By 1LT John Haynes, USMA Class of 2011
Photo by: Mike Laeding of Sulphur Springs Photography
The following is an article written by my classmate, 1LT John Haynes, in response to an article written to the Huffington Post by a Cadet at West Point publicly resigning citing reasons of religious intolerance and a failure of character on the part of the institution. I think LT Haynes demonstrates a very mature and developed understanding of what it means to serve and what it means to be a West Point graduate. A perspective we can all benefit from as we continue our careers and service to our country.
Cadet Blake Page wrote the article above to the Huffington Post on 3 DEC 2012. He titled it “Why I Don’t Want to Be a West Point Graduate” as he described his motivation to resign as a First Class Cadet (Senior) at the United States Military Academy at West Point. After reading it, and as a former cadet, I felt motivated to draft this response:
I will start by saying that, to an extent, your opinion is not totally misplaced. While the Army itself is not a Christian entity, many of its service members do conform to that specific belief system. Your frustration likely stems from a coincidental subculture within the Army, which I remind you is made entirely of volunteers – not Christian conscripts. You, too, volunteered for service to this Nation, consequently joining the ranks of this seemingly overwhelming majority. In my cadet experience, I have witnessed prayers, invocations, benedictions, and oaths which reference the existence of (and often requesting the assistance of) God. I can understand how an atheist would refrain from such practices, and be upset with, as you stated, its deeply-seeded tradition. Perhaps there is some merit to your claims that an imbalance in the system with respect to incentivized participation in religious clubs and activities does exist. I can agree, as a federal institution, maybe the Army needs to take another look at these issues. The past several decades have seen overwhelming change in support of civil rights. Most recently, the government has changed their position on “don’t ask don’t tell” with few ramifications among the grand body of 30 million men and women who constitute the Department of Defense. What’s to say the Army won’t change another facet of their cultural “identity” in the future? That being said, we can all agree that serious change can be, and often is, met with serious resistance. Your fight is not an easy one.
I do ask you, at what point does your rejection of religion trump the opinion of those who believe in a god, no matter how they practice or worship? Conversely, I expect that you feel that those who believe in a god have trumped your opinion that gods do not exist, or that such practices should remain secular. Your emotional reaction is understandable, in this respect. Many have sought the answer to these questions in the past, and I’m not going to solve the issue today.
However, I would like to point out that your legitimate concerns aren’t necessarily supported with concrete evidence in your article. From a scholarly standpoint, it seems that you have merely conjured up sweeping accusations of “criminal” behavior, malicious intent, and willing negligence by an overwhelmingly abusive and oppressive peer group and chain of command. That is the same peer group and chain of command that I belonged too before I graduated, and that is the same peer group of servicemen and servicewomen who I continue to serve with today.
After I read your article, I took a look into some of the exact words of the Oath of Office as well as the First Amendment to our Constitution. I would like to point out that while the US Army is a federal organization, by no means does the UCMJ legally oppress, or legally promote, any establishment of a formal religion. By practice, Army chaplains are not nondenominational. But they are required to provide services to all who request it, regardless of creed. Even if you have experienced personal views of service members that oppose your own fundamental beliefs, the Army as a whole does not legally violate the First Amendment, which denies Congress to make any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Not only did you take your Oath of Office (or a similar variant) when you first came to West Point on R-day, but you again said it on A-day upon completion of Cadet Basic Training, and again on your affirmation night at the beginning of Cow (Junior) Year, which is a requirement for all cadets before they continue to complete the final two years of their education as a student and future officer. In these oaths, you did “solemnly swear that [you] will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that [you] will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that [you] take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that [you] will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which [you are] about to enter…”.
I would also like to point out that by joining the Army, you volunteered to subscribe to the Soldier’s Creed and Warrior Ethos, which demands of all Soldiers that “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
I draw your attention to both of these oaths and promises that you have made on more than one occasion. You make notable accusations that members of the Army are not upholding their oaths, when you so egregiously neglect the same one. You call others hypocrites, when I can so easily label you the same. I do not take oaths as lightly as you seem to have done. Breaking this promise to our Nation speaks volumes more of a man’s character than it does to stay true to oneself. I’ll refrain from continuing a personal attack, but I sense that you have a misplaced sense of service. I am disappointed that, so many times before, you have promised yourself into a life of selfless service, and yet you have so readily abandoned that promise, rendering it derelict. I personally feel that your own violations of duty grossly outweigh the same ones you accuse your peers of committing.
Perhaps your own forethought was shortsighted. As I am sure you are aware, your education at West Point and your diploma are not easy to come by. Like everything in life, your position, leadership, and respect are earned. The Army, especially, is a meritocracy. I will strike down your first and most misplaced claim that West Pointers are the greatest leaders and inherently successful by title alone. If you think that simply attending West Point opens doors and grants you instant success, you are gravely mistaken. Yes, there is a trend that may make this claim true, as graduates from the academy have become very successful in military service and in the business world. But it is a more common trend that the best officers and the most successful leaders don’t flaunt their origin or commissioning source. Instead, they earn their position, they serve their Nation humbly, they fulfill their duties, they pursue excellence, and they commit themselves to an ideal greater than themselves. This is a concept that I fear you have failed to grasp as a cadet, which may never be inculcated before your term of military service ends. If it so happens that you continue to serve as a non-promotable E-4 upon your resignation, just remember that the peers you left at West Point will only be replaced by an equally “intolerant” set of peers in the regular Army. You were enlisted prior to becoming a cadet, so I am sure this comes as no surprise to you. As a member of a line unit, I can tell you that your experience at West Point is not unique. I fear that you quit (prematurely, at that) in an attempt to free yourself from an oppressive environment, only to later realize that the only thing that changed for you was your moral fortitude (or lack thereof).
Neither life nor God will produce hand-outs on silver platters. Neither prefers USMA graduates over the rest of hard-working American citizens. For what it’s worth, I say to you that your struggles will not end, your service may continue to be unpleasant, and people like me will simply remember you as the man who quit when faced with incredible adversity.
John Haynes, USMA ’11
1LT John Haynes is an Armor Officer assigned to 2-34 AR, 1st Armor Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Ft. Riley, KS. He has a BS in Engineering Management from the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not reflect the views of the Army or the Department of Defense.