Christian musician Jeremy Riddle opened the July 22 Spiritual Fitness Concert at Williams Stadium. (Photo: CMCENTRAL .COM / Flickr)
Update: An Army spokesman now says the Pentagon will investigate soldiers' claims that they were punished for refusing to attend the Christian-themed concert.
Pvt. Anthony Smith is the type of guy who stands up for what he believes in. That's why he decided to hold his commanding officers accountable for punishing him and fellow soldiers after they refused to attend an evangelical Christian rock concert at the Fort Eustis military post in Virginia.
After a day of training at Fort Eustis, Smith and other trainees were normally released to have personal time, but on May 13, Smith and dozens of others were "required" to march in formation to a concert headlined by an evangelical Christian rock band. Smith spent six months training at Fort Eustis before moving to Arizona to serve on active duty with the National Guard.
"No option was presented to us off the bat," Smith told Truthout about the required concert.
The Commanding General's Spiritual Fitness Concert that Smith and others were told to attend was headlined by BarlowGirl, a "band of tender-hearted, beautiful young women who aren't afraid to take an aggressive, almost warrior-like stance when it comes to spreading the gospel and serving God," according to the group's web site.
The group Smith marched with included at least two Muslim soldiers who fell out of rank and stopped marching on their own, according to a first-hand account published by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF).
Once outside the concert, Smith and the other trainees were finally given an option and told to split into two groups: those who wanted to attend, and those who did not. Smith and about 80 others decided not to attend, even though they were obviously being "pressured" to do so. Smith and the others were sent back to their barracks on "lockdown," a punishment that Smith said withholds even basic freedoms like using their own electronics.
The concert was part of a series of "spiritual fitness" music events at Fort Eustis and nearby Fort Lee instituted by born-again Christian Gen. James E. Chambers, according to an article on the Army's web site.
"They call them 'spiritual' events, but the vast majority of spiritual events are Christian-based," Smith said.
Smith said that the events often involve Bible readings and testimonies from evangelicals.
Headlining acts like BarlowGirl cost tens of thousands of dollars, and researchers with the MRFF later discovered that the Department of Defense has awarded multi-million dollar contracts for consultants behind spiritual fitness events.
A spokesperson for Fort Eustis did not have any information or statements prepared regarding the May 13 incident as of Friday afternoon.
"I'm not somebody who just stands down to pressure and gives in," Smith said about choosing not to attend the concert. "But there were so many people who weren't willing to stand up for themselves."
So, Smith and another anonymous soldier decided to take action. They filed an Equal Opportunity (EO) complaint against their commanding officers, but Smith said the complaint fell on deaf ears.
Smith said the first EO officer they spoke with told them that nothing was wrong, and their complaint would simply become another "statistic." Smith and the anonymous solider sought out other EO officers and took their case up the chain of command.
"We were wasting our breath," he said.
Smith said his commanding officers did offer an apology, but asserted that they did nothing wrong on May 13 and it was perfectly within their "rights" to march Smith and his fellow soldiers wherever they wanted, evangelical Christian event or otherwise.
Barlow Girl band member Lauren Barlow said if she and the other members of the group knew soldiers were being forced to attend the concert and were then punished for refusing to attend "we would have said something."
"That's horrible," Barlow tweeted in response to the revelations first published Thursday by MRFF's head researcher, Chris Rodda. "We never knew that. We thought they had a choice. If we would have known we would have said something."
Smith turned to the MRFF, an organization that represents 19, 200 military personnel and veterans, according to founder Michael "Mikey" Weinstein.
Weinstein called Smith a hero for "breaking the silence barrier" and "speaking truth to power."
He said that Smith and the others who were pressured into attending the concert - and then punished if they chose otherwise - were "spiritually raped by their commanding officers." Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate, said that service members are supposed to defend the Constitution, which clearly establishes the separation of church and state.
Weinstein questioned what would have happened if Smith's commanding officer was a Muslim or atheist and demanded that his subordinates attend an Islamic or secular music event.
"He would have had his head cut off," Weinstein said.
Weinstein said that a majority of MRFF clients are Christians who are told that they are "not the right kind of Christian" while serving in the military.
Weinstein considers Smith a hero, but for Smith, the truth is quite simple: he is just doing his duty as a defender of his country and Constitution.
I've always stood up to my beliefs, it is kind of ridiculous that I have to deal with this in the military," Smith said.