Tag Archives: military chaplains

God in the Empty Places, Six Years After Iraq

313_34838767058_2205_n

Leaving Iraq, January 31st 2008

Six years ago I arrived home from Iraq. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life.  I wrote an article shortly after my return for the church that I belonged to at the time and I have republished it around this time of year a number of times.

When I wrote it I really had no idea how much I had changed and what had happened to me. When I wrote it I was well on my way to a complete emotional and spiritual collapse due to PTSD.  Things are better now but it was a very dark time for several years and occasionally I still have my bad days.

These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been terribly costly in lives, treasure and they have lost almost all sense of public support. I have been in the military almost all of my adult life, over 32 years. I am also a historian and the son of a Vietnam Veteran. Thus, I feel special kinship with those that have fought in unpopular wars before me. French Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, even the Soviet troops in Afghanistan before we ever went there. 

533506_10151366982462059_34997654_n

I am honored to have served with or known veterans of Vietnam, particularly the Marines that served at the Battle of Hue City, who are remembering the 44th anniversary of the beginning of that battle.  My dad also served in Vietnam at a place called An Loc. He didn’t talk about it much and I can understand having seen war myself. 

When I look up at the moonlit sky I think about seeing all of those stars and the brilliance of the moon over the western desert of Iraq near Syria. Somehow, when I see that brilliant sight it comforts me instead of frightens me. 

295_26912092058_3949_n

Tonight our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen serve in harm’s way nearly 35,000 in Afghanistan alone. We are sort of out of Iraq but Lord knows how things will turn out in the long run, and it appears that another major Battle of Fallujah is shaping up.  

Tonight I am thinking about them, as well as those men who fought in other unpopular wars which their nation’s government’s sent them. 

dien-bien-phu6

When I left Iraq I was traumatized. All that I had read about our Vietnam veterans, the French veterans of Indochina and Algeria and the Soviet veterans of Afghanistan resonated in my heart. The words of T. E. Lawrence, Smedley Butler, Erich Maria Remarque and Guy Sager also penetrated the shields I had put around my heart. 

So I wrote, and I wrote, and I still write. But tonight here is God in the empty Places.

262_29132262058_8844_n-2

God in the Empty Places. 

I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.

The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

french-chaplain-and-soldiers-2

It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.

377

But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernible victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war.

Likewise, there are supporters of war who seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members have changed.

legion-algeria1

This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indochina, placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”

frenchforeignlegionairevtnamdod-2

Another author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)

Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.

You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.

legion-indo-china

For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan.

french-at-dien-bien-phu

The French soldiers in Indochina were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people, or by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s.

In a way the French professional soldiers of that era, as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our current all volunteer force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.

943043_10151694525692059_632653331_n

Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.

When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.

For those interested in the French campaign in Indochina it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.

madonna-of-stalingrad-2

There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy. I have kept a a copy hanging over my desk in my office since late 2008. It still hangs in my new office.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, ministry, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Letter to A New Military Chaplain Part V: Count it All Joy

20130822-235225.jpg

“The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this field.” ― Karl Barth

This is fifth part of a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. This is the fifth of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy. As I wrote this tonight I thought of one more installment so I expect soon that I will write it, but not tonight. The first three parts are linked here:

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part Two The Minefields of the Heart 

Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part Three: The Minefields of the Soul: Power and Arrogance

Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part IV: The Minefields of the Flesh, Sex, Alcohol and Money

It has been a while since I started this series so tonight I figured that I would quickly finish what I started. The young Chaplain who I wrote this for is about to report to his new assignment and I do wish him well and pray that he will do well in it. If things go as I expect and he does well he should still be serving as a chaplain at least 15 years after I retire.

Thus for me this series is in a sense about passing the torch. I figure that in five or six years I will finally retire from the Navy Chaplain Corps. Of course that could change because I’m not God and so until I actually retire I will keep my head in the game. There is always a new generation and those of us who have labored need to be there for and be ready to do all we can to help, encourage and mentor those who follow us.

One of the things that I have learned over the course of 32 years in the military and 21 years as a military chaplain is that one must keep a sense of humor and not take oneself too seriously. In that time I have ran into many a chaplain and minister who lived their lives bereft of a sense of humor, had no ability to laugh at themselves and who were positively gloomy people. Saint Teresa of Avila made the comment “God save us from gloomy saints!” I think that she was right and she did take fire from people in the church because of her joyous spirit.

Now I have my times where I am not a happy camper. I can be morose and moody and sometimes even a bit cynical. However, that being said I try not to live my life that way and certainly do my best to keep a sense of humor, laugh at myself and even when things are not going well to try to find a silver lining in the otherwise dark clouds.

Chaplains have a unique ministry. We are not cloistered in parishes or trying to build churches. We serve in a secular institution with people who volunteer to serve their nation in often dangerous, lonely and arduous manners. Those who serve alongside of us on our ships, or in our units we in the Navy call “shipmate” and that transcends differences in religious beliefs, politics or philosophy. As the chaplain it is our duty in this secular institution to care for the people who we serve alongside. They are our parish whether they be believers or not. Pastoral care in this setting is about caring for and loving people who many times don’t believe like us (no matter what our religious tradition) respecting their faith or beliefs and treating them with the same dignity that we would want others to treat us, our families or our friends.

For me this is a joyful life. I like working outside the brick and mortar of the church because it suits my personality and way of doing life. I was a Navy “Brat” growing up. Had it not been for a Roman Catholic Navy Chaplain who helped care for my family when my dad was in Vietnam and a civilian church of our denomination made us unwelcome. I trace my calling back to that man. He was not about pushing his denominational or personal agenda, he simply cared about a military family who needed it.

I think that approaching life and ministry as a chaplain with joy is paramount. It is I think a reflection of the grace of God. As Karl Barth said: “Grace creates liberated laughter. The grace of God…is beautiful, and it radiates joy and awakens humor.”

In our military careers we chaplains will find many opportunities to lose our joy, to become graceless and to become consumed with our own status, promotion and even power. It is a temptation and danger of any kind of institutional ministry where there is an “up or out” promotion system.  Thus we must be careful to keep our focus on caring for others, doing our best in all things, build collegial relationships and real friendships with others and trust God with how everything else works out.

Joy is essential if we are to be living sacraments or vehicles of God’s grace and we have to chose joy. As Henri J. M. Nouwen said: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

So count it all joy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under christian life, faith, Military, ministry, US Navy

Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part IV: The Minefields of the Flesh, Sex, Alcohol and Money

1905_50393027058_1870_n

This is fourth part of a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. This is the third of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy. The first three parts are linked here:

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part Two The Minefields of the Heart 

Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part Three: The Minefields of the Soul: Power and Arrogance

Dear Chaplain

It has been about a week since my last letter concerning the minefields that so easily ensnare those in the various Military Chaplain ministries. This section of my letter to you will be of the more practical type of advice and less philosophical and theological than the first several installments even though at the heart these observations are both theological and philosophical.

I chose the title of this section carefully because I do think that the way a number of New Testament writers deal with the subject of sin, calling it “the flesh” as opposed to “the spirit” is appropriate to the topic.

I think that people of my generation and earlier had a very high view of clergy. We didn’t think that they could do much wrong. Of course we all knew that they did but we didn’t like to talk about it, even productions such as Elmer Gantry did little to dissuade us from our beliefs that Ministers, Priests and Rabbis were somehow morally and certainly spiritually better than us. Even Hollywood maintained the myth, movies like The Bells of St Mary’s showed the essential goodness of the parish priest, while The Fighting 69th in which Pat O’Brien played the legendary Father Duffy, a man both streetwise and holy became the quintessential Chaplain of his generation.

18722 - The Fighting 69th

In fact the prayer that he prays in the movie is one that I have echoed in my career as a Chaplain and I am sure that many others have as well.

“Almighty God, in Thine infinite mercy grant me, thy servant, the wisdom to guide my young flock through the trials of war. Oh, Father, they’re so young. So young and they know so little of life and nothing at all of that terrible and bloody altar towards which they move, carrying so eagerly the bright sacrifice of their youth. Their need will be great, O Lord, and I am weak. Therefore, I beseech thee through Thy Son, Christ, our Lord, grant me the strength to keep them steadfast in the faith, in decency and courage to the glory of God, their country, and their regiment in the bad times to come. And if in battle you see fit to gather them to your protecting arms, thy will be done, but let them die like men, valiant and unafraid.”

Of course there is Father Mulcahy of the movie and television series M*A*S*H. I actually liked the portrayal of him by William Christopher in the series better than the movie, perhaps because he became more than a bit player, but like many real life chaplains of every denomination an integral part of the life of his unit. His struggles are the same that many of us who serve as chaplains. In one episode he says to Hawkeye “For some time now, I’ve been comparing the disparity of our callings – Doctor versus priest. You fellows are always able to see the end result of your work. I mean, you know immediately if you’ve been successful. For me, the results are far less tangible. Sometimes… most of the time… I honestly don’t know whether I’m doing any good or not.” 

father

The film and television portrayals of chaplains such as Father Duffy and Father Mulcahy are inspiring, as are the examples of so many good men and women who have served as military chaplains. Some of these even gave their lives in combat so others might live, or placed themselves in harms way to be the the visible representation of God’s presence in places that God himself seems to have abandoned.

That being said there are minefields that exist which even the most noble, caring  and committed Chaplains can fall victim. They primarily lie in the real of Sex, Alcohol and Money, what we referred to as “SAM” when I was an Army Chaplain. Those are general categories to which unfortunately we need to discuss, illicit drugs, disobeying lawful orders and simple rudeness. I will save the issues of disobeying lawful orders and simple rudeness for part five, or Part V as they say in Roman numerals.

At any given time there are between a half a dozen and dozen military chaplains serving time at either Leavenworth or one of the regional Brigs. Others end up in trouble, are disciplined and then discharged from the the service often after devastating the lives of those that they served with. Those numbers are not included in the numbers incarcerated.

You wouldn’t think that sex would be a big issue being that we are supposed to be better at keeping our zippers up than others, but this is not always the case. I can cite from personal knowledge case after case where chaplains that I have known from across the denominational spectrum conservatives and liberals alike. Those actions have included heterosexual and homosexual relationships, inside and outside their units and sometimes involved the spouses of their unit members or parishioners.

For some this is due to the isolation that many Chaplains experience, be they married or single. Some are sexual predators, loathsome and evil animals masquerading as good, while others in moments of weakness succumb to temptation. I have had to go into a number of billets where the chaplain just before me had been relieved of their duties for sexual misconduct. Regardless of the reason the real fact of the matter is that when a chaplain is relieved and disciplined for their sexual misconduct their actions radiate out and damage the ministry and reputations of Chaplains who are completely innocent of wrong doing. This is much like how the actions of disgraced televangelists, pastors of large churches and Bishops or Priests implicated in pedophile or other sexual crimes cause problems for others in similar positions who again are without reproach. In every case where I have had to go into such a situation the onus has been on me to help heal the wounds and rebuild the credibility of the Chaplain Corps. This is true for every Chaplain who has to take a job where his or her predecessor was a criminal.

bilde-2

A Navy Chaplain being taken to the Brig after being convicted at Court Martial for sexual crimes (Marine Corps Times Photo)

Sexuality can be one of the greatest minefields that a military chaplain has to navigate, but there are others less visible that also trip men and women up.

The second major area is alcohol. I know a number of chaplains who have become alcoholics. I like to drink good craft beer, but I do know my limits now and am very careful about my consumption of alcohol. When I first came back from Iraq that was not the case. I did drink too much, mainly because I was in the process of coming apart with severe and chronic PTSD. I almost ended up in a bar fight one night and I am thankful that I never ended up in an accident or involved in any other alcohol related incident. There were times at various conferences that I would sit around and drink late into the night at the hotel with other chaplains going through similar problems as I was going through. For us it was safer than going to our superiors either in our churches or the chaplain corps.

That being said I have seen other Chaplains succumb to alcoholism and know one who in dealing with his own demons from service in Vietnam committed suicide while on active duty. Alcohol is also related to many of the incidents regarding sex, so even if it was not the primary issue it was a factor. I also know a number of chaplains who are involved with Alcoholics Anonymous and fight the battle of sobriety on a daily basis.

Related to alcohol are drugs. This is a relatively new phenomena and in most cases is related to prescription medicines, especially pain killers and anti-psychotics prescribed to treat the wounds of war, injuries and things like PTSD and TBI. Once again these are easy to become addicted to and chaplains are much like others when dealing with chronic pain, PTSD or TBI. Recently I saw something that I never thought I would see and that was a chaplain who tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in Marijuana. I figure that if there is one there probably are more that are using, many who battled addictions before their faith conversions and call to the ministry but when placed under the stress of this ministry go back to old friends.

The last component of SAM is money. I think this is a more difficult area in the Army than the Navy because in the Navy chaplains are not allowed to deal with the Religious Offering Fund, where in the Army a Chaplain at every installation is the Religious Offering Fund Manager. It is said by some that “money is the root of all evil” but I am not sure if that is exactly true in this case. I think that money and the power it brings sometimes reveals the inner character of a man more than anything. The great televangelist scandals of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the continuing saga of corruption at the Vatican Bank and the all too frequent revelations of ministers of all faiths misusing church finances are legend. When I had to manage a relative small installation chapel fund I lived in terror of making an innocent mistake, and thankfully I had an outstanding Chaplain Assistant and Parish Council to work with and maintained close contact with the fund manager at our higher headquarters.

Another issue dealing with money is what we are paid when in a travel status. I know that there are Chaplains who play fast and loose with this and I know people in the travel and disbursing offices who tell me about the actions of chaplains that they have to deal with who are not playing straight with the system. In my case I don’t make claims that I cannot substantiate even if it costs me money. I would rather be absolutely honest on a travel claim and lose money that claim something that I may or may not be entitled to that might cause scandal and bring disrepute to God, my church or the Chaplain Corps.

Money is a great temptation and more than one military Chaplain has fallen to it.

The sad thing about all of this is that most of our religious traditions deal explicitly with all of these matters as do our various Service Regulations and Defense Department Instructions. They are not rocket surgery but they are the downfall of far too many chaplains, many of whom actually came into the ministry and chaplaincy with good motives. Once again I lay a lot of this at the feet of our churches and theological schools which for decades have stressed how to run a church program over any real pastoral or theological formation process.

I am lucky. I have made mistakes but I have had numerous chaplains in both the Army and the Navy help me to see the blind spots and teach me about these things. They span the denominational, theological and even political spectrum. Conservatives, liberals, men and women, Protestants, Catholics, Later Day Saints, Jews and even a Moslem.

I could easily have gone into detail about the specific incidents where I knew the people involved or had to deal with them or follow in their footsteps. Some have made the national media, but somehow to do so would be unseemly, after all I do not work for the National Enquirer or for that matter the Navy or Army Times. That being said the Chaplain Corps of the various services all have by percentage among the highest incidences of misconduct of any officer branch or community and this has been a constant since I began my military career in 1981.

That should be a warning. If you know something is wrong don’t do it. If you are unsure about something ask someone. If you need help get it before your actions destroy the lives of those you serve and bring disrepute to your office, your religious body, the Chaplain Corps of your military service and yes even God. After all God does tend to get the blame for all of the actions of those in his service so be careful, guard your heart and mind and for God sakes keep your zipper up and all appearances thereof.

Until the next installment,

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under christian life, faith, leadership, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care

Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part Three: The Minefields of the Soul: Power and Arrogance

295_27076762058_7573_n-1

This is third part of a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. This is the third of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy. The first two parts are linked here:

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part Two The Minefields of the Heart 

Dear Chaplain

The late great Hall of Fame Manager of the Baltimore Orioles Earl Weaver said “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

The first two parts of this letter dealt with aspects of the chaplain ministry that were very much philosophical and theological in their emphasis. This part is more direct and will deal with things that are more associated with behaviors, mostly bad behaviors. I call them minefields of the soul because they are common to all human beings. They are dark parts of the soul that lurk within us that none of us like to admit exist.

220px-3ChaplainSymbols

Sometimes they are merely weaknesses, but sometimes they are pathological or in some cases sociopathic. There is no restriction on such maladies of the soul, ministers are just as prone, if not more prone to them than others. It goes with the territory. One only has to look at the Christian and Jewish scriptures as well as the history of religious leaders of all religions throughout history to see this fact. Religious leaders, especially ones whose ministry involves some form of temporal power, be it in the religious structures of their religion, behinds the scenes in secular government and the political process or those whose ministries are in the secular arena of the chaplaincy often find themselves compromised by behaviors that others might not even consider that loathsome.

As I talked about in the first two parts of this letter, all of these behaviors are linked to who we are as human beings, as ministers and have a lot to do with our theological, ministerial and pastoral formation. They also have a lot to do with our upbringing, our cultures, family backgrounds and the family systems that were formative in our upbringing as well as the prejudices that we hold deep in our hearts.

CMH Chaplain O'Callahan

This part of the letter focuses on things that are more observable to most people, especially those who see us in action. When I was leaving active duty as an Army Captain back in 1988 to attend seminary, an Army Chaplain Major Wayne Lura took the time to pull me aside and preach to me a warning sermon about the minefields that existed in the chaplain ministry. It was a warning that I took to heart.

Likewise my Executive Officer at the Academy Brigade of the Academy of Health Sciences Colonel James Wigger gave me this warning: “Steve, you think that the Army Medical Department is political and backstabbing. Let me tell you, we can’t hold a candle to the brutality of Chaplain Corps.” Unfortunately he was right. In my 21 years as an Army and Navy Chaplain I have seen this often up close and personal. I have had senior Line Officers and officers from other Staff Corps of the Navy talk about how bad of reputation many senior Chaplains have, especially in promotion boards.

The warnings of Chaplain Lura and Colonel Wigger hit me hard as a young officer, especially in the ideals that I held out about the Chaplain Corps. I took their warnings to heart but did not want to believe that they could be true. The sad fact was that they were all too true, Chaplains like all ministers and people often have feet of clay and at times hearts of stone.

Even so I had to find out the hard way about how destructive the “minefields of the soul” were in the lives of my fellow chaplains and and the Chaplain Corps of the Army and Navy.

I will first address the issues of power and arrogance. These issues plague institutional ministry and those minister within institutions. I think a part of this is that many who wind up in Chaplain ministry because of their lack of pastoral formation readily grasp at the apple of power, like the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that fruit is a powerful elixir. Yet even those that have a more thorough formal pastoral formation can fall prey to the lust of power.

Power is a great temptation and a minefield. The military chaplaincy is unique in ministry in that chaplains also hold commissions as officers in whatever military branch we serve. As I mentioned in my first article we have to be fully clergy of our own faith tradition and at the same time fully a commissioned officer if we are to succeed in the military chaplain ministry.

gettysburg-blog-photo-1

Unfortunately there are some that embrace the fullness of the commission and leave behind their ministerial identity, and even more unfortunately when they do they do this they are neither aware of it, nor very good at it. They forget with the exception of a couple of billets or positions, one being the Commanding Officer of the Navy Chaplain School that all the rest of us are staff officers. We are officers but we have no command authority. That does not mean that we cannot supervise chaplains, chaplain assistants or religious program specialists and civilian or contract staff. But when we do so we function under the authority of our commanding officer. I have seen some in both the Army and Navy who have forgotten this and have become tyrants and used the power that they have to destroy the lives and careers of those that they do not like, or have somehow offended them. They are toxic and if they were serving in a denominational structure they would be the ones abusing that power as well.

The temptation of power is great, but just is dangerous is the temptation of arrogance. A Kenyan prayer says: From the cowardice that dare not face new truth, From the laziness that is contented with half truth, From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, Good Lord, deliver us.

Arrogance usually shows up in the Chaplain ministry in the way we advertise our selves and our beliefs. Arrogance comes in the form of deciding that whatever truth we proclaim trumps the rights of others to their beliefs. One of the chief complaints of people about chaplains is that some of us, perhaps even many of us are more intent on promoting our agendas, religious, social and even political than we are actually listening to and caring for the people whose religious rights that we are constitutionally mandated to protect. Yes, even those people that we do not agree with on doctrine or anything else. Our mission is to provide or perform ministry and care for the people we have been given to serve. That is a sacred trust. If there is something that we cannot do for someone by virtue of what our church or personal beliefs mandate we don’t have to do it, but we do have the legal and moral obligation to help them find someone who can.

schluter

Our Navy Chaplain Corps motto of “Cooperation without Compromise” should be the bedrock of how we minister and how we respect the rights of others, both other chaplains and those that we serve. Sadly, there are horror stories about how some chaplains of various traditions, liberal and conservative, Christian, Jewish and Moslem have run roughshod over the rights of others. I have seen it first hand and there is no excuse for it. But that being said none of us can allow our own arrogance to dictate how we treat others nor can we allow the mistreatment we may have experienced from other Chaplains to justify doing the same to others.

The Navy policy is quite clear and when we apply for a commission we agree to do this, and in fact all of our religious bodies have agreed that their chaplains will do the same. SECNAV INSTRUCTION 1730.7D is quite clear on this. Like the Prime Directive in Star Trek it is non-negotiable.

(1) Chaplains are qualified Religious Ministry Professionals’ (RMPs) endorsed by a DoD-listed RO and commissioned as Naval officers in the CHC.

(2) Per reference (d), as a condition of appointment, every RMP must be willing to function in the diverse and pluralistic environment of the military, with tolerance for diverse religious traditions and respect for the rights of individuals to determine their own religious convictions. Chaplains must be willing to support the free exercise of religion by all Service members, their families, and other authorized persons. Chaplains are trained and expected to cooperate with other chaplains and RMPs and work within the specialized environment of the military while not compromising the tenets of their own religious traditions. 

(3) To meet the requirements of religious accommodation, morale and welfare, and to facilitate the understanding of the complexities of religion with regard to its personnel and mission, the DON has designated four core CHC capabilities: care, facilitate, provide, and advise. Chaplains care for all Service members, including those who claim no religious faith, facilitate the religious requirements of personnel of all faiths, provide faith-specific ministries, and advise the command. 

In my next installment I will discuss what I call “The Minefields of the Flesh” also known as Sex Alcohol and Money.

Until the next time,

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under faith, Military, ministry, Religion

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part Two The Minefields of the Heart

295_27076892058_2637_n-1

This is second part of a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. This is the second of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy. The first part is linked here:

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

“There is a twilight zone in our hearts that we ourselves cannot see. Even when we know quite a lot about ourselves-our gifts and weaknesses, our ambitions and aspirations, our motives and our drives-large parts of ourselves remain in the shadow of consciousness. This is a very good thing. We will always remain partially hidden to ourselves. Other people, especially those who love us, can often see our twilight zones better than we ourselves can. The way we are seen and understood by others is different from the way we see and understand ourselves. We will never fully know the significance of our presence in the lives of our friends. That’s a grace, a grace that calls us not only to humility, but to a deep trust in those who love us. It is the twilight zones of our hearts where true friendships are born.”Henri J. M. Nouwen

Dear Chaplain

The next section of our discussion is about the “minefields” that we so often encounter as Chaplains and to some degree as Ministers, Priests or Rabbis or other religious leaders. As I noted in the first section I am dividing these “minefields” into three major areas; the personal, the behavioral and the professional.

This section is about the “personal” minefields which I call the “Minefields of the Heart.” I call it this because it seems from the Christian and Jewish Scriptures the heart is the figurative locus of what we are, good and bad alike as human beings.

Of course there is always some spillage between the areas personal, behavior and professional areas and our behaviors and professional relationships are certainly influenced by the things that we hide deep in our hearts. As human beings we may try to compartmentalize our life to keep things apart such as keeping our personal life separate from our professional life, or hide behaviors from our friends, families, peers or co-workers; but the cold hard fact is whether we are aware of it or not each area impacts the other. If we are not aware of this fact, if we have little self awareness, if we have self awareness but try to live our lives with the illusion that we can separate our lives into neat little boxes we will most undoubtedly hurt ourselves, and as spiritual leaders harm those that come to us.

q_who

There is a scene of the last episode of Star Trek the Next Generation entitled “All Good Things” that comes to mind.  In it the being known simply as “Q” helps Captain Picard discover how his actions influence human history.

Q: You just don’t get it, do you, Jean-Luc? The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons. And for one brief moment, you did.

Capt. Picard: When I realized the paradox.

Q: Exactly. For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.

You may wonder where I am going with this but it has to do with the personal minefields, those that exist inside of us, those that lurk beneath the surface which if we are unaware wreak havoc on everything else that we do. In the episode of Star Trek that I am referring to Captain Picard is allowed by Q to see the effects of his actions and to see how limited his thinking was.  The challenge for us is chaplains are to be aware of what Nouwen calls “the twilight zone in our hearts” and how what is at the depth of our heart impacts everything else that we do.

Too often though, mostly because of our own personal limitations and serious lack of real theological and pastoral formation involving self reflection and exploration we fail to see them. Like an uncharted minefield we are unaware of them until we either discover their existence through accident and “blow ourselves and others up” or until we listen to those that can see those twilight zones, those minefields better than we ourselves. Of course the latter, especially when it comes from those who love us, care for us and have our best at heart is the preferable method to learn about these things.

943043_10151694525692059_632653331_n

However, that being said part of this can be done through reading. A lot of us simply read “how to” type books when it comes to ministry. We seek direct easy answers in how to run our programs be it in the church, in a para-church ministry or in the chaplaincy. Believe me there are plenty of those kinds of books out there, not only that but a plethora of “self help” books that tell us the “three things we must know” the “five whatever’s to success” or the Seven Habits of Highly Defective People.” The sad thing is, even when these books contain nuggets of truth, they serve it like fast food and reduce it to the lowest common denominator. In a sense, even the most well intentioned of these “how to” or “self help” books promote a reductionist view of faith, spirituality, psychology and in some cases ethics and doctrine.

Reading is important, especially the hard stuff, philosophy, history, moral theology, but also things that you might not expect science fiction for example. In addition classic literature from antiquity and from non-western traditions also sheds light on those personal minefields. Heck we can even find truth in television and film, note my continued references to Star Trek. I find that God can speak to us in many ways.

As Christians we may also find lessons, insights and inspiration from the Bible that can be quite helpful. Unfortunately most of us have so many theological filters in place that we often miss the very things that would be most helpful to us. They can serve as blinders that keep us from sensing what the Spirit of God is trying to teach us. Our church, denominational or theological traditions as well as our hermeneutical methods often cloud our minds to what God is trying so hard to say. It was a problem that the religious establishment of his time had with Jesus, and often with the various prophets that preceded him whose stories we read about in the Old Testament.

1905_50393137058_7454_n

I am sure that others who are not Christians can say similar things about their faith, traditions and holy books. I remember an Iraqi General who I met who took the time to show me his well worn and read Arabic-English Bible. He was a Moslem, but he said that he learned so much from it because it was different than what was in the Koran and he meant no disrespect of his own faith by saying that. He had opened his mind to truth that others turn a blind eye to.

Some of the personal issues that prove to be deadly include what we don’t know about ourselves, usually dating back to childhood, how were raised, how we see God, if we perceive ourselves to be worthy of God’s love or worthy of the love and respect of others.  Those attitudes, especially those created as a result of negative relationships or even physical, emotional or sexual abuse, abandonment and rejection are powerful. Many of us like to pretend that we have gotten past those things but few of us actually do. Unfortunately there is a tendency for those issues to raise their heads in often very ugly ways as we minister as Chaplains.

For example: Let us say that we are distrustful of authority because of having an abuse parent, that we fear that no matter how well we do that there is always someone waiting to take us down. Let us say that we had previous experiences in the church, at work or maybe in prior military service where we were mistreated by those in authority.

I have found that if that condition is not dealt with that in a hierarchical organization such as the Chaplain Corps and the military that it is almost always fatal to the ability of the chaplain to minister in the organization. That is because the military is based on trust, our lives and mission depend on it. We have to trust the chain of command, we have to trust those that serve alongside of us and we have to trust our subordinates. There may be times when the chain of command fails and things don’t go right. There are toxic leaders and there are also toxic chaplains, one has to be aware that they are out there, know how to deal with them or survive under their command but one cannot presume that everyone is like that, trust is essential.

father

I find it interesting that Jesus commended the faith of the Roman Centurion when instead of asking Jesus to come to his house and heal his servant simply said “But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”Matthew 8: 8b-9 Jesus told the people around that “he had not seen such faith in all of Israel.” Jesus saw the virtue of the Centurion, a virtue that many of his own people were lacking.

That is just one of a myriad of personal issues that can trip up a Chaplain in the military. The fact is that issues of the heart those things that we don’t like to admit are true about us, things that we are unaware about or in outright denial about in our lives are the things that go to the “heart” of who we are.

As fa as the minefields of my heart, they too are many. However the one that gets me time and time again is my passion for justice and my visceral reaction to those that I believe are bullies. That comes from my childhood. As a Navy brat I was always the new kid in town, and being that I was kind of the short, shy and introverted kid I was also kind of a nerd, or geek. I was not gifted with speed or great athletic abilities and it took me a while to find my academic prowess. That meant that I often didn’t fit in and though I was generally well liked that I would on occasion be bullied and I learned to defend myself, not very well at times but well enough to as the Klingons say “to die an honorable death.”

Jeremiah the prophet, who admittedly was most certainly clinically depressed if you look at his writings did note that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 Depressed or not Jeremiah did seem to understand that what he and many writers of scripture call “the heart” is hard to understand, especially when it is our own.

Thus I go back to Nouwen’s comment about the “twilight zone of the heart” that we cannot see. That it is why as Chaplains we have to develop relationships with people who can help us see what is in the twilight zone of our hearts and lovingly come alongside of us, not just as colleagues but as friends.

Those people may be clergy or other chaplains, but then they may not be. Perhaps they are senior enlisted personnel, long time friends, teachers, spiritual directors, counselors or our God forbid our spouses, I jest about the latter because my wife can see things about things about me that I cannot see, she is incredibly wise.

The minefields that exist in our hearts are so varied, so diverse and so treacherous. They have the potential to affect so many other parts of our lives. Thus for us as chaplains if we are not careful they can be destructive not only to us, but to those that we serve as well as those that we presume to love.

295_26912097058_4309_n

When I look back at my career and I am honest about it, I can say without a doubt that most of the things that hurt me were a direct reflection of the minefields that were already present in my heart. When things that happened that I felt were unjust or threatening I reacted and quite often my reactions caused problems greater than what I was reacting to. All they needed was something to set them off. What I have come to understand is even though I have had a very successful and that I am now a Senior Officer that what lies in my heart can still blow me up and that I need to always be careful of those minefields that exist in the twilight zone of my heart.

Lao Tzu said: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

That is the key, those things that emanate from the deepest recesses of our hearts are full of minefields and we need to guard our hearts and minds in this ministry that we are privileged to have as military chaplains.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

4 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, philosophy, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

185615_1857288397412_3950321_n

Note: This is a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in  both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. It will be the first of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy.

Dear Chaplain,

“Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.” Francis of Assisi 

I thank you for writing me about the questions that you have concerning ministry as a Navy Chaplain. They are incredibly good questions and I since you first asked me two days ago I have given them much thought before responding. I find that if I take the time to mull over such questions it is much more beneficial than simply spitting out whatever comes to mind first because if I don’t get the questions right my advice however good might be wrong. Of course even well thought out advice can be wrong in a given circumstance so you must contextualize the advice and adapt it to your own circumstances at any given time.

As a prologue to the actual questions that you ask I want to point you back to the words of St Francis. I think that they are they key to success in any ministry, but especially the chaplaincy.

As chaplains we are called by our churches or religious bodies to serve in an organization that is essentially secular. Our ordinations come from our churches or religious bodies and we are to be faithful to them. However our commissions as officers come from the President and this creates a dialectical tension that is hard to resolve for some. You will hear people talk about managing the “right and left side of our collars.” That of course is the fact that we wear our military rank on the right collar and the Cross that we wear as Christians or in the case of our Jewish, Islamic or Buddhist colleagues the Tablets of David, the Crescent or the Wheel of Life on the left.

Some attempt to seek a balance between the rank and the religious symbol. That is a bad model because but what typically happens is that chaplains become fall to one side or the other. By that I mean that they either place the military side higher and forget their call or minimize the military side and find that they have no voice in the system. I have seen many chaplains who have in their attempt to fit in with the military forgotten their call as ministers. On the other hand I have seen a number place such an emphasis on their own religious traditions and their perceived rights as ministers that they neglect the vast majority of the people that they are assigned to care for as chaplains. Both options are bad because ultimately we fail to serve those that we are called and given the privilege to serve.

A few years back I saw the travesty of trying to “balance” the two sides of the collar. From my observation those who tried this always end up becoming so military that they end up losing their faith distinctions or they never adapt to the military and even if they do “good ministry” they end up frustrated, are seen as an outsiders and have relatively short careers.

295_27076762058_7573_n-1

As such I went back to Christian theology to find a model of ministry and that is in the hypostatic union of Jesus the Christ. By our understanding as Christians Jesus is both fully God and fully Human, not half and half, or any other percentage, but 100% God and 100% human. The fact is that as Navy Chaplains we are 100% ministers of our own faith group and 100% Naval Officer. As such we need to be the best we can at both and cannot allow ourselves to settle for anything less. If we attempt to “balance” we will fail in being ministers or being officers.

The military is not the church, as such  In the United States our service in such a capacity is not a right, it is a privilege. The right is not ours, it is right of the people that we serve to have the Constitutional right under the First Amendment to their “Free Exercise” of religion. As chaplains we facilitate the religious rights and freedoms of those who wear the same uniform that we wear, whether they of our faith, another faith or even of no faith. This is not about being “politically correct” but rather being faithful to two callings, both of which must be valid and respected in order for us to do what we are called to do as Navy Chaplains and there is always a tension in this. If you take a look at the chaplains that have trouble it is most often because believe that their right to free exercise is greater than the people that they are called to serve or that they lack a sufficient understanding of their call as Ministers, Priests, Rabbis or Imams. That is why Francis’ words are so important.

I think that many ministers, not just chaplains have a terrible understanding of our calling and vocation. To many the ministry is simply a job, their ordination and theological education the necessary prerequisites to perform the task. It is an attitude that I noted in seminary back in the late 1980s and early 1990s and have continued to observe over time. In seminary I had fellow students tell me that they were just thier to get a more advanced degree to help them get a bigger and better paying church. I had others friends disparage their theological education. I had one friend tell me that our degree was “only good for 5 years.” Obviously he was only thinking about the “how too classes” and not the courses that are really important to theological and pastroral formation.

But such is the state of theological education in this country. The fact is that most churches, seminaries or religious bodies do a pretty bad job at pastoral formation. We do a great job on teaching people how to manage churches, direct programs, teach doctrine, evangelize, run media empires or even become social and political activists, but a terrible job at actual pastoral formation and the latter is actually the most important task. Formation is primarily about relationships and relationships are what the Gospel is all about, beginning with the relationship of God to humanity and all of creation.

That may sound like I chased the proverbial rabbit but the attitude has a decided impact on the chaplain ministry. What happens is that this simply becomes a job and “skill sets” take priority over our calling and our service to those who were are called to serve during the time that we are allowed to serve in the Navy. We must never lose sight of who we are called to be as ministers, including the vows the we took when we were ordained as well as the oath that we swore as Naval Officers.

All that being said back to your questions. You asked first about the minefields that you might encounter as a chaplain. In a sense I have described some of them, they are very often related to who we are on the inside. It is as Lao Tzu said: “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”

The minefields that you asked are varied but most are related to what I have already described. They are often directly related to our own understanding of ourselves, our calling and our relationship to those that we are called to serve.

But to get into some detail on real, perceived and potential “minefields” you might encounter let me break them into several categories.

The first is the personal. As I stated before we have to know ourselves. This takes time and many people remain oblivious to who they are and what they are about, sometimes for most of their lives. Where this comes into play as a chaplain is that if we do not understand who we are and what we are about we will fail either in regard to our ministerial calling, our military vocation or our familial or ecclesiastical relationships.

The second is behavior. This is directly related to our personal behaviors and as we were told back during my early times as a new Army Chaplain. Most chaplains who self destruct tend to do so through SAM. Sex, alcohol or money. At any given time there are anywhere between half a dozen and dozen chaplains of all services serving time in Leavenworth or a regional Brig most having been convicted of charges involving SAM.

The third is professional. This is the nuts and bolts of what you will face as a Navy Chaplain. This includes your service to your crew, relationships with the chain of command and your fellow chaplains, your peers, your superiors and eventually those that you supervise as well as your Religious Programs Specialists or Chaplain Assistants. Likewise it includes your continuing relationships with your endorser and church that ordained you.

n671902058_1153804_6925

I will continue the discussion of these three areas in the next couple of days. After those topics are address I will discuss the particularities of promotion and assignments in the Chaplain Corps. Since my experience includes 17 1/2 years  in the Army and 14 1/2 years in the Navy including service as a junior chaplain in both as well as service as a Field Grade Officer in the Army and now as a Senior Officer in the Navy Chaplain Corps my perspectives will be quite unique.

Thank you for your patience in reading through this as well as for asking your questions.  They have forced me to think about this subject in new ways and write in down my thoughts down ways that I never have before. Yes I have set down with and discussed these ideas and concepts with various chaplains but have never written them down in a systematic format until now. I do appreciate you giving me the chance to do this. It means a lot.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

5 Comments

Filed under faith, leadership, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, philosophy

The Uncomfortable Truth about the Rise in Military Suicides

The truth can be uncomfortable and truthfully most people don’t like to deal with uncomfortable things.  Suicide is one of those things that tend to make us uncomfortable.  Occasionally someone will demand the truth and when they finally get, the truth becomes a very uncomfortable thing and frankly many people cannot handle the truth. It reminds me of the exchange in the movie A Few Good Men where Colonel Jessup played by Jack Nicholson tells Lieutenant Dan Caffey played by the Tom Cruise: “You want the truth, you can’t handle the truth!”

The United States Military has been struggling with an upsurge of suicides and suicide attempts among its personnel since 2005.  Before that point military suicide rates were comparable or lower than comparable civilian populations. That is no longer the case, the military suicide rate is now higher than the civilian rate by a statistically significant percent.

The Associated Press reported a Defense Department report noting that in the first 155 days of 2012 that 154 active duty service members had killed themselves. That number is going up, I know of at least two at my base that have occurred since this report was released including a murder suicide committed by a Staff Sergeant who had recently returned from Afghanistan.

The military has tried to stem the tide. It has bolstered its mental health services and suicide prevention programs but the numbers despite leveling out in 2010 and 2011 have been rising. These numbers are reaching staggering proportions in the active duty, reserve and discharged veteran ranks.

A Veteran’s Administration Crisis line reported that in in 2011 it had received over 164,000 calls last year. It reported 6760 rescues and noted that 2300 self reported Active Duty personnel had called their hotline as well as over 12000 calls from family members or friends of veterans regarding their loved ones.

The rise in suicides particularly as the mission in Iraq has ended and Afghanistan is beginning to draw down has surprised many both inside and outside the military. While many of the men and women who committed or   attempted suicide even more have done so who have not deployed. People are speculating about the reasons for this and we know a lot of the answers and underlying causes.

First and foremost is the stress put on the force by 10 years of non-stop deployments to combat zones and fighting two major insurgencies at the same time and the resultant effects: Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen killed and wounded, combat stress injuries, PTSD, TBI, moral injury, family issues, divorce, infidelity, financial problems, domestic violence, sexual assault, alcoholism and drug abuse. As a Chaplain I know many young men and women who grew up in Christian homes and had what they described as a deep faith who after war have lost their faith. I see an increasing number of these young men and women.

An additional factor is the fact that we are entering a period of time where Soldiers and Marines and to a lesser degree Sailors and Airmen are being threatened with a massive drawdown in numbers.  This will force many to leave the military in the midst of a long term economic downturn that could get worse based on the precarious economy of the Eurozone which threatens the US economy.

There is the perception on the part of many in the military that they fight the war alone. There is a real lack of understanding in the civilian population as a whole about what is involved in going to war. Since only about one half of one percent of the American population is in the military at any given time this should not be a surprise. Finally there is a widely held belief among those that fight the war, no matter what sacrifices they make in Afghanistan that it will not matter in the end, that the war cannot be won. No one wants to admit this but the fact of the matter is that it is true because neither political reads history.

However as important as all of those factors are they are now joined by another factor that was not a factor in the early part of the war. The bond of unit cohesion which was a positive factor is eroding. Prior to the war and during the first few years of it unit cohesion was strengthened by seasoned and mature Staff NCOs, Petty Officers. These men and women had risen through the ranks and were seasoned by years of training, well rounded careers, combat experience and deployments. Many had some amount of college education. They dealt with their own stress well and were excellent leaders and mentors to junior personnel and the young officers that they helped to train.

I was at a training conference in March attended by a couple of hundred Chaplains and Mental Health Professionals. One of the seminars dealt with a program to train the young NCOs and Petty Officers to be first responders who could care for their Marines and Sailors. During the question and answer portion I decided to bring this up. I said that “the program would be great if we had the same force that we started the war with and that the men and women that we were depending on to do this job were themselves among the injured.” I said that the force was “hardened but brittle.” A number of people including the Subject Matter Expert agreed with me, others, mostly those who were relatively new to the military looked at me like I had gone off the reservation. I brought this up at another conference this month with a similar response.

That seasoned core is gone. In their place are younger, combat hardened veterans. Unfortunately many of these young men and women, charged with leading and training the new Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen are damaged goods themselves. They have been back and forth to war so many times that they bear unspeakable burdens. Many suffer from unreported PTSD, struggle with alcoholism and have pressing personal or family problems. Some of them take out these issues on the new troops, something that I think is directly related to the suicide epidemic and other problems. The attitudes of some have become poisonous to good order and discipline and actually compromise the trust of of service members to the chain of command. That trust was essential and helped get the military through the first part of this war but I see it being eroded on a daily basis.

A glaring example of this comes not from a NCO but a Army General, the Commander of the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss Texas, Major General Dana Pittard at Fort Bliss Texas. General Pittard wrote on his blog: “I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”  His attitude serves as a reminder that for many that some leaders see those suffering from PTSD, TBI or other psychological conditions as ‘broken.” Ask any Marine, Soldier, Sailor or Airmen what what it is to be labeled as “broken.” There is still a stigma attached to mental illness, depression, PTSD, suicide and being “broken” that is not helped by statements of leaders like General Pittard.

As a result the resiliency of the force is at stake. Anyone who served in the years following the Vietnam War and the beginning of the all volunteer military can see similarities then and now.  We have not reached the point where the force is broken but the situation will not show much improvement until some point of stability is reached.

I cannot state with certainty the actual proportions of this factor, just my own observations that come from counseling and listening to Marines and Sailors every day. I’m sure that the same is true in the Army where judging by what I read it seems to be worse. The Army suicide rates are the highest in the military.

What has to be done is bigger than the military itself can do. There has to be a national commitment to both finding a way to lessen the stress on the force and to do more than offer platitudes about “supporting the troops.” The truth is that as a nation we refused to pay the cost of these wars and tried to fight them on the cheap. Political leaders after September 11th 2001 told people to “go back to normal” or “go shopping” and did not call the nation to war. The nation was untouched, no one paid a dime in extra taxes and no one was forced to join the military. The burden was placed squarely on those who volunteered. That burden has not been removed and unless the American people and Congress do more than telling the military to “do more with less” while lining the pockets of defense contractors who cannot seem to produce weapons systems without major production problems, cost overruns that are never produced in the promised numbers as well as the war profiteers of the military industrial complex, the lobbyists and Wall Street.

Of course that is just my opinion. It is an opinion formed by serving over 30 years in the military and having gone to war myself. It is an opinion of someone that has been involved with suicide prevention in the military for close to 20 years. It is an opinion based on conversations that I have every day with the young Marines and Sailors that I encounter. It is quietly shared by many leaders.

I have seen what has happened first hand and if anyone actually wants to do something to change the suicide epidemic they need to look at the whole problem. It is a national problem that needs a national solution. As a nation we have burdened a comparatively small part of or population with fighting our wars without a true national commitment to either winning the wars or supporting them.

Military Medicine, Mental Health Services and Chaplains are performing heroic work to care for our troops. Many leaders “get it” and are trying to build a culture where those suffering can get help without suffering the stigma and pain of alienation that comes from being “broken.” Yet despite increases in funding, numbers and emphasis the problem continues to escalate. That is the truth and it will not significantly change until the causes that I have listed are addressed, not simply by the military but the nation.

God help us.

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, national security, News and current events, Pastoral Care