The old saw - "there are no atheists in foxholes" - is a lie.
If you need proof, visit the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and the New York Times article that put me on to the topic.
In U.S. culture the military stands for traditional values - courage, commitment, and, to a large degree, Christian faith. It takes guts to "come out" as a non-believer in the military. According to Defense Department statistics, only 9,400 of the 1.4 million active-duty military personnel identify themselves as atheist or agnostic. The policy of don't ask/don't tell is clearly not limited to sexual orientation!
Jason Torpy, a retired military officer and president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, explains that “humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews - it answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values."
We health professionals don't often answer questions about suffering, death and other matters of "ultimate concern" the way a faith-based cleric would, but we're often deeply involved with people who are struggling with these questions. In that sense we're like the "non-theist chaplains" activists in the military are calling for.
In my psychiatric practice I only occasionally worked with people who were close to death, but many of my patients had chronic psychiatric ailments which were a cross to bear. Suffering, courage, resilience and meaning were common topics for us. I often thought that if an anthropologist from Mars were studying 1:1 human interactions, much of "medical" practice would look similar to "religious" practice - two people talking thoughtfully about life and death in an atmosphere of mutual respect and caring.
In my experience, health professionals often feel timid talking about the "transcendental" components of medical practice. Organized religions provide a vocabulary and a rationale for seeing healthcare as a calling and talking about it that way. I suspect that the same is true for the military. When we use the term "military service" we're rarely thinking of the historical meaning of "service" - to a higher cause, traditionally, a god.
The current wave of hostility to public sector employees - "public servants" - is a deeply destructive form of political demagoguery. Specific public programs may misfire and individual public employees may perform poorly. But serving the public is a noble calling, whether it's as doctor, nurse, teacher or firefighter.
I'm glad to learn that atheists and agnostics in the military are coming out and demanding recognition for their non-theistic orientation. The organized religions do not have a monopoly on service values. I've been privileged to be part of the health profession for my career, but even though society continues to respect us as secular servants, we don't have a monopoly on that role either.
I'm rooting for the emergence of humanist chaplains in the military!