TAMPA — Air Force Staff Sgt. Brandon Crilley admits he sometimes felt out of place when he was deployed in the Middle East or even back home at MacDill Air Force Base.
It was the small things. Like watching others get care packages from churches when he was stationed in Qatar last year. Or feeling uncomfortable going to a chaplain for a personal crisis.
One word stamped on Crilley's dog tag explains the discomfort.
So Crilley and a small group of active and retired military atheists recently banded together at MacDill to provide support for atheists who feel alien in a military culture where professions of faith and patriotism often go hand in hand.
It comes amid a push by the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, a Washington-based nonprofit, urging the Pentagon to support a policy treating atheists or secular humanists like members of any religious group.
The association hopes that may one day include the appointment of atheists or "humanist chaplains," with the resources of traditional chaplains, including the confidentiality of counseling.
About a dozen or fewer members of the local group, called MacDill Atheists and Secular Humanists, or MASH, have met monthly since January in the last place anyone might guess.
They meet in a room at the MacDill chapel where Sunday school is held and whose walls are adorned with Biblical scenes.
They meet with the permission and encouragement of the base chaplain.
Crilley, 26, an aircraft technician, said he approached someone at a base chapel when he was deployed seeking mental refuge from the stress of daily duty. He asked about support for atheists.
"They looked at me like I was crazy," he said. "I just can't go to a church for that kind of getaway. We want to reach out to others, to give them that link and support" others get from religion.
Support for atheists is especially crucial when many troops think a visit to a mental-health counselor stigmatizes them or threatens military careers, Crilley said.
"You have two choices," Crilley said. "You can go to the chaplain, or you can visit someone in mental health."
Crilley said he doesn't wear atheism on his sleeve, and knows pushing it too hard might cause problems with others at MacDill.
"If I sneeze and someone says, 'God bless you,' I don't tell them, 'No, I'm an atheist.' That would be ridiculous," he said.
Members of the MacDill group said they have faced no obstacles from the base, which is home of the two major commands leading the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command.
Far from it. Members say David Buttrick, chaplain of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill, has been supportive of their efforts and allowed MASH to use the chapel and display literature in it.
Under federal law, Buttrick said he cannot deny access to the chapel to any group, whether it's the Girl Scouts, a group of hobbyists or atheists.
"I feel very comfortable with the decision," Buttrick said. "Our job as chaplains is to accommodate people of faith and people of no faith. It doesn't matter."
Buttrick said he views MASH no differently than a group of Muslims, Catholics or any other religion seeking space to meet.
Jason Torpy, a former Army captain who heads the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, said he is encouraged by the way MacDill has allowed atheists to meet on base.
He said MacDill is one of the few bases so open to atheists. The wider battle with the military, Torpy said, is more daunting.
Torpy said the military's 3,000 chaplains "do not go out of their way" to provide support to atheists and secular humanists.
That includes providing literature from atheist groups to non-believers the same way a local church might be allowed to do for Catholic or Protestant troops.
The Pentagon says that 9,400 of the military's 1.4 million active-duty personnel identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. But another 285,000 claim no religious preference, making the numbers of atheists and agnostics potentially much higher.
"We're not asking for any groundbreaking change," Torpy said. "We just want chaplains to support all service members. What's happening at MacDill is excellent. But we have a long way to go."
John Kieffer, 61, of Tampa is one of MASH's founding members. He is a retired Army combat veteran of Vietnam whose conversion to atheism began after a 1970 firefight that killed three in his unit.
He recalled being sure that enemy dead were going to hell. But he said he began to think the fact they were not Christian was simply an accident of birth.
"They had no choice of where they were born," Kieffer said. "I started thinking about that. How could God be that unfair and mean?"
Kieffer said the intellectual journey to atheism began by the time he dug his next foxhole.
"I was," he said, "an atheist in a foxhole."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.