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The U.S. military long has honored troops who did not return from their assignments with a permanently set table in military base dining rooms, similar to the missing man formation Air Force jets fly to honor a downed pilot.
The elements of the memorial have special meaning, including the round table, the white cloth, a single red rose, a slice of lemon and a Bible.
According to the POW-MIA Families organization, the Bible “represents the strength gained through faith in our country, founded as one nation under God, to sustain those lost from our midst.”
But not at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.
There, officials removed the honor table because the Bible “ignited controversy and division.”
Florida Today reported base commanders issued a statement that there was a problem with the presence of the Bible on the table.
“The 45th Space Wing deeply desires to honor America’s Prisoners of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) personnel,” they said. “Unfortunately, the Bible’s presence or absence on the table at the Riverside Dining Facility ignited controversy and division, distracting from the table’s primary purpose of honoring POWs/MIAs.”
Consequently, they said, “we temporarily replaced the table with the POW/MIA flag in an effort to show our continued support of these heroes while seeking an acceptable solution to the controversy.”
They said they expect eventually to restore the table “in a manner inclusive of all POWs/MIAs as well as Americans everywhere.”
Base officials could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
Some stunned veterans have protested by boycotting the dining hall.
Other recent controversies in the military over religious faith have included confrontations with Christian chaplains who don’t support same-sex marriage because of their beliefs, the teaching of anti-Christian themes at security training seminars and an incident in which a Bible verse on an Air Force Academy cadet’s personal whiteboard was ordered erased.
The Family Research Council said of the move by Patrick AFB: “Of particular irony is the fact that this reversal of a long history of including such memorials in dining halls occurred at the same installation where the Department of Defense’s equal opportunity agency – the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute – is housed.”
The Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, FRC pointed out, is tasked “with training military Equal Opportunity advisers on how to instill respect and tolerance for diverse viewpoints in service members.”
“Apparently, that respect and tolerance isn’t supposed to extend to religious speech or the ability of an organization to recognize the role religious faith has played in the lives of many service members,” FRC said.
The group said that position “not only contradicts Supreme Court precedent that condemns the restriction of speech solely because of its message, it also does a disservice to our ability to remember the stories of American war heroes.”
“One such service member is former Alabama Senator and Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton, Jr., a naval aviator who spent seven years in captivity in Vietnam and who spoke frequently of the role a deep Catholic faith played in carrying him through unspeakable prison camp horrors.”
Americans know Denton, who died last week, as the Vietnam captive who blinked T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code while a prisoner, allowing American intelligence officers to confirm that Americans were being tortured.
It happened in a rare appearance on television for American prisoners of war in 196 and can be seen in the video here:
"Faith played a part in his story," FRC noted, "and the story of many other captives. Requiring organizations and individuals to ignore that reality not only violates legal precedent, it hollows out the heritage of many of our war heroes."
The tradition of the missing man table calls for a table for six representing those missing from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and civilians.
The round table represents everlasting concern, the white cloth represents the purity of their motives, the single red rose "reminds us of the lives of these Americans," the red ribbon symbolizes "our continued determination to account for them," a slice of lemon recalls the bitter fate of those captured, a pinch of salt recalls the tears for the missing, the lighted candle represents hope, the glasses are inverted because the missing cannot share a toast, the chairs are empty, and the Bible "represents the strength gained through faith in our country, founded as one nation under God, to sustain those lost from our midst."
WND columnist Chuck Norris recently commented about the Air Force Academy decision to order the erasure of the Bible verse.
"Outside the Academy, a new billboard has recently been posted near the entrance to the Air Force training school by the Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition, according to WND. The billboard contains a picture of the presidential faces on Mount Rushmore – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt – with the question and statement on it addressing 'Air Force Cadets': 'Are you free to say so help me God? They did,'" he wrote.
"Even according to the Air Force's own culture standards document, religious freedom and expression should be protected by U.S. Air Force leadership among subordinates," he continued. And he listed a sample of what has been a string of incidents involving the military:
- The Air Force Academy apologized for merely announcing Operation Christmas Child – a Christian-based charity and relief program designed to send Christmas gifts to impoverished children around the world.
- Air Force officials stripped religious curriculum from a 20-year-old course on "just war theory."
- Yet, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, as of November 2011, the Air Force is building an $80,000 Stonehenge-like worship site for "earth-based" religions, including "pagans, Wiccans, druids, witches, and followers of Native American faiths."'
- Walter Reed National Military Medical Center drafted a policy that prohibited individuals from using or distributing religious items during visits to the hospital.
- Three-star Army general and Delta Force war hero Lt. Gen. William G. ("Jerry") Boykin couldn't speak at West Point because of his Christian faith.
- The Marine Corps considered tearing down a Camp Pendleton cross meant to honor fallen heroes.
- The Navy relocated a live nativity at a base in Bahrain to the chapel area.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs censored references to God and Jesus during prayers at Houston National Cemetery.
- The Pentagon released new regulations forcing chaplains to perform same-sex weddings despite their religious objections, and members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus worked tirelessly to ensure that the final version of the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act was signed into law in January (2013) and included key religious freedom protections for service members generally and chaplains specifically (Section 533).
- The Pentagon revoked approval to use the logo of each service branch on the covers of Bibles sold in military exchange stores.