Fit to Serve: Nontheistic Soldiers Speak out against "Spiritual Fitness" Test

By Surman, Steven | The Humanist, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview

Fit to Serve: Nontheistic Soldiers Speak out against "Spiritual Fitness" Test


Surman, Steven, The Humanist


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FORT HOOD'S sprawling 340-square-mile property-one of the largest active armored posts in the United States Armed Forces--boasts the self-styled title of the "Great Place" because of the quality of life enjoyed by soldiers and family members residing on its premises. Indeed, Fort Hood, which is located halfway between Waco and Austin, Texas, has in recent years expanded its reputation toward rejuvenating the wellness of soldiers and their families by nurturing a trinity of the body, mind, and spirit.

The stronghold for this task is the fort's Resiliency Campus, which houses the Spiritual Fitness Center, a facility functioning on the edict that all human beings are comprised of three components: the physical (body), the mental (mind), and the spiritual (soul). These three attributes are interwoven and interdependent, and the center operates as a contemporary shrine for religious leaders and the community as a whole to turn to in the search for serenity. But along with ministering to the immediate needs of Fort Hood, the center serves a greater purpose: it acts as a religious outpost for the Global Assessment Tool, or GAT, a roughly 200-question self-appraisal that's part of the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program. "Religion." incidentally, is a word used by the GAT with guile--rather, the neutered term "spirituality" takes precedence.

But nearly 1,500 miles away from Fort Hood in Washington, DC, Jason Torpy is having none of it. Torpy, currently serving as the president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), is unsettled by the GAT and CSF openly arbitrating the spiritual and religious beliefs of soldiers and has expressed his concern to a number of military officials. Notably, he presented his case for two hours to Lt. Col. Jesse Henderson, the CSF content manager.

"I presented our concerns and he met each one with apathy and an inability to understand the problem. [Lt. Col. Henderson] refused to accept any of the suggestions I made,' Torpy recollects. But he wasn't deterred and pursued the matter to the highest level within the CSF: Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, the program's director. But she was no more concerned than anyone else.

A Grand Assumption

The bureaucratic indifference shown by the CSF officials was no great shock to Torpy, who understands the inner mechanisms of the Army first-hand. During his years of service (1994 to 2005) he earned the rank of captain, and toured in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. His service refutes the old, persistent adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. Though Torpy was raised Catholic, he never accepted the instruction and identified as an atheist from an early age.

In his current role as the MAAF president, the thirty-four-year-old immerses himself in all issues pertaining to the military and how religion is presented and utilized within its vast organizational network, from chaplain outreach to maintaining an open and proud roster of newly dubbed "atheists in foxholes." The MAAF was founded back in 1997 by retired M. Sgt. Kathleen Johnson (now the military director for American Atheists). MAAF's ultimate goal is to win recognition of and respect for nontheist rights, but the spiritual fitness test is a stinging reminder that Torpy must still travel a long road. At the same time Torpy acknowledges that his group shares the general mission of the CSF and GAT: "To minimize combat stress as well as more serious issues such as PTSD and suicides."

Implemented in 2009, the $117 million CSF program was developed by the University of Pennsylvania and is described on its official website as a "long-term strategy that better prepares the Army community ... to not only survive, but also thrive at a cognitive and behavioral level in the face of protracted warfare and everyday challenges of Army life." Further claims say that the CSF is founded on thirty years of research and employs various tactics to help evaluate and improve the physical and mental welfare of soldiers. …

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