Military officials are investigating an Army specialist's allegations that he was harassed for being an atheist but said Saturday they have found no trace of the officer listed as a defendant in the soldier's lawsuit.
Spc. Jeremy Hall and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit this past week against a Maj. Paul Welborne and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The suit, in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., alleges that Welborne threatened to file military charges against Hall and to block his reenlistment for trying to hold a meeting of atheists and non-Christians in Iraq. Hall is in Iraq with the 97th Military Police Battalion out of Fort Riley. He has been in Iraq since 2006, on his second tour.
The suit also alleges Gates permits a military culture in which officers are encouraged to pressure soldiers to adopt and espouse fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
In a series of e-mails to Mikey Weinstein, the foundation's founder and president, Hall said he feared for his safety after being "hallchecked" _ being shoved against a wall in a hallway _ by fellow soldiers who objected to his lawsuit. Bloggers have also referred to "fragging" Hall, or killing him by friendly fire.
"I hope I am not the victim of a hate crime while I sleep tonight. I do not want to die for my country this way," wrote Hall, saying a noncommissioned officer was threatening to beat him. "I'm doing my best right now. But I am still afraid that I might be harmed or worse."
The Army is investigating Hall's allegations, said Lt. Col. James Hutton, a spokesman for multinational forces in Iraq, in a statement Saturday.
However, Hutton added: "Several media reports list a person named Maj. Paul Welborne as having been involved in this situation. To date, we have not located any soldier by that name."
Weinstein said the incidents alleged in the lawsuit happened in July and August and Welborne may have left Iraq since then. Instead of finding the major, Weinstein said the military must find the soldiers who threatened Hall after he filed the lawsuit and prosecute them under military law.
"We're talking about stuff that happened 36 hours ago. If they can't find the people who have been harassing Jeremy, we will," said Weinstein, who released Hall's e-mails to The Associated Press on Friday. "This isn't that hard to do."
In naming Gates as a defendant, the lawsuit alleges he permits a culture that sanctions activities by Christian organizations, including providing personnel and equipment. It also says the military permits proselytizing by soldiers, tolerates anti-Semitism and the placing of religious symbols on military equipment, and allows the use of military e-mail accounts to send religious rhetoric.
A Pentagon spokesman said the military values and respects religious freedoms, but that accommodating religious practices should not interfere with unit cohesion, readiness, standards or discipline.
On the Net:
Military Religious Freedom Foundation: http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org/
Source: AP News