Memorial Day is one national holiday that leaves many feeling somber as we remember friends, family, and others who have lost their lives for our nation — the one we call free.

I enlisted in the Army as a 68C Practical Nursing Specialist in 2017, back when I was still a devout Christian. When I began my military career, I felt as though I had God on my side and was able to accomplish anything I wanted.

As I grew into my adulthood, I realized just how little that made sense and how dangerous blind faith can be. Throughout my Advanced Individual Training, I learned what makes a good medical professional isn’t religious belief but knowledge. I came to understand the best way to  treat injuries and illnesses is based on what we have studied, not praying to a god to heal us. It was that understanding that I consider to be one of the first dominoes to fall on my path to deconstruction.

Since graduating as a Licensed Practical Nurse, I’ve lost some of my battle buddies – friends of mine. Two of them took their own lives, and another was killed in a motorcycle crash while he was on leave. I still get emotional to this day, missing the joy and happiness that they contributed to this world and to my life. Sometimes I even wish that there is an afterlife so I can see them again, have a beer and tell some stories and jokes, catching up like any other set of friends would.

Those who have religion are often reassured that one day they will see their loved ones again in a benevolent afterlife, where the pains of conflict and loss are eternally a thing of the past. We atheists, humanists, skeptics, and freethinkers don’t share those beliefs and hopes for another life beyond. Instead, we reminisce and do everything that we can to make the world a better place, fighting as bravely as those who wear a uniform.

My buddies are gone, and it’s my job to make sure the world they left is better than when they were here. The best way to do that, as I said before, is through evidence-based practices: to promote better medical and mental health services, to encourage better safety standards, to bring to reality the promise of a truly free nation.

Service members throughout history have held a wide range of beliefs, but we as a whole have been moving towards a more secular society. All the greatest victories – both from the military and in civilian lives – have been from the hard work of the skeptics, the humanists, the freethinkers, and the atheists.

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were all freethinkers who inspired freedom of thought and belief, and their contribution echoes today into our military.

In the Constitution and again in the First Amendment, our country’s Founding Fathers established a country where you can freely practice your religion or be free of religion. Though their intentions have been buried, their idea is not yet entirely forgotten.

In recent years, with the help of organizations like American Atheists and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, our country has remembered why we are called the “Land of the Free.”

Atheists in the United States and its military are growing in numbers by the day and receiving the recognition that we deserve. In 2014, the US Army officially began recognizing humanism as a belief and positive philosophy, leading to the Department of Defense recognizing it in 2017. Rather than being sent to a chaplain, more secular services are being offered with an emphasis on medicine and behavioral health.

And while there are still many strides left for the military and our country to take toward promoting rationality over religion, we can also take some pride in the fact that we are well on our way to ensuring the atheists in foxholes have not made the ultimate sacrifice in vain.

This Memorial Day, I hope you’ll take some satisfaction in knowing that while we may not see our loved ones again, we are working to build a world they would have loved.

Stay safe, and celebrate as you wish,

Will Harrell
68C Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurse, U.S. Army
Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers

PS: In case you missed it, American Atheists issued a statement on Thursday responding to a letter released by three members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee continuing a two-year long attack against the lifesaving work of Humanists International.

Will Harrell was a featured speaker at the American Atheists 2024 National Convention. He is an active duty US Army nurse, NCO, and Atheist In A Foxhole. While on a recent deployment, he established a Secular Humanist Support Group at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait with the help of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF). The group became a safe place for deployed soldiers to express their thoughts and views on theology and religion without fear of retaliation, as well as offer support to anyone deconstructing and healing from religious trauma. He is very passionate about helping move the US military towards a more welcoming, inclusive, and secular culture.

Will was born and raised in an evangelical Christian household in central Florida before deconstructing from religion after enlisting in 2018. He advocates for a stronger and more vocal humanist presence in the military and other parts of society. He believes in activism on every level from TikTok creators (@SatanicWill for his content) to courtroom spokespersons. As one of the younger speakers, he’s also hopeful for the next generation to continue their hard work towards creating a better, secular society.

American Atheists is a 501(c)(3) non-partisan, nonprofit educational organization that relies on the support of members like you. Contributions are tax-deductible. Our Federal Tax ID Number is 74-2466507 and our Combined Federal Campaign number is 52217.

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