Truthdigger of the Week: Chris Antal, Former Army Chaplain Who Resigned Over Military Policy
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
Have you ever quit a job? If you thought that was hard, imagine sending your resignation letter to the president of the United States.
That’s exactly what Chris Antal did when he publicly resigned from the Army several months ago. Antal served as a chaplain to the U.S. Army Reserve and spent time in Afghanistan, where he says drones were always buzzing overhead when he received a fallen soldier.
Antal is currently a minister for the Unitarian Universalist Society at Rock Tavern, N.Y., and also a founder of New York’s Hudson Valley Veterans for Peace chapter. He first made headlines in 2012, when he posted a controversial sermon, titled “A Veteran’s Day Confession for America,” online. In that sermon, he condemned the United States’ tolerance of “extrajudicial assassinations” — in the form of drone strikes — a statement that almost cost him his career. He was reprimanded, and he fought to hold on to his job, but more than three years later, he realized he’d had enough.
“There were three things,” Antal told Truthdig when asked what had prompted him to tender his resignation.
“One is that the Army changed their regulations for the Chaplain’s Corps in late 2015, and removed the regulation that basically authorized chaplains—and this is how it was written—to ‘speak with a prophetic voice against issues of moral turpitude in conflict with army values.’ ” Although the 2015 document was not available, the 2009 regulation document clearly states that Army chaplains are “expected” to confront issues of “moral turpitude” even “in conflict with the Army values.”
The change in these regulations, which Antal called “quite disturbing,” meant that he could no longer “speak truth to power,” an essential component of working as a chaplain.
“It was done in a backdoor kind of way,” Antal said of the change. “When the Army revises regulations, they usually have a cover page that says ‘summary of changes.’ There was no mention of this change, which I think is quite significant. It was really done in a secretive way, which is all the more disturbing.”
Each Army chaplain is sponsored by a religious group, known as an “endorser,” and Antal added that none of the endorsers he spoke to were aware of this change. “I suspect—although I can’t prove—that what happened with me [in 2012] was part of the impetus to change the regulations and to further compartmentalize the ministry of the chaplain to just a ‘house priest.’ ”
Army chaplains, like other Americans, are guaranteed the right of free speech under the Constitution. When asked about Antal’s resignation, Capt. Eric Connor, deputy chief of media relations for the Army Reserve Command, stated, “We encourage our soldiers to have a conscience and let their conscience be their guide. But sometimes their conscience leads to other things, and in this case we’re letting them know if your conscience says the military is not for you, we totally understand.”
Antal said that what the Army was really encouraging was that he “not look broadly at systems and policies, but to administer in a rather myopic way, just to the individual soldier.” While this is important, he said, “there are systemic issues and institutional issues that I believe chaplains ought to address.”
In 2012, when he shared his controversial Veterans Day sermon, he received severe reprimands and faced an investigation. A 2013 memorandum by then-Brig. Gen. Scottie Carpenter stated that Antal had violated several Army regulations. First, he had failed to “use a disclaimer explaining that the views expressed were purely [his] own, and did not represent the Army or Department of Defense.” Additionally, his sermon post had been accompanied by photo of him in uniform. Carpenter wrote that Army rules prohibit “wearing Army uniforms in connection with the furtherance of any political interest and when wearing the uniform would bring discredit upon the Army.”
Antal’s second reason for resigning? He cited a 2016 report card published by The Stimson Center (a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that analyzes international security). The report card gave the Obama administration a “D” grade on transparency regarding drone strikes and an “F” on oversight and accountability. It states:
In the last year of the administration, there is a finite opportunity to establish a sustainable legacy on drones beyond the numbers of strikes and those killed or injured. But in the months since the task force released its recommendations, there has been virtually no progress and little has changed with regard to U.S. lethal drone policy.
Antal called the lack of progress “distressing,” especially because the president has publicly stated his desire to increase transparency and accountability.
Finally, Antal explained that the Obama administration’s decision to expand the nuclear program was a deciding factor in his resignation. He noted that he and his congregation had been “vigorously advocating” against the program and that he had written a letter on the topic to Obama.
Antal said there’s been “a deafening silence” from the Army in reaction to his resignation. Since filing the paperwork, he has been waiting for his discharge forms. “I was told it could be weeks, it could be months. Nobody is really communicating with me.”
In his resignation letter, dated April 12, Antal laid out his reasons for leaving the Army:
Dear Mr. President,
I hereby resign my commission as an Officer in the United States Army.
I resign because I refuse to support U.S. armed drone policy. The Executive Branch continues to claim the right to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, for secret reasons, based on secret evidence, in a secret process, undertaken by unidentified officials. I refuse to support this policy of unaccountable killing.
I resign because I refuse to support U.S. nuclear weapon policy. The Executive Branch continues to invest billions of dollars into nuclear weapons, which threaten the existence of humankind and the earth. I refuse to support this policy of terror and mutually assured destruction.
I resign because I refuse to support U.S. policy of preventative war, permanent military supremacy, and global power projection. The Executive Branch continues to claim extraconstitutional authority and impunity from international law. I refuse to support this policy of imperial overstretch.
I resign because I refuse to serve as an empire chaplain. I cannot reconcile these policies with either my sworn duty to protect and defend America and our constitutional democracy, or my covenantal commitment to the core principles of my religious faith. These principles include: justice, equity and compassion in human relations; a free and responsible search for truth; and the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
While the Army hasn’t responded, Antal is not lacking in support for his decision. He said his congregation is extremely encouraging, and he also receives support from other faiths that oppose U.S. foreign policy. The Interfaith Drone Network, which Antal belongs to, recently sent a letter to Obama that addresses “the immense loss of human life,” as well as the lack of transparency surrounding the drone program. The letter was signed by leaders of more than a dozen faiths.
Many veterans have reached out to Antal, and he noted that he’s received letters and emails from veterans who not only give support but express “their own sense of betrayal by an administration that is acting in ways that appear to be an enemy of the very Constitution that service members swore to protect.”
“We have domestic enemies of the Constitution,” Antal said. But how do you combat that? He explained that he and his congregation are pushing for legislative action and grass-roots involvement in corporations. “For $120, you can become a member of Honeywell, and have a voice at a shareholder meeting,” he said by way of example.
Antal is hopeful that American citizens will fight the military-industrial complex and the corporate lobbying that pervades military policy. Truthdig applauds his commitment to peace, accountability and transparency, and for holding on to his values by publicly resigning from his longtime position as Army chaplain. For these reasons, the Rev. Chris Antal is our Truthdigger of the Week.