Daily Suicides in U.S. Military Highlight Need for Chaplain Reform

Ten days before his twins were born, he attempted suicide for a fourth time and was referred to the unit’s chaplain. He wanted more help but the unit was not taking him seriously enough. After his fourth attempt, “he lost all hope and faith in the system to care for him.” The head of psychiatry told his wife they were so overrun with mental illness that they could not possibly accommodate all the soldiers that needed help. He died by hanging on the installation following four suicide attempts.

This soldier was referred to the chaplain because mental health professionals were unavailable… and this was after four suicide attempts. The above vignette is from a 2010 Department of Defense report (PDF) on military suicides that recommended that each service member have an annual face-to-face meeting with chaplains for counseling and referral to other agencies.

If a person with four suicide attempts is not afforded dedicated help, then we have pretty powerful evidence that the military is woefully under-staffed to handle mental health issues. And it shows the (extreme) level of reliance the military has on chaplains as members of the mental health team.

In an encouraging note, the DoD report also included recommendations that chaplains and others have “evidence-informed” counseling training.  An Army Report (PDF) from 2010 proposed the creation of 72 new chaplain positions and also included the chaplains within the military’s mental health team. A separate Army Forces Command soldier risk management program refers “Extreme High Risk” individuals to the unit chaplain.

If the military wants to employ chaplains beyond their basic credentials, it is important that they be trained as counselors rather than just as clergy. The DoD Report emphasized this point, saying, “The training of chaplains cannot be emphasized enough.” However, they were more circumspect in a later portion of the report in which they offered a very carefully-worded rebuke:

Chaplains may benefit from increased sensitivity to issues pertaining to religion, spirituality, and death by suicide, and how, occasionally, well-intentioned but insensitive mention of such issues might cause harm to the surviving family member.

One might read into this that Chaplains should not use death and dying as an opportunity to evangelize military personnel or their grieving families. This is an important point, but it’s unclear whether the DoD was making a general point or treading lightly to avoid ruffling the feathers of evangelistic chaplains. Let us hope it was the former.

These DoD and Army reports were published in 2010. Unfortunately, military suicides have reached a rate of one per day, outpacing combat deaths and reinforcing the already dire feelings about the mental health and personal well-being of military personnel. Military leadership has been aware of the issue for years, addressing suicides and post-traumatic stress together as two outcomes of higher deployment rates and the general stress of military life.

Our heroes deserve better

As a result of the 2010 reports, the military has implemented several strategies, one of which is under the broad heading of “resiliency.” “Resiliency” is an umbrella term that addresses areas like family, mental, social, and spiritual fitness. A key focus area of resiliency is the problematic “spiritual fitness” programs which have spread throughout all branches of service, including at the Department of Defense level and in military hospitals. The question is whether the military is being effective or even honest in its claim to support the beliefs of all personnel.

There is the obvious problem that the Constitution prohibits an establishment of religion in government. It would be (and is) unconstitutional for the military to promote any specific religion or religion in general as a means to mental health. The idea that military leaders can or should make decisions about religion on behalf of service members is both pervasive and damaging to the military team. Commanders utilize their chaplains to provide nondenominational or even sectarian prayer to captive audiences. The Marines are allowing a prominent Christian shrine at Camp Pendleton to stand. The spiritual fitness programs themselves assume a “spirit” and are administered by a chaplaincy that that continues to avoid support for atheists and has censored Humanist identity. Early in 2011, presumably following the initial training and response from the suicide-prevention reports, several senior chaplains admitted they would try to convert a dying service member.

Well-meaning (and some not-so-well-meaning) folks have called for chaplains to be the solution to this problem. Some put forth faith as a panacea to solve all problems related to suicides and mental health issues. The “Get Religion” blog calls for the military to integrate chaplains more fully into suicide prevention, and implies that that necessarily involves “getting religion.” The confusing and undefined concept of “spiritual” fitness was mentioned frequently as a mode of suicide prevention. The DoD and Army reports suggested expanding on “spiritual fitness” assessments as part of routine physical checkups. The concern arises again that chaplains are included alongside psychological and other counseling professionals, yet chaplains do not necessarily have professional counseling credentials and have certainly shown no interest in reaching out to atheists and Humanists with authentic support.

If the military wishes to utilize chaplains as the first line of defense for mental health issues (including suicide and PTSD), then chaplains must be trained in scientific and secular counseling techniques. If the military is to benefit from the religious background and pastoral care credentials chaplains have, then military leaders must invite or require chaplains to be trained, resourced, and, above all, willing to provide for the needs of all service members on the terms of the service member.

This means that a troubled young soldier referred to a chaplain by a commander will find a chaplain who can provide information and resources to Humanists and Wiccans just as effectively and enthusiastically as they would Catholics or Lutherans. Spiritual Fitness arguably has the same issues as the chaplaincy and needs significant reform before it can be truly effective for those who don’t hold the majority Christian beliefs. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Guardians need leadership to commit wholeheartedly to science-based and truly open approach to line-level counseling, formal counseling, and mental health support if programs are to be effective. There should be great skepticism and caution in employing chaplains as mental health or other types of counselors, yet they are currently treated as a primary resource. Improved credentials and openness of the chaplaincy to non-traditional beliefs may be one route to reducing the suicide rate within the military, but there are a lot of improvements to be made.

About Jason Torpy

**Comments at Friendly Atheist do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers are any other organizations.** Jason Torpy serves as President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF), a nonprofit community for atheists and humanists in the military. MAAF also educates military leaders about the needs of nontheists and advocates where necessary. Jason is a former Army Captain and Iraq veteran with a Bachelor of Science degree from West Point and an MBA from The Ohio State University.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    This doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.  The military medical system used to recognize that it does not have the staff or expertise to handle all problems.  Is it not possible to refer active duty patients to civilian health care? 

    • Erp

      My understanding is the standards for confidentiality for civilian health care are more restrictive than the standards for military health care (other than military chaplains who are permitted a higher standard) so the military may be reluctant (plus they probably cost more and/or may not be available close to where most soldiers are based when stateside).

      Chaplain training in counseling before entering the military may vary wildly depending on denomination (some will have training grounded in modern psychology, some will have none, some will have ‘Bible-based’ training, and some with out-of-date theories).   I have no idea which denominations have which.

      • sunburned

         Even then does it not seem a bit outrageous for medical personnel to refer someone to an unqualified/under qualified  entity for treatment?

        It’s like a doctor sending off someone to a taxidermist to get stitched up because the emergency room is overloaded.

  • http://twitter.com/RantBot5000 RantBot Grikmeer

    About 5 years ago I applied to join the Army – Specifically REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), which would probably let you know that it was the British Army. I was told that because I have a history of depression they would not be able to accept me, because they couldn’t guarantee that I would have the support that I would need out in the field.

    I’ve been forever grateful to them for that. While I would have loved to do the work in the Army, learning to repair helicopters and things like that, it showed that they cared about the protection that they could offer me. If I’d been in America, would I just have been accepted and run these risks?

    • Dan

      No, a history of depression is disqualifying in the US military.

  • TheAnalogKid

    “One might read into this that Chaplains should not use death and dying as an opportunity to evangelize military personnel or their grieving families.”
    This;

     http://youtu.be/SB1UifGIqaw

  • mike

    I imagine that the two greatest hurdles to getting more real mental health professionals are that: 

    Many people and esp. many christians don’t think that psychology is really works.  They are ignorant of the advances in science and that extends to psychology.  I’d like to say that christianity is at fault for opposing this branch of science, but I don’t think that that is the case here as much as in others.

    Real mental health professionals would tell the military the real truth, that placing people in traumatic situations is detrimental to their mental health.  Furthermore, this is compounded by a soldiers youth and inexperience, by their detachment from family and friends, and by the lack of personal relevance of their missions.  All soldiering has its costs.  An experience soldier defending his home knows exactly why he is fighting, has a clear motivation to fight, and can go home afterword for consolation.  Today’s soldiers have next to no mitigating factors when they experience trauma.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7DTI2BTJIZ5SA72K2R5T7QX3A4 Lori

    The problem isn’t with the chaplaincy, the problem is with the medical corp.  Until the military deals with the reality that the military system and wars are psychologically devastating to members and their families and provides necessary medical care these problems will continue.  They need professional *medical* help, not chaplains and not spiritual fitness tests.  I am a victim of the military leadership’s refusal to accept and put programs in place to handle this real issue that has been going on, no doubt, since wars began.

  • A Reader

    This is an incredibly sad situation all the way around. I hope that those in charge will see the need for more (and better) mental health services. Even Christian soldiers shouldn’t be getting help only from religious personnel. Implying that “if you loved Jesus more, your life would be perfect” is incredibly small-minded and ignorant of the real causes, physical, societal, and mental, of depression.

    • DG

      Who tells anyone that if you love Jesus more, your life would be perfect?  Any quotes to back that one up?  I’ve never heard that said in my entire life.

  • http://v1car.wordpress.com/ The Vicar

    “Our heroes” may “deserve better”, but the U.S. military does not contain the heroes of any thinking, informed person. These are the folks who are constantly found to be engaging in things which would certainly be considered war crimes if soldiers from some other country were doing them to us (posing with dead bodies, urinating on dead bodies, etc.). These are the people who actually OPERATE the drones which are killing innocent people, and even doubling back to hit first responders. These are the people who CHOSE to be doing all this, because there hasn’t been a draft in decades. These are not heroes; they are hard not to think of as monsters.

    Do I feel sorry for them? Wish they had better care? Sure. But every time I see some idiot carelessly claiming that the U.S. military deserves our respect and is composed of “heroes”, it makes me want to issue a solid denial and say “no, they are evil and deserve what they get”. And it gets harder and harder every time to restrain that impulse. Please stop using that rhetoric; it’s offensive.

    • New Reader

       Yeah. Some of them are monsters. On the other hand, some are just uneducated kids from rural areas who have to escape poverty somehow and are told that the only thing they are good for is the military. Then the military does not provide an environment that educates them and improves them, it isolates them, it dehumanizes them, and makes them more xenophobic than they were before. It’s a systemic problem as well as a personal problem. Proper psychiatric evaluations and treatment might improve the problem.

      • http://v1car.wordpress.com/ The Vicar

        Even the ones who aren’t monsters aren’t “heroes”, and it is extraordinarily provocative to refer to them as such. Everyone should stop doing it.

    • Sue Blue

      Some may be “evil” or have psychological issues.  But by far the majority of young people that enlisted did NOT do it because they wanted an opportunity to torture people, kill women and children, or indulge some kind of sick fantasy.  As New Reader says, some were kids with few other options.  Many, like my nephew, were encouraged to enlist by parents and church as part of a crusade-like effort against Islam.  They were force-fed the idea that Iraq had something to do with 9/11, and that Muslims were going to invade America if young men and women didn’t stand up and do something about it.  Some felt a real desire to “serve their country” like their grandparents had in WWII.  Many had no money for college and few job opportunities.  
      Please stop painting all these young people with one brush.  While the military is an institution I wish we didn’t have to have or pay for, not everyone in it is evil or twisted.  Many have performed heroic acts – dying for their buddies, saving women and children, defying orders that were unjustified or wrong at the risk of their lives.  Part of the reason for the upsurge in mental illness is the fact that many are realizing that the war was unjustified, that they had been lied to by their President, the military, and their own families – that they had been forced to kill people not to protect the US or wipe out some global evil, but for corporate and political greed.  Call the military-industrial complex evil, and I’d agree with you wholeheartedly.

      • http://v1car.wordpress.com/ The Vicar

        As I replied to the other person desperate to “correct” me: even the people in the military who aren’t monsters aren’t “heroes”. There is nothing about joining the military which is inherently deserving of respect, and being fooled by propaganda into doing something stupid is not heroic. I am trying not to paint everyone in the military with one brush, but — to extend the metaphor — when I see them all whitewashed with one brush, it makes me want to grab a bucket of tar and commence slapping it on over the top, and the more times the “they’re heroes because they’re in the military” lie is repeated, the more I have this reaction and the harder it is to restrain myself. There was no need for it in this article, in particular. (See the caption on that melodramatic picture?)

        • Sue Blue

          The coast Guard is a branch of the military, and they ARE heroes.  They risk their lives on a daily basis to save people who – often as a result of stupid, selfish, reckless acts – need to be rescued.  Recently the entire crew of a Coast Guard helo – people that everyone in this community knew personally –  died trying to save complete strangers who had run their yacht aground in a storm.  If you ask a Coastie why they joined, they’ll usually say that they want to save lives.   How is there nothing deserving of respect in this?  Or in becoming a nurse or doctor in the service?   

          • Mermaid

            Coast Guards I know do it for the paycheck & because they like the water & have a gov’t job w/full benefits in this life & the next :) 

            • Sue Blue

              All of which may be true.  I’m an RN, and I get paid for it, but that isn’t why I became a nurse.

    • JasonTorpy

      I think you’re confusing the military with political leaders and the citizens who employ the military for war. Part of the reason the military is so stressful is that military personnel find themselves in military actions or wars that are unexplained or explained badly. It’s easy to stand on the side and throw stones, but at its base, the desire to join the military, serve the nation, defend the Constitution, and exemplify the ideals of the US is an honorable pursuit. When the military is employed for imperial, commercial, or religious “national interests” point a finger at Congress, the President, and maybe the most senior of military leaders, but I think the vast majority still deserve respect and support for defending the nation. Even you recognize that those committing war crimes are in the tiny minority. And when you’re concerned that they aren’t punished appropriately, I again refer you to Congress, the President, and the most senior military leaders who sometimes improperly adjudicate these worst of of offenses.

      • http://v1car.wordpress.com/ The Vicar

        What you are basically saying is “hey, most of these people are ignorant and/or stupid, but we should praise ALL of them because SOME of them MIGHT have had good intentions.” I doubt there has ever been any group which has committed crimes in which there wasn’t a subgroup which had honestly good intentions. I am absolutely certain that it has been true of every evil regime you care to name — every dictator has had a cadre of supporters who genuinely believe that obeying their evil orders is for the greater good. That doesn’t excuse these people; it just means they have plenty of examples which they should have learned from.

        You know, I don’t personally know a single person who actually believed the rationales used for war in either Iraq or Afghanistan. I knew Bush and co. were lying at the time, and so did everyone I know personally. I say that not because I think I am particularly virtuous, or expect you to praise me, but because I consider myself to be average. Other people should be SMARTER than me if they expect me to admire them. Asking me to admire people who are not just dumber than I am, but willing to put up their lives to assist evil because they are dumber than I am, is extraordinarily obnoxious. Guess what you’re doing.

        The U.S. has not had a serious military threat since… oh, gosh, basically since I was grade school if you think the USSR was ever a genuine threat, and if not then certainly since before I was born. But we’ve been fighting anyone and everyone pretty continuously all that time — and we are bankrupting ourselves to do it. The only result has been that we make even more enemies — sometimes we even actually CREATE enemies, as with Al Queda. Anyone who STILL thinks the U.S. military is a beneficial organization is criminally stupid, and would do us all a favor if they stopped voting.

        • CH. C

           You come across sounding very ignorant and very arrogant Sir.

          As of 30 September 2010, 1,430,895 people were on active duty in the military, with an additional 848,000 people in the seven reserve components.

          Are you telling me that all 2,278,895 of them are urinating on dead bodies?

          Are you telling me that all two and a quarter million of them are trying to kill first responders?  They all fly drones into civilian neighborhoods and try to kill innocent people?

          Your broad stroke brush is foolish to say the least and arrogant at best.

          You sir would do US all a favor and stop lying, and start using YOUR brain to make up your mind rather than listening to power hungry political rhetoric.  The Politicians do not care about you or me one bit, the only want to manipulate us into voting for them, so that we can absent ourselves from choice and allow them all the power to do what they want when they want to.

          Are there horrible people who have done many bad things in the military?  Yep, for sure, but the number is comparatively so small that they become statistically meaningless.  Their actions, however, provide fuel for the arrogance of media to become critical of anything they can while they try to get YOU and ME to tune in, and let Sony and Pepsi pay for their commercials at a higher rate.  That is all the media wants, money, so they sensationalize everything they can.

          Wake up and realize you are up to your neck in your own feces Vicar

  • Ken

    Depressed?  Pray.  Didn’t work? Pray some more.  Still depressed?  Pray some more.  Good bye.  Didn’t pray enough.

  • http://siveambrai.myopenid.com/ siveambrai

    Another way to help is through charitable organizations that help support our way underfunded VA and military health systems. Give an Hour (http://www.giveanhour.org/) connects soldiers with mental health professionals on a pro bono basis and helps to make sure that both active and retired individuals are aided. Even if you disagree with the wars or the individuals, they’re still people and members of our community who are suffering.

  • Sue Blue

    So, instead of hiring more qualified mental health professionals, they waste money on more chaplains?!?  If the God stuff and the praying works, why is the religion-infused military having such a problems with mental illness in the first place?  And the people making these decisions have access to guns and bombs.   We’re fucked.

    My nephew went into the Army at age 18, and only a few months after graduating from high school was in the field in Iraq.  On his first patrol, he was forced to shoot a woman.  Within days, he : killed a young child while breaking down a door to a home where insurgents were supposedly hiding, shot a teenager who was brandishing a weapon, and saw two of his buddies blown up by a roadside bomb.  Always a sensitive kid, he was extremely disturbed by these incidents.  He served 4 tours, developed an ulcer, lost over thirty pounds, and had severe PTSD, yet was sent to Afghanistan after a brief leave.  AFter returning home, he was told he would not be discharged when he was supposed to be discharged.  He lost it.  He threatened his CO, then told other personnel he would kill himself and anyone who happened to be around.  He had hallucinations.  He didn’t eat or sleep.  He was referred to mental health services for  one  half-hour counseling session per week.  He saw the chaplain, who told him to pray and meditate.  No one suggested medication or leave or hospitalization. Finally, he was cheated out of full benefits because he was given a general discharge rather than a medical discharge for his extreme depression and PTSD.   The attitude of the Army was that he should be grateful he didn’t get a dishonorable discharge for his meltdown. The family has raised money for him to get mental healthcare over and above the minimun VA services, but he continues to suffer.   

    • Tom

      Made sick, ordered to be well, condemned for remaining sick.  It’s as outrageous when we do it to each other as when we imagine gods are doing it to us.

  • DG

    If Mr. Torpy is associated with the military, then he should know that all chaplains must have some form of clinical counseling training. 

    Some might point to the growing secularization and censoring of the chaplaincy corp in recent years as part of the problem.  More than one chaplain has spoken of the growing sense of suppression of beliefs experienced in the modern military chaplaincy corps.  Plus, atheists and secularists have rightly celebrated their growing influence over the last decade or so in drawing thicker lines between chaplains and their duties as historically understood.  With that, one can’t automatically say ‘look how we’ve been changing things these last several years’ and then say ‘the rise of suicides is because of chaplains’ at the same time.  Something has to give, and I’m inclined to think it has far less to do with chaplains here or atheists there, as much as the general unraveling and decay of the country that continues to recruit these men and women to protect it.

    • JasonTorpy

      Point to the regulation that says “must”. 1304.28 governs chaplain accessions and refers to religious educational experience and religious leadership experience. I freely admit that many chaplains, maybe even the majority, have clinical counseling, but there’s certainly no “must” or even an emphasis on such in chaplain accessions. Feel free to cite examples, and I think that would make us all feel better.

      As for celebrating our growing influence, I think you’re thinking of the chicken little paranoia expressed by ministries and right-wing political organizations. They are much more likely to celebrate the secularization of America, and you’ve heard about it because they’re spreading that message with multi-million dollar ad budgets and Congress.

      If chaplains prefer to engage exclusively in religious services, then they can choose to do that. I invite them to recuse themselves from counseling duties and the mental health profession and retreat to their religious duties. But you can’t say ‘they’re qualified counselors’ while simultaneously lamenting ‘drawing thicker lines between chaplains and their duties as historically understood’

  • George

    Our Chaplains in the USCG are Navy Chaplains. The best way I could describe them is that they remind me of born again youth pastors. Most of the people in the military are 35 or younger, so the Chaplains act accordingly. It’s not a big deal to me, but your only contact with the outside world while in Boot is through an officer who is trained in theology…could turn a lot of the really young atheists away. The Chaplain Corps are there for the religious, but I really don’t think they should be the only contact with the “real” world for those doing isolated duty or in heavy training. 

  • Larry C.

    My comments are late, but here they are:

      I served as an enlisted Chaplain Assistant in the early-mid 80s at Ft Polk LA with the 5th Infantry Division for 4 years.  I was a gung-ho evangelical Christian at the time and spent the 4 years at Polk completing my Bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from an evangelical college for the purpose of becoming an Army chaplain. 

     Working with chaplains from different groups broadened my own outlook a lot.  For one thing, I found the more liberal chaplains had generally been exposed to a basic working knowledge of psychology and some secular counseling theory which they were exposed to in their liberal seminary pastoral counseling  classes.  I also came to realize that the fundamentalist chaplains (who at the time I was in theologically  agreement with) had a totally different educational experience since they had all gone to seminaries which stressed counseling ideas strictly based on the bible.  Guess who was more effective in dealing with the average, lower enlisted soldier who was usually struggling with very basic issues like stress, marital problems, lack of money, existential isolation, etc.?  The liberal chaplains. This was shocking to me.  But over time I saw that people in the units I served would tell me that, “I went to Chaplain X and he listened and encouraged me and didn’t try to put any kind of heavy religious emphasis on me but did give me some practical suggestions on how to better communicate with my wife/how to deal with stress/etc.,”  On the other hand, the one’s who went to the fundy chaps often found themselves getting dumped or with a boat load of fundy theology as the way to deal with problems.  For instance:  the wife is complaining all the time about you always being out in the field and away from home?  Then, let’s pray together to bind that demon of marital discord and ask for God’s blessings for your relationship.  Yessiree!  Now that kind of praying is really going to change things!

    I eventually ended up going to a liberal seminary myself and took a boatload of pastoral counseling courses which were not based on the bible but on research from the behavioral sciences.  I also did an internship at a hospital mental health ward and got a fair amount of practical experience working with people and me mental health issues.  But here is my point: the basic MDiv (Master of Divinity) professional degree that military chaplains are required to possess can vary greatly in its content.   In my seminary program, we had about a year of basic required courses in scripture study, theology, religious history, preaching, etc., but half of the 84 semester hour, three-year program were electives that you got to choose. I  piled up a lot of counseling classes but someone else graduating with the same degree could have piled up their electives with the study of scripture, world religions, liturgics, preaching, etc.  and would have been placed as the go-to person for counseling at the battalion level without ever having taken even one course in psychology or counseling!  Does that make sense???  

    In the “graduate”  fundy schools, they get very little (if any!) exposure to basic mental health information since they subscribe to the myth that the bible is all one needs to deal with people and their problems;  and that all problems of living are simply manifestations of a spiritual battle between God and Satan.  So, no need to have even a rudimentary knowledge of symptoms of brain disorders, depression, PTSD, etc.  To the more fundamentalist type chaplains, who went to fundamentalist “biblical” seminaries, to view people with problems without framing it as at its core as evidence of a damaged relationship with God, is “secular humanism”!  It is also important to keep in mind that at the fundy schools their students are inculcated with a  dismissive attitude towards the mental health professions since they know these groups are secular in their approach to healing.  The end result is that even if a mental health patient presents to these ministers/chaplains,  they will be less likely to refer them on to a real medical professional since their theology and ideology has taught them that they possess all the answers to life due to their knowledge of “God’s Word”!

      The idea that all chaplains have professional counseling training and skills as a result of their graduate degree in religion is a MYTH that is promoted by the different branches of the armed services.  Even though I went to a liberal seminary and took a number of counseling classes (which were actually recognized by a local state university as transferable to their graduate counseling program) , we were told by our pastoral counselling professors to not try to do any kind of counseling other than short-term “supportive” , i.e., listen and encourage and then refer the person to real counseling professionals in the community since:   (1) we didn’t really have the knowledge and skills for doing professional psychotherapy with people and (2) we were to know our limitations in our training and refer our troubled souls to professionals in our communities actually were trained, skilled and credentialed for that kind of work. 

    This more humble view of what a graduate, professional degree  in ministry can actually give a student is not what is promoted by the different branches of the Armed Services.  No sir!  With the Chaplaincies, once you are officially endorsed by your religious denomination and are ordained as a spiritual guru,  then you are set loose to “counsel” all kinds of young, stressed-out and troubled service members who ASSUME you actually know what you are doing when in fact you may have no more skills  for helping people than the guy working behind the counter at a convenience store!

    So here is one of my main points:    THERE IS NO OTHER PROFESSIONAL MASTER LEVEL DEGREE PROGRAM WHERE WHAT YOU ARE EXPOSED TO  IN TERMS OF ITS ACTUAL CONTENT CAN VARY SO MUCH!!!  For example, if you get a Masters in Social Work, there are national standards which each accredited school has to met in order to be approved.  This means that whether you get your MSW at a school in California or a school in New York, you are exposed to the basic core materials and go through a basic body of knowledge and skill set.  With MDiv’s, no such core knowledge and skill set exist.  The MDiv  is the ultimate “generalist” degree where you get exposed to a Hodge-podge of information and ideas.   

    I did serve for a couple of years as a Reserve and National Guard Chaplains. I eventually left that (and the faith!) and have now worked for the past 25 years in the mental health and substance abuse treatment fields.  I  had more training in professional counseling than most of the chaplains I worked with but evenback then I recognized that there was so much to learn and I had just been exposed to the tip of the proverbial ice berg of knowledge.

      The myth of the chaplain as a skilled counselor is a hold over from a bygone era where the only person who was available to offer any kind of guidance and advice in a rural community was the kindly country parson or vicar.  But that age is long gone.  In the last 50 years there has been an explosion of knowledge and research on the disorders of the brain and evidence-based treatments that have been shown to really work.  We no longer give deference to psychological theories which are not founded on solid, empirical evidence so why are our armed services still giving deference to the myth of chaplains being skilled and wise counselors?  As a Chaplain Assistant and then as a Chaplain, I met more chaplains who had some obvious psychologically issues than you could shake a stick at; yet, they were held up as the go-to person for help for all kinds of personal and family problems.  

    So, the problem is that the Armed Services, and even the VA, mental health services have not been beefed up enough to account for the deluge of service members who are suffering from the psychological wounds of their military experiences.  And the chaplain corps has historically been used as the el cheapo way the Department of Defense can say that they are addressing the problem of our wounded warriors. 

    Chaplains can and do offer a lot of basic human caring and support to service members.  Sometimes, simply offering someone the “milk of human kindness” can be tremendously therapeutic. But it is delusional to think that the majority of chaplains have anything in their educational or ministerial backgrounds to deal with the severity of mental health problems that our service members are suffering from.    The myth that mental health problems are at their core spiritual problems is one that causes the system to believe they are adequately dealing with  the problem by making the chaplain a front-line, poor man’s, pseudo mental health surrogate for in our Active Duty and Veteran populations.  We need to stop giving our warriors religious placebos via the chaplaincy corps and instead make sure they get real medical treatment which they have earned and richly deserve.

  • CH. C

    I am an Army Chaplain, and I would like to mention a few thoughts.

    First, I know that there are some real jerks in the chaplaincy who will stop at nothing to convert people, even when they know it is against DOD regulations, and their oath to God and Country to protect those specific regulations.  Those people IMHO do not deserve to wear the uniform much less be a chaplain.

    That aside, most of the chaplains I have met will care for you equally irregardless of your faith choice, or lack thereof.  I personally have met with many soldiers throughout my career and I have no idea if the VERY vast majority of them have any specific faith traditon at all, let alone their personal branch of faith choice.  This is meaningless to me.  I am happy for the people who have faith, and I think it helps them, but I also KNOW that people do not always find the comfort in faith that I do, and I have a very healthy respect for a person’s right to choose to be religious or not. 

    I am the only person in my family who goes to church at all, and I still love my family very much.  I do not care if you are gay or straight, Catholic or Buddist, Wiccan, Evangelical, or Atheist.  I ask that others have that same respect for myself and my family.

    I am a professionally trained clinical counselor, and I have studied various counseling techniques and I know how to use them.

    I will be more than happy to point you towards any faith organization, even if they are one that  is horrific towards my faith.  It is not for me to judge. 

    When we talk about Spirit etc I will explain this as such:  As a chaplain I work with that part of a person that makes you you.  IE what makes you who you are, that bit of you that no other specialty does work with, that is my lane.  I want to be sure that you are emotionally strong, mentally healthy, but it is more than that, it is an understanding of self that chaplains work with.  Are there gray areas where Chaplaincy mingles with other specialties?  Of course there are, but that can be said of any profession in the world, everyone has someone who does a little bit of what they do, but not fully the same thing.  Some people are mechanics working on tanks, some on aircraft, some on automobiles and some on ships.  They all do basically the same work, and could likely interchange the rudimentary work from one to another, but would you trust a auto mechanic to certify that your 747 is fit to fly?  Would you trust your 747 mechanic to certify your car will not kill your family next time you take it out?  Of course not, the same is true of a chaplain and other specialties.  We do what we do, and we are the only ones that do it.

    Lastly I most certainly WILL care equally for each and every Soldier, dependent, or civilian DOD member whom I speak with. 

    Regards,
    CH. C.
    Post Script: If you or anyone you know needs to speak with a chaplain I would encourage you to do so, give them a chance, if they do not help you perhaps consider trying a different chaplain, or a mental health specialist, but do not let that pain fester inside of you, let someone talk with you and help you to see life can get better.


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