Religion provides comfort in the military


Blake Lanser/Iowa State Daily

Members of the United States armed forces continue to have soldiers’ religious affiliations branded on their worn dog tags. Iowa State ROTC students are also carrying the same religious branding.

Emily Eppens

Editor’s note: a former version of this article referred to green zone as an unsafe zone in Baghdad, when the correct term is red zone. 

Walking through a red zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Mindy McGregor turned to her faith to get her through a tough situation.

McGregor was not prepared when her battalion gave her a mission to take two military vehicles across the red zone, a term that designates unsafe areas of Iraq, during her deployment in 2004. McGregor, a representative at the Van Meter Veteran’s cemetery and a human resource officer in the military, had never been commanded to carry out a mission in a red zone.

“I was the oldest person in the group, I was with a bunch of 20-year-old soldiers,” McGregor said. “The whole time I was praying, ‘Please Lord, please Lord, let us just get there [safely] and get back.’”

Having a faith while in the military is not uncommon. Service men and women often feel the need to have a belief system to help them cope with their heavy work burdens and digest the possibility of life after death.

“I can see where [the soldiers] would need that comfort,” said Jeanna Hampel, an assistant at the Van Meter Veteran’s cemetery. “It gives hope to those serving, especially overseas.”

Though Hampel has not served in the military, she works closely with active duty members and their families. She and McGregor are in charge of reserving plots and managing services and events within the cemetery.

When choosing a plot for themselves or their spouse, soldiers and their families have the option to pick from 60 different religious symbols or emblems for their tombstone. These range from the familiar Christian cross to less dominant religious symbols, such as a tribal emblem or an eagle. If an individual feels that they do not relate to any of the symbols, he or she does not have to request one for the tombstone.

“I only recall one time when someone made a rude comment [about a religious symbol],” McGregor said. “Someone made a comment about the Muslim star. Other than that, people have been very respectful.”

McGregor said the person who made the comment about the Muslim star said they did not think that the symbol should be included because of the political and religious controversy around the Muslim faith.

While some service members practice religion regularly, Hampel said that many of the servicemen and women she has met go through a phase of uncertainty regarding religion. Unlike McGregor, who said that her experience has brought her closer to her faith, some servicemen and women experience the opposite effect.

Don Hills, a now non-active army medic, explained that when serving in an Iraqi war zone, there is little time to think about faith when serving in combat.

“Honestly, you don’t have time to think about the afterlife when bullets are flying by your head,” Hills said. “If you stop to think, you die. I’ve seen people stop and think, and they have died.”

Hills said he started to question his religious beliefs while serving.

“When you see a friend who is a good person bleed out in front of you, you really start to question things,” Hills said. “You start to wonder why a God would let that happen.”

Hills served as an Army medic and later a firefighter. During his service, he saw many people, including friends, with incurable injuries and death.

“I have to believe there is a God. I have to believe I will be able to see [lost friends] again,” Hills said.

For some ROTC college students, the military-religion mix helps them see their faith more clearly, while others remain at a neutral standpoint. Mason Swanstrom, sophomore in interdisciplinary studies and ROTC student in the National Guard, said nothing much has changed in the two years he has served. His friends accept him for his beliefs and he accepts them for theirs.

“It kind of depends on who you are around, it’s not really widely publicized,” Swanstrom said. “The only really place it really shows is on your dog tags.”

A service member’s religion is put on his or her dog tags as a way to identify how to treat that person, should he or she die in or out of combat. This also helps determine what kind of funeral treatment they should receive.

Another ROTC student, Nick Paulson, a freshman at the University of Illinois and a ROTC student in the Navy, said that in his experience, he feels as his faith has not been compromised or suppressed during his service.

“The military definitely does not suppress religion,” Paulsen said. “We pray, but we don’t specifically say to which god. It’s just God in general, and you pray.”

Paulsen said that while it is not appropriate to widely share your beliefs while working, everyone generally respects each other.

“We are here to do the same job, so it shouldn’t matter [what we believe],” Paulsen said. “You get joking comments sometimes, but in my battalion we all accept each other because the job we are here to do is the same.”

Paulsen said serving in the Navy has been the best part of his college career so far.

Religion can be a tricky and controversial topic. Sometimes students do not want to learn about religion because they feel as if they might be judged for their belief or lack of belief.

Hector Avalos, ISU professor in philosophy and religious studies, encourages students, whether serving in the military or not, to study religion, as it helps to understand the world and viewpoints of the people around them.

“Religion affects the lives of billions of people,” Avalos said. “It ties in with the conflicts in the Middle East that are tied in with religious differences, but also many issues like abortion, gay rights and the death penalty.”

Janet Krengel, a secretary for the philosophy and religious studies department, says that following a religious belief system can give people hope through hard times.

“If people do not take the time to be aware about religion, I think the reaction tends to be negative,” Krengel said. “Really, it is an insecurity [not knowing what to believe]. People get self-conscious because they don’t know.”

Corey and Tonia McCoid can relate to how religion has helped them and their family. Corey McCoid, an active duty artillery officer, grew up going to church every once and awhile, but never really gave it much thought until Tonia McCoid started attending a Bible study with a couple friends when Corey McCoid was deployed overseas. Tonia McCoid was acting as the single parent of their three children.

“I started attending church regularly, but I had no support,” Tonia McCoid said. “It was hard being a single mom. I was working and trying to juggle everything, but my faith never really kicked in until I started attending the Bible study.”

When Corey McCoid came home from his deployment, he struggled with post-deployment depression, and started talking to his battalion’s chaplain about their faith. Tonia McCoid told him what she had learned and adopted as faith and encouraged him to come to church with her.

“I’ve seen deployments draw people to God because of what they see and what they do, and they’re looking for something,” Corey McCoid said. “Faith and belief in God can provide an answer to some of the challenges they have. I believe it has made me and my family stronger.”