“The President of the United States has reposed special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity, and abilities of the following officers,” says the order promoting Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Young to the rank of full colonel.
Now, the president can’t be expected to personally vet every military officer who is up for promotion, and, for all but those in the highest ranks, would obviously just rely on the recommendations of the superiors of officers on the promotions lists, but I have to wonder how President Obama would feel about having rubber stamped the promotion of an officer who said that blacks were better off as slaves.
Before getting to Col. Young’s slavery comment, I need to back up and explain how the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), the civil rights organization I work for, first became aware of this officer. Back in December, I wrote a piece about the Army allowing two Christian reality TV show missionaries, whose mission was to proselytize Afghan Muslims, to be embedded with the troops in Afghanistan as journalists.
In that piece, I included a video clip from the program, Trinity Broadcasting Network’s Travel the Road, showing these missionaries giving Dari language Bibles to Afghan locals near the base where they were embedded. Just what was in this video clip, found on YouTube, was enough to see that serious violations of the regulations governing embedded journalists and the military regulations prohibiting proselytizing had been committed.
In February, I wrote a follow-up piece. By that time, ABC News Nightline had attempted to obtain the records of the embedding of the Travel the Road missionaries, only to be told that the Army had lost all records of this embedding. By the time I wrote my follow-up piece, I had also bought the DVD box set of the season of Travel the Road containing the three episodes covering the missionaries’ time in Afghanistan. In the third of the three episodes, Tim Scott, one of the Travel the Road missionaries, was shown interviewing Col. Young.
Here’s what I wrote about Col. Young in February, followed by the video:
The final clip in the video below is from the last of the three Travel the Road Afghanistan episodes, filmed in Kandahar. In this clip, Tim Scott interviews LTC Robert G. Young, the commander of the 325th Forward Support Battalion. LTC Young, a committed Christian who lists his interests in his Military.com profile as “Jesus, Wife, Kids, PT,” and belongs to a group called “Rangers 4 Christ,” told Scott that the biggest problem in Kandahar was drought, and that this drought coincidentally began as soon as the Taliban took over the country. He went on to say that we’ve got to “overcome evil with good,” and, literally thumping a Bible, quoted two of its verses in one sentence, saying, “Our weapons aren’t carnal” (Corinthians 10:4) “and no weapon formed against us shall prosper.” (Isaiah 54:17) He said he told an Afghan general that he would ask the American people to pray that God would send rain to Kandahar, and ended by saying that when the people of Kandahar see the rain “they’ll know that our god answers prayers.”
Shortly after I wrote this piece, MRFF began to receive emails telling us that the problems with Col. Young went beyond the typical disregard of regulations prohibiting the promotion of religion and proselytizing by evangelical military officers. We were informed that, among other things, the opinions espoused by Young included a comment to a subordinate officer that blacks were better off as slaves because at least then they knew Christ, and that complaints about his comments had led to him being relieved of his command.
MRFF passed these allegations on to journalist Jeff Sharlet, who was in the process of writing his article “Jesus killed Mohammed: The crusade for a Christian military,” the cover story in the May 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Sharlet called Col. Young to get his side of the story. Young not only confirmed that what was emailed to MRFF was true, but, as the following excerpts from Sharlet’s article clearly show, still doesn’t see any problem with his slavery comment.
I found Lieutenant Colonel Bob Young after MRFF reported on an evangelical reality program, shown on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, that included tape of Colonel Young telling two wandering missionaries about his plan to pray for rain in Afghanistan. I reached him at home in Georgia late one evening. He said he was going to sit on his porch and look at the moon. In the background, I heard dogs barking. He talked for three hours, much of it about what he’d seen in the combat hospital under his command at Kandahar Air Base.
“Kids getting burned,” he recalled. “Bad guys floating in on helicopters. You wouldn’t know who they were.” The base hospital treated 7,000 Afghans that year, and Young, commander of the Army’s 325th Forward Support Battalion, lingered there, watching the bodies. “I want to tell you this. Triage area, guy strapped into gurney, Afghan guy. No shirt, skinny as a rail, sinewy muscle. Restraints on his ankles, his feet, dude is strapped into a wheelchair. He’s got a plastic shield in front of his face because he’s spitting.” A doctor wants to sedate him. “I say, ‘I’ll tell you what’s wrong with him. The guy has demons.’” Young decides to pray over him. “Couple minutes later the general’s son-in-law — the Afghan general’s son-in-law, our translator — comes in. I said, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’ He says, ‘How do you say in English? He has spirits.’ I say, ‘Doc, there’s your second opinion!’”
On the phone, Young laughed, a harsh “Ha!” Then his voice broke. “I’m telling you, it’s real. Evil is real.”
In the Christian reality show, Young extended that thought to the weather. “Interestingly,” he says, “the drought has been in effect since the Taliban took over.” Young has a high mouth and a low brow, his features concentrated between big ears. “People of America,” he tells the camera, “pray that God sends the rain to Kandahar, and they’ll know that our God answers prayers.”
I asked Young if he wanted to contextualize these remarks, since they seemed, on the surface, to radically transcend his mission as a soldier. “Okay!” he said. “Are you ready?” I said I was.
He told me to Google Kandahar, rain, January 2005. The result he was looking for was an article in Stars and Stripes entitled “Rainfall May Signal Beginning of the End to Three-Year Drought in Afghanistan.” Three and a quarter inches in just two days.
“That’s some real rain,” I admitted.
“That’s what I’m saying, brother!”
I asked him about an allegation made to MRFF by a captain who served under Young: that Young had made remarks that led him to be relieved of his command. It was true that he had been relieved of command, he admitted, but he had appealed and won. And the remarks? “All that was, I was speaking in reference to inner-city problems and whatnot. I said that the irony is that it would be better for a black to be a slave in America — I’m thinking now historically — and know Christ, than to be free now and not know Christ.”
With that cleared up, I then asked Young about another of the captain’s allegations: that he had given a presentation on Christianity to some Afghan warlords. Absolutely not, he said. It was a PowerPoint about America. He emailed it to me as we spoke, and then asked me to open it so he could share with me the same presentation he had given “Gulalli” and “Shirzai.” Since it had been President’s Day, Young had begun with a picture of George Washington, who, he explained, had been protected by God; his evidence was that, following a battle in the French and Indian War, when thirty-two bullet holes were found in Washington’s cloak, the general himself escaped unscathed. Young wanted to show the Afghans that nation-building was a long and difficult journey. “I did stress the fact that in America we believe our rights come from God, not from government. Truth is truth, and there’s no benefit in lying about it.”
There were slides about the Wright brothers, the moon landing, and NASCAR — Jeff Gordon, “a Christian, by the way,” had just won the Daytona 500. And then, the culmination of American history: the twin towers, blooming orange the morning of September 11, 2001. Embedded in the slide show was a video Young titled “Forgiveness,” a collage of stills, people running and bodies falling. Swelling behind the images was Celine Dion’s hit ballad from Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On.” Following the video was a slide of the Bush family, beneath the words: “I believe that God has inspired in every heart the desire for freedom.” …
… The tension between war and faith does not disturb him. “We are to live with anticipation and expectation of His imminent return,” he told me. Look at the signs, said Young: nuclear Iran, economic collapse, President Obama’s decision to “unleash science” upon helpless embryos. He seemed to feel that the military was now the only safe place to be. “In the military, homosexuality is illegal. I don’t want to get into all the particulars of ‘Don’t ask,’ but you can’t act on homosexual feelings. And adultery is illegal. Really, arguably, the military is the last American institution that tries to uphold Christian values. It’s the easiest place in America to be a Christian.”
Nobody reading the article about Col. Young’s promotion on the official Army website would have any idea why his promotion to full colonel was delayed. According to the article, Young merely hit a “speed bump” due to an “adverse officer efficiency report,” which he successfully appealed — a demonstration of this fine officer’s “determination and drive to succeed.” According to the article, “Being promoted to colonel confirmed [Young’s] sense that the Army is a good institution and that ultimately, the right things happen.”
Well, Col. Young is right about one thing. The military is “the easiest place in America to be a Christian.” Unfortunately, as the thousands of service members who have contacted MRFF about officers like Col. Young have made abundantly clear, it’s just not so easy a place to be for anyone else.
Chris Rodda is the Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and the author of Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History.