Dozens of soldiers at a U.S. Army post in Newport News, Va., say they were punished for not attending a Christian concert despite having been given the option.
On Thursday, news got out about what happened at Fort Eustis this past spring, and by Friday, the Army said it was investigating the claims.
According to one account given to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), about 250 soldiers at Fort Eustis were told on May 13 to march to a theater where a Christian rock concert was scheduled to take place. Upon arrival, the soldiers were told to divide into two groups – those who wanted to attend the concert and those who didn't.
"Those of us that chose not to attend (about 80, or a little less that half) were marched back to the company area. At that point the NCO (non-commissioned officer) issued us a punishment," the soldier continued.
According to the soldier's account, the group of soldiers – which included Christians and non-Christians – were not released from duty, could not go anywhere on the post, and were confined to the barracks, unable to do anything other than maintenance work in the barracks.
If anyone was caught having or handling electronic devices – cell phones, laptops, etc. – or even caught sitting in their beds, their weekend passes would be revoked and they would be forced to continue barracks maintenance for the rest of the weekend.
"At that point the implied message was clear in my mind 'we gave you a choice to either satisfy us or disappoint us. Since you chose to disappoint us you will now have your freedoms suspended and contact chores while the rest of your buddies are enjoying a concert,'" the soldier reported.
After MRFF reported the incident, Fort Eustis spokesman Rick Haverinen told The Associated Press that the Army was investigating the claims but said he couldn't comment on the specifics of the investigation.
Christian rock band Barlow Girl, which was performing on the day of the incident at Fort Eustis, also made remarks over the weekend, saying they knew nothing of what happened outside the theater.
"1st of all we are always honored to play army bases. We love and support our troops," the band wrote in their Facebook fan page from an iPhone.
"In regards to the story about them being forced to come - we did not know anything about that," the three-sister group added.
According to reports, the concert that day was part of a regular concert series "aimed at awakening soldiers' spiritual awareness."
Maj. Gen. James E. Chambers, who has been promoting the series for the past two years, said the idea behind the series is "not to be a proponent for any one religion" but to expose soldiers to ethical, moral and civics-type training that some did not receive in their upbringing.
"It's to have a mix of different performers with different religious backgrounds," the born-again commanding general once reported.
MRFF, however, claims that there has been no such mix and that "[e]very one of them (the concerts) has had evangelical Christian performers, who typically not only perform their music but give their Christian testimony and read from the Bible in between songs."
"Another problem with these concerts, besides the issues like soldiers being punished for choosing not to attend them, is that they are run by the commanders, and not the chaplains' offices," commented Chris Rodda, MRFF's head researcher, in a commentary published in the Huffington Post.
"It is absolutely permissible for a chaplain's office to put on a Christian concert. It is not permissible for the command to put on a Christian concert, or any other religious event," she added. "Having a religious concert series that is actually called and promoted as a Commanding General's Concert Series is completely over the top."
Aside from Fort Eustis, nearby Fort Lee also holds regular concerts as part of the series and has been doing so since June 27, 2008.
According to reports, Maj. Gen. Chambers brought the first free, open-to-the-public concert event that day after taking the helm at Fort Lee for less than a month.
He was quoted by the Fort Lee's public affairs department as saying "[t]he easiest way to get to Soldiers today is through a phone or music."
"Through those means, you can change behavior, and that's what I'm looking forward to more than anything else," he stated.
The name of the concert series is reportedly the "Commanding General's Spiritual Fitness Concerts."