Backward, Christian Soldiers
Weinstein was born and raised in Albuquerque, the son of a Naval Academy graduate who ultimately became a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. After graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1977, he became a judge advocate general and, after leaving the military in 1989, worked as a Washington-based corporate lawyer and counselor to the Reagan White House. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he and his wife, Bonnie, lived a comfortably affluent life in the northern Virginia suburbs, attending their two sons’ sporting events in the afternoons and mingling with other A-listers on the Washington social circuit at night.
That changed abruptly in summer 2004, when Weinstein visited his son Curtis on the eve of his second year at the academy. Over lunch, a clearly agitated Curtis described several occasions when cadets and officers had subjected him to anti-Jewish verbal abuse. His account chilled Weinstein, who as a cadet had twice been beaten unconscious in anti-Semitic attacks. Weinstein filed a complaint; the Air Force responded by launching an investigation that exposed a predatory, top-down evangelicalism at the academy.
Since then, the Weinsteins have burned through their savings and retirement funds and leveraged credit card debt to sustain MRFF as a lonely sanctuary for besieged secularists. (MRFF often provides spending money for clients who are no longer in the military and are struggling to get by.) Each day, the group is peppered with appeals for help. During an interview with The Nation, Weinstein paused to take a dozen calls and text messages from clients in places from Fort Hood in Texas to Afghanistan’s Helmand province, where automatic rifle fire could be heard in the background.
The MRFF e-mail log is packed with detailed accounts of senior officers subverting with impunity regulations against evangelizing. In one, an Army staff sergeant tells how he and his comrades were forced to endure a Baptist minister’s graphic sermon about a girl who was roasted alive in a car crash along with her soul because she had not been baptized, then encouraged to embrace Christ with the help of religious counselors waiting just outside the door. In another case, during an official briefing an officer at a missile air base was treated to a Christian prayer for divine “guidance and direction” when deciding when to launch the weapons under his responsibility.
A First Amendment vigilante, Weinstein is also on intimate terms with its abusers. His hate mail—mostly anonymous and unprintable grace notes from the bosom of white Christian America—casts him as everything from a troublemaking Jew to the Antichrist. (Among Weinstein’s many critics is his daughter-in-law’s father, who in a June 24 letter in the Colorado Springs Gazette derided him as a Christian-hating publicity hound. In response, Amanda Lee Weinstein, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2004, wrote a lengthy defense of her father-in-law in Veterans Today, as “the one that I call Dad.”)
Death threats against Weinstein and his family are routine. Vandals have shot through the windows of the Weinstein family home and painted swastikas and crucifixes on its walls, smeared his door with feces and destroyed his mezuza, the parchment roll of Hebrew verse traditionally hung on the door frame of Jewish homes. He retains a detail of security and explosives experts, and he has positioned firearms—from a twelve-gauge shotgun to semiautomatic handguns—throughout the house. (Amber, Weinstein’s 23-year-old daughter, sleeps with a .357 revolver by her bed.) The guard dogs have been trained to fend off intruders for at least eight seconds, which security consultants estimate is the minimum amount of time the Weinsteins would need to get to their guns.
Firearms, however, are not Weinstein’s offensive weapon of choice. Armed with a hundred years of case law, he is most formidable in court. In 2004 MRFF was alerted by service members that chaplains embedded in combat units were handing out vernacular-language Bibles in Iraq and Afghanistan in violation of a Pentagon General Order that prohibits proselytizing of any kind. After MRFF took up the case, the Pentagon responded by confiscating and destroying isolated caches of Bibles, although according to MRFF such evangelizing continues in both countries.
In January 2010 Weinstein exposed a private contractor who was supplying rifle scopes to the Defense Department imprinted with coded references to Christ-related biblical verses. After ABC News did a report on the “Jesus rifles,” as Weinstein called them, the Defense Department ordered that the scopes be sanitized of any subliminal content.
In April, in response to MRFF demands, the Pentagon withdrew an invitation to the Rev. Franklin Graham, known for his Islamophobic remarks, to speak at a National Day of Prayer Task Force service. In August Weinstein revealed that troops from Virginia’s Fort Eustis were confined to their barracks and assigned cleanup duty after they refused to obey their commanders’ orders to attend the performance of a Christian rock group. That same month MRFF publicized the mass baptism of twenty-nine marines at California’s Camp Pendleton before their deployment to Afghanistan. News accounts of the ceremony, part of a battalion commander–inspired operation called “Sword of the Spirit,” were republished by Ansar Al-Mujahideen, a leading jihadi website.
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The number of Muslim service members seeking Weinstein’s help has grown geometrically since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the cruel odyssey of Zachari Klawonn is a particularly ripe narrative for the jihadi mill. The Fort Hood–based Army specialist, a model soldier with no reprimands on his record and some of the highest physical-fitness ratings in his unit, has alleged that he was subjected to regular abuse because of his Muslim faith. According to the half-Moroccan Klawonn, who enlisted two years ago at 18, his dream of being an Army careerist was challenged by a culture of Islamophobia from the day he put on his uniform. “With 9/11, Islamophobia in the military was born,” Klawonn said in an interview. “You can see it in the libraries, the Christian concerts. They look at me like I’m an outlaw.”
While marching in basic training, says Klawonn, troops would mockingly chant “hajji,” a term of respect in the Muslim world for those who make the annual hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. During a prisoner interrogation training exercise Klawonn was instructed by his drill sergeant to play the role of a suspected terrorist—not just for his own unit but for others throughout the day, depriving him of his own training interval. His requests to fast and pray were angrily denied, and his Koran was anonymously seized from his locker and torn to pieces.
The harassment continued at Fort Hood, where he was assigned in November 2008, and intensified a year later after Maj. Nidal Hasan went on a shooting spree at a base medical clinic, killing thirteen people and wounding thirty. After a threatening note appeared on his barracks door, Klawonn was advised by Fort Hood authorities to find quarters outside the base because his safety could not be guaranteed, but he was denied the standard stipend for off-post housing.
On April 27 Klawonn turned to Weinstein, who immediately retained a Dallas-based attorney to represent his new client. Within days, Klawonn was ordered to appear before the second-highest commander at Fort Hood, who demanded to know why he was generating such negative publicity. “Clearly they were feeling the heat,” he says.
With MRFF gathering evidence and interviewing prospective witnesses in anticipation of a lawsuit, things have improved for Klawonn. He has started receiving his housing allowance, and a Muslim prayer room and imam have been made available on base. As the details of his treatment have slowly emerged in the media, the hostility toward him has subsided. Many of the 3,540 active-duty Muslims serving in the military—the actual figure is probably higher, as a considerable number of them are thought to be “closeted”—have expressed their support for Klawonn’s cause. His ambition to make officer grade has survived his ordeal, and he is even considering a career in politics. “We’re going to fix what’s going on at Fort Hood,” he says. “The only thing to do is to be productive and progressive and tackle the problem head on. You lead by example.”
Asked if harassment and discrimination against Muslim soldiers like the kind Klawonn received could have contributed to Hasan’s murderous rampage, Klawonn acknowledges the possibility that it was provoked. Nothing justifies murder, he says, but “the reality is that there was Islamophobia at Fort Hood. Could it have pushed an individual to a breaking point? Absolutely.”