadier General John Compere, US Army (Retired)Disabled American Veteran (Vietnam Era)Board Member, Military Religious Freedom Foundation
Response from MRFF Advisory Board Member James Currie
Dear (name withheld):
On behalf of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), thank you for your service to our great country. My late father-in-law was a World War II Marine who lost his hearing when a Japanese bomb went off near him on the island of Bougainville. He was evacuated from Bougainville and did not receive the Purple Heart that he was due. He went through the rest of his adult life not being able to hear, and in all the years I knew him, he never complained or felt sorry for himself. I submitted the paperwork to allow him to receive the Purple Heart, and it arrived shortly before his eightieth birthday (together with a letter of commendation from then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Carl Mundy). My dad was a World War II B-17 pilot who was shot down on his nineteenth mission, flying against the oil fields and refineries at Ploesti, Romania. He and his entire crew bailed out of the aircraft, were captured by the Romanians, and remained in POW camp in Bucharest until September 1944, when Romania flipped sides in the war. I served thirty years in the Army and never did anything heroic. I tell you all this as a way of letting you know that those of us who support the work of the MRFF understand what it means to serve our country in uniform, and we honor all those who do so.
It seems to me—and you are completely entitled to differ with me on this—that Rabbi Rolan’s eulogy in 1945 and decorating graves with a religious symbol today are two completely different things. You may know that there are seventy-four different symbols that are allowed to be engraved on tombstones that mark the graves in VA cemeteries and at Arlington National Cemetery. They include all the various Christian symbols, the Jewish Star of David, the Muslim Crescent Moon, even the Atheist symbol. All are accepted by the VA and the Army (at Arlington). What we have confronting us today is an organization that has taken it upon itself to place a Christian symbol on graves in government-run cemeteries. We know that they place these wreaths willy-nilly, often without regard to the religious preferences of the veterans buried there. And please make no mistake about it, the Christmas wreath has been recognized as a Christian symbol for at least the past 200 years. It is not a non-sectarian recognition of service, like the American flags that are placed on veterans’ graves on Memorial Day each year. You might find this Christian grave-decorating to be unexceptionable, but how would you feel if a Jewish group or a Muslin group or a Hindu group or an Atheist group were to decorate veterans’ graves with one of their symbols? Would you feel kindly toward them and their actions? MRFF’s position is that because of the strictures of the First Amendment, the U.S. Government has no business allowing anyone to do mass decorating of graves with religious symbols, no matter their intent.
You don’t have to take my word as to what the First Amendment means for our country. Here’s what President Thomas Jefferson, someone who knew the man who drafted the First Amendment (George Mason) and the man who guided it through the Congress (James Madison) said about that First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people [that is, the First Amendment] which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Jefferson wrote these words to the Baptists of Danbury, Conn., in January 1802, almost exactly 220 years ago. The “wall of separation between Church & State” of which Jefferson wrote is the basis for the actions of the MRFF in objecting to the placement of religious symbols on veterans’ graves. It is certainly not out of disrespect for veterans that the MRFF expresses its objections. To the contrary, it is because of the great respect which the MRFF has for the men and women who are buried in government cemeteries that it takes the position it does. I trust that you might now better understand why it objects.
Col. James T. Currie, USA (Ret.), Ph.D.
Board of Advisors, Military Religious Freedom Foundation
On Sunday, December 19, 2021, 07:21:40 PM CST, (name withheld) wrote:
Sir, Thank you for your sincere response. I also appreciate your words from several years ago: “…Knowledge of history shows goodwill (much like Rabbi Rolan captured in those solemn moments of 1945) and “more holiday humility and less hype is always needed” is precisely what he passed as well. The rabid and vulgar words “carpet bombing” is a tone that Mike argues against but yet uses and his condescending email responses to me suggesting I miss the point and he hopes I understand the situation better does not serve your organization well and are divisive. But clearly, he is smarter than me as I’m from the Carolinas, publicly educated, and was a Marine for way too long :) Regardless, I wish you all and your families well throughout the holidays.
Response from MRFF Board Member John Compere
On Dec 19, 2021, at 8:03 PM, John Compere wrote:
– and may you & your family be blessed with peace & goodwill during this holiday season.
Response from MRFF Supporter Rabbi Joel Schwartzman
From: Rabbi Joel Schwartzman Subject: a Respnse to the Wreaths Across America Project Date: December 19, 2021 at 8:11:56 PM MST To: (name withheld)
First, I should like you to know that I served as a military rabbi in the United States Air Force for over twenty-three and a half years. During my chaplaincy, I served all Air Force personnel except where religious affiliation required a chaplain of that denomination. I prayed in a non-sectarian way when the function was a Civil Religious ceremony such as an invocation at a Thanksgiving dinner or a benediction at the National Prayer Breakfast. I met the fifty-two Iranian hostages when they returned via the Wiesbaden Hospital. I participated there in an Interfaith Service of Thanksgiving until it suddenly became sectarian through the singing of a clearly Christian hymn. I saved the moment for a Jewish participant whom I had convinced to come under the understanding that the service would not devolve into denominational prayer. When it did, I change my prepared offering and presented a purely Jewish prayer for peace in both Hebrew and English, something I would not have otherwise done. In doing this, I kept my promise to my Jewish returnee and his fallen countenance returned to one of pride.
This is to say, as a military Jewish chaplain, I clearly understood the boundaries under which we chaplains operated. We would minister to all where possible but we would not engage in proselytizing; nor would we attempt to provide services which compromised our own beliefs. For example, although I knew of instances where no rabbi or off-base Jewish community was available, a few Protestant chaplains did lead Jewish services. I, however, would never have offered to lead a Christian service for theological reasons which are obvious.
So, as I have responded to other thoughtful emails which have criticized the MRFF’s objections to this Wreaths Across America project, I shall answer what you have so beautifully expressed here with my objections to these wreaths.
First, should this charitable organization have wanted to find a more appropriate time of year, it should have selected Memorial Day, a day in which the President of the United States presents a wreath, usually at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On the other hand, wreaths on the graves of the fallen, placed especially at this time of year, create a clear association with Christmas. Whether these wreaths are Christian symbols or not, their appearance now makes them so.
My uncle fought in the Pacific during WWII. He was an enlisted load-master on the C-17s. He became a rabbi after the war and now lies in a national cemetery in Sarasota, Florida. I can assure you that were he to know that a wreath had been placed on his grave, he would come flying out of his grave and move it off his grave.
This is not a Jewish custom. It mocks those whose beliefs are other. Jews have a different way of memorializing our dead when we come to grave side. We place small stones on the headstone or grave marker. Some also bring a candle-in-glass called a yahrzeit or memorial candle, and light them and leave them there. The candle burns on for up to twenty-four hours. The reasons for these customs are not important here. But, I would no sooner mark a non-Jew’s grave thusly, without permission, than I would eat pork. I have no right to impinge or usurp the hallowed ground of any non-Jew, and I’m fairly sure that Muslims and others would respond the same way.
I will one day be buried in Arlington, space allowing. My family would consider my grave violated were they come at this time of year to visit. I would condone this project with the very same response as I do the Mormon conversion of Jewish souls after these, my fellow Jews, have died.
I am aware and have read Rabbi Gittlesohn’s prayer. I would contend that the times and circumstances, indeed the very nature of what is happening here, is the complete opposite of the spirit of his words. At the very least, this wreath laying business…and it is, indeed, a business!, is a deed filled with an insensitive chutzpah that assumes that everyone would resonate with the spirit of the season and alleged altruism. If you want to do that, then put American flags at these graves, not wreaths. It is this blanket assumption to which I and the MRFF so bitterly object. It frankly smacks of a usurpation and a violation of holy ground.
I hope to have clarified the issue, obviously from my point of view. This is not some attempt to honor those soldiers, sailors and airmen who have served this country. This is a group’s casting its will over every grave whether those buried there and their living relatives would wish it or not. That, I firmly believe, takes some gall. And whether or not the national cemeteries allow it; whether this isn’t a violation of my Constitutional First Amendment rights to freedom to practice my religion my way may yet to be adjudicated. But, please, good sir, know that this rabbi finds this sorry over reach to be less than tasteful. It does not honor my people. It does something altogether different.
Rabbi Joel Schwartzman
Response from MRFF Supporter Fr. Steve Dundas
On Dec 20, 2021, at 1:06 PM, Steve wrote: Dear (name withheld), I am glad that you wrote Mr. Weinstein about your concerns and criticisms of his efforts against the Wreathes Across America campaign. Unlike many of those who wantonly attack Mr. Weinstein based on Anti-Semitism and a Christian Nationalism your words invoked none of those legacies, however invoking Rabbi Gittlesohn’s sermon was inappropriate considering what he stood for and what Wreathes Across America stands. But before I go into that let me provide a bit of personal background, as I try to be as transparent as possible, especially to men like you. You and I have much in common. We were both career officers. You served over 25 years as a Marine Corps Aviator. I served 39 years, 4 months, and 6 days of unbroken service between the Active Duty Army, the National Guard, and the Army Reserve, from which I was mobilized to support Operation Joint Endeavor in 1996. I am a Navy brat. I was born in Oak Knoll Naval Hospital when my dad was a young Aviation Storekeeper 2nd Class, and he finally retired from the Navy after serving at sea, and boots on the ground during the siege of An Loc in 1972. When he retired in 1974 I was heartbroken, because I thought that my life had ended. I loved moving, I loved the military and still love the military. I served in the California Army National Guard as an enlisted man before I was commissioned through the UCLA Army ROTC program as a Second Lieutenant in the Medical Service Corps on 19 June 1983. I was a history major and wanted to be a infantry or air defense artillery officer. I put the Medical Service Corps down to avoid being thrown into the Quartermaster Corps, Transportation Corps, or Adjutant General Corps. My ROTC advisor said that it was a waste of a branch choice and he was surprised as hell when the MSC was my branch assignment. But it turned out for good because the MSC in the Army was an Army within the Army. I think that the only thing that I missed out on was not becoming a “Dustoff pilot,” because my wife objected to me applying to be an aviator, but we are still married, so I guess that it worked out as it should. Instead, ai was trained as a Motor Maintenance Officer, NBC Defense Officer, and USAF Air Movement Officer. I served in Germany in the Cold War, as a platoon leader, company executive officer and company commander in the 557th Medical Company, Ambulance, and Assistant S-1 in the 68th Medical Group from January 1984-December 1986. It was our mission to assist in the reconstitution of the 11th Armored Cavalry. Our ambulances were all commercially procured Dodge and Chevy pickup conversions. It was expected that we would suffer at least 75% casualties, and there were a couple of times when we almost stumbled into a world war. In late 1985 and 1986 we were constantly on alert to support operations against Libya because my old platoon and I were the only medical unit certified for air movement. Thereafter I attended the Army Personnel Officer School before being assigned as the S-1 Adjutant of the Academy Brigade, Fort Sam Houston, Texas until the end of September 1988 when I returned to the Texas Army National Guard as an Armor Officer while attending seminary. The Texas Army National Guard officially kept me on the roles as a Medical Service Corps Officer and Armor Officer while semi-officially appointing me as a Chaplain Candidate to appease the State Chaplain. After graduation from seminary I became a Chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard while attending a Clinical Pastoral Education Residency as the Trauma and Surgery department Chaplain at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas Texas from August 1993 to the end of 1994. Following that I accepted a full-time contract Emergency Department Chaplain position at Cabell-Huntington Hospital in Huntington, WV, while serving as Chaplain to the 1/170th Infantry of the 29th Infantry Division in Fort Belvoir, VA until I was promoted to Major and transferred to the Army Reserve in December 1995. I was mobilized for Operation Joint Endeavor in June 1996 whereupon I lost my civilian employment because I was a contractor. On returning the USAR almost immediately assigned me to serve as the Chaplain for Fort Indiantown Gap, PA, where I was the last Federal Chaplain before it was transferred to the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in October 1998. Returning home job prospects were bleak, but about this time in December 1998 I was contacted by my then Bishop that the Navy was in dire need of chaplains and was willing to make a deal. A mere 7 weeks later I had accepted a reduction in rank to return to active duty. On 8 February 1999 I was a Major in the Army Reserve and the next day I was a Navy Lieutenant. Two weeks later I reported to the Navy Chaplain School. After graduation I was assigned to the Second Marine Division where because of my experience I became the Division Chaplain’s relief pitcher. I served with 2nd CEB, with 1st and 3rd Battalions 8th Marines, and HQBN 2nd MARDIV, where I was serving on 9/11. In December 2001 I was transferred to USS HUE CITY and almost immediately deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. In addition to being the chaplain I was also the “advisor” to a VBSS team that conducted follow up missions on detained ships. I was in charge of 75 boarding missions where my life was almost always in danger. As a Chaplain I was unarmed, but because we did not have enough SAPI plates, I only had a floatation vest. I didn’t let that from stopping me from stopping violence on board those ships. On one ship my team had to pull me from being in between a smuggling ship master and the crew that was about to kill him. After that I spent 3 years with Marine Security Forces traveling the globe supporting FAST platoons, and Marine Security Force Companies. While in tat assignment I completed the Marine Command and Staff College and earned my FMF Officer Pin, being one of the first Navy officers to earn it. Following that I was assigned to EOD Group II, and from there sent as an individual augment to Iraq with my RP to be the Chaplain for the Advisor teams of the Iraq Assistance Group in MNF West from 2007-2008. Our paths might have crossed, but it would have been mere coincidence I was always on the road in the air or in the ground going from Fallujah, Ta’qaddum, Ramadi, Habbinyah, Hit, Dulab, Al Assad, Al Qaim, Al Waleed, Border Fort 5, COP South, COP North, Korean Villiage, and a hundred place you probably never heard about, but I was on the ground, running my own missions, getting shot at and not in range of the big battalions or even rapid air support should we be attacked and overwhelmed. Thankfully that didn’t happen. Throughout my career I have served with men and women of every faith and no faith. I have always endeavored as a commander and staff officer, and later as a Christian Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy to protect the civil and religious rights of everyone in my charge. Despite this as a young officer there were many times that I and others were coerced into attending, and even paying for tickets so soldiers could attended these explicitly Christian “National Prayer Breakfasts” which were usually thinly veiled displays of Christian Nationalism. As a Chaplain I never promoted them and if asked to provide an invocation or benediction I always made sure that it was ecumenical and never specifically Christian, as I did in every mandatory ceremony or not specifically Christian service that I officiated. The types of these types of ceremonies is too long to list here, but as a Senior Marine Corps officer you likely participated in many such events. That is simply background before I go on to your letter to Mr. Weinstein, himself a graduate of the Air Force Academy, a former JAG officer, and the son of a career officer and combat vet. Of course they, like Rabbi Gittlesohn are Jewish. I was never able to visit Iwo Jima, where a Great Uncle, the brother of my parental grandmother was killed in action at the age of 20. But as a Chaplain, as well as Civil and Religious rights activist, the words of Rabbi Gittlesohn are a part of me, and inform my approach to ministry and religious rights. Unfortunately sir, you stand his words on their head. For a nonprofit spinoff of a for profit company that makes the wreathes, that in their last audit sent every cent of $17 million dollars collected back to the for profit company. Smedley Butler might even call it a racket, but I digress. The fact that these wreathes are specifically laid at Christmas takes away any secular purpose for them, and the fact that they are often laid indiscriminately upon graves of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, Pagans, Atheists, Free Thinkers, and those of the Christian faith whose denominations oppose such decorations as “Popish,” is an arrogant proposition. Some local leaders of the Wreathes Across America movement, such as the coordinator at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, state their desire to place a wreath on “every one of the 167,000 headstones” in that cemetery. Had they placed them during Memorial Day or Veterans Day and adorned them with Red White and Blue trimmings there could be no religious significance attached to them. But to place them out on Christmas, decorated with red bows as are many traditional Christmas wreathes, makes them a Christian decoration, despite the words of the Wreathes Across America national leadership and Fox News to the contrary. Rabbi Gittlesohn’s message was delivered when there was still a lot of antisemitism and racism in the military. We have made a lot of progress, but over the past two decades there has been an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in the military. I had to begin addressing them in 2nd CEB in 2000 when some of our Marines committed a heinous crime of marking fellow Marines with Swastikas after getting them drunk. It has only gotten worse. Likewise, there has been a phenomenal growth percentage wise in the numbers of Christians espousing Christian Nationalism and Dominionism, especially in the military. This has nothing to do with the Gospel, but everything about imposing Christian beliefs and customs on other Americans when we are becoming a much more religiously diverse and less Christian country. Wreathes Across America is a rather open display of this as it masked its goal by saying that their intent is to honor our dead veterans. Rabbi Gittlesohn, son of a German Jew would have saw through this and condemned it, just as he condemned racism and fought for the civil rights of African Americans after the war. Colonel, I do ask that before you attempt to appropriate the words of Rabbi Gittlesohn for such a massive display of Christian supremacy in government owned and operated cemeteries whose tax dollars are provided for by all of us, that you do a little digging into the organization doing it, and also the motivations of Mr. Weinstein and the MRFF. Mr Weinstein and the MRFF overwhelmingly represent Christians when their religious rights are being violated and their appeals ignored by their commands. Christians represent 95% of his clients, and 85% of his paid and volunteer staff. Perhaps I am a bit touchy about this because in 2018 when I was command chaplain at a large Navy base on the East Coast I had a retired chapel member try to get me tried by court martial for a sermon I preached in chapel. Instead of telling the man to take a flying leap, my commanding officer initiated an investigation where I was called upon to make a statement. I refused and called Mr. Weinstein who provided me with an attorney. The investigation which included interviews with the bulk of the congregation present and staff members exonerated me, but after that I realized that my kind was no longer wanted in the military, especially when the senior leadership of the Chaplain Corps refused to stand by me, just as the senior chaplains of 5th Marine Division refused to stand for Rabbi Gittlesohn. Now the regional Chaplain told my commander that what I said in the pulpit was protected speech, but the commanding officer commenced the investigation over his objections. At no point would anyone in the Chaplain Corps above him speak up on my behalf. After all I was an old Commander who had went public with his PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury after Iraq. By doing that I became persona non grata with most senior chaplains. But in the end it turned out well, though I still suffer the effects of PTSD to this day. I am a graduate of the Marine Command and Staff College, was one of the first 20 Navy Officers to earn the FMF Officer Qualification Pin, and a graduate of the Joint Combined Warfighting School, who has a second Masters degree in military history. I earned my academic rank as an Assistant Professor at the Joint Forces Staff College where the Navy sends line and staff corps officers in the grades of Commander and Captain to die. But because of that I ended up leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride as well as teaching ethics. Because of that I will have my first book published in 2022. Colonel, I presume that you are smarter and more thoughtful than most of Mr. Weinstein’s critics, and as a Marine Corps Officer stand for honor, integrity and the Constitutional rights of all Americans. I expect that extends to even dead military personnel and their survivors over any religious or politically motivated display of Christian supremacy, even if you are also a Christian. I suggest that if you want to clear things up that you give Mr. Weinstein a call, you will find him quite reasonable and accommodating. Sincerely and Respectfully, Merry Christmas, Fr. Steve Dundas, CDR, CHC, USN (Retired)