Why do chaplains act as counselors?

“Why are chaplains doing any counseling? That’s not their training!”
“I know of a soldier who was disturbed and told to speak to the chaplain.  Well, the soldier was Buddhist and the chaplain Christian, and the soldier didn’t want to talk to him — so the commanding officer put the soldier on suicide watch!!”

These were some of the comments and questions that came up during Sunday’s Q&A at Columbia, and what struck me the most was the gap between our idealized vision of what things should be like and the often messy reality of how things are.

It makes perfect sense to question why chaplains are performing non-religious counseling.  When this question came up after the Newseum screening, Chaplain Ben Sandford described the chaplain as just one member of a team that includes social workers, psychologists, trauma specialists and medical doctors…   The motto is that the military wants to keep its troops physically sound, mentally sound and spiritually sound.

Spiritually – now that is a big, vague word.  It encompasses religion to be sure, but it also extends beyond that into realms some might deem the world of emotion.   While, technically, spirituality falls under the jurisdiction of chaplains (who are also religious leaders), in actuality, spirituality is also something secular social workers and counselors often deal with.  So the lines are blurry at best, and to tell chaplains they cannot venture into the broader realm of emotions is as futile as telling social workers they cannot touch upon the realm of spirituality.

Where chaplains and social workers and therapists of any kind venture is, ultimately, up to the troop sitting with them.  Young Marines, soldiers and airmen are perfectly in their right to tell a chaplain they are not interested in speaking about religion.  Mikey Weinstein’s group has received complaints from soldiers who say that chaplains have refused to help them unless they accept Jesus as their savior – no question in my mind that this is unacceptable.  And, as one young woman in the audience on Sunday postulated, it is equally worrisome to think of chaplains dealing with psychological disorders they are not trained to handle.  If a troop is really on the brink and his chaplain is young and inexperienced, is it right to send the troop to see the chaplain rather than a psychologist?

No.  And if that troop were my son or daughter and on a base Stateside, I would want him or her to get immediate professional help from psychiatrists.  I was in fact surprised to learn from Marine veteran Allan McLeod, who was part of the Q&A, that he was sent to the chaplain first when he reported problems even though he was on a US military base.

That’s where historic precedence and sheer habit are at work – habits formed during decades of relative peacetime.  As Marco Reininger, head of a veterans’ organization at Columbia said during the Q&A, chaplains are historically the first stop in a chain of care.  The Commanding Officer recommends that a troop see the chaplain  who then refers the troop for professional counseling.  On a small FOB, this may still make sense — which is what seems to have happened in the case mentioned during the Q&A.  As Marco explained,  if the CO is worried about a member in his unit and that troop refuses to speak to the chaplain, then the CO will take whatever measures he can to keep the troop safe.  This may include placing the troop on suicide watch until the CO can transfer him off the FOB to a larger base with counselors.  On lager bases, especially in the US where there are multiple resources, this automatic referral to the chaplain may not always make sense.

Indeed, it would not be surprising if the current wars change some of these habits.  Never before have we seen such a high suicide rate.  Never before have so many of our women and men in uniform, regardless of age, rank or duty, returned with PTSD and TBI.  Never before have so many of our veterans fallen out of society so quickly.  Never before have we been so acutely aware that veterans who seem to be stable today may develop problems tomorrow — symptoms can sometimes take years to surface.

That means we will be forced to break habits that are not productive and reinforce those that are.

Maybe officers and NCOs will be more quick to send troops directly to combat stress specialists when they are available.  Mind you, this is a big “when.”  In combat zones, getting a soldier to a psychiatrist might mean pulling him out of his small FOB or outpost, transporting him to a larger base leaving his unit a man short while he is away.  As long as we are enmeshed in this kind of war, there are limits to what the military can realistically offer downrange.

Maybe the military will beef up the counseling training chaplains receive (already many do have training in counseling, but by no means all).  At the same time, the military might increasingly value the importance of chaplains as safety valves.  In what chaplains call their ministry of presence, they wander through the work place and FOBs, chatting with troops, making themselves available if someone needs to vent, talk about a problem, process an experience.  As chaplain Steve Shaw told us, “it is hard to measure the bad things that don’t happen.”  And being able to speak to someone who really listens, to relive with them the trauma of seeing a buddy killed or of pulling the trigger and killing – this can be of enormous value and prevent trauma from crystallizing and suffocating a part of our mind and what some call spirit.

Is this a religious function like preaching a sermon, conducting Friday prayers, or giving communion?  No.  Is it a spiritual function?  Some would say yes.  Others would say it is purely psychological.  Either way, if the chaplain is the one around to listen, then does it really matter whether this act belongs to the realm of the religious/spiritual or the emotional/psychological?

In my mind, no.  What matters is getting as much support as possible for our men and women in uniform. It is clear that not everyone wants to talk to a chaplain and not every chaplain appeals to every troop.  There are however things that chaplains can do to increase the odds of troops approaching them.  They can be open, non-judgmental and accepting of troops regardless of the troop’s religious beliefs or lack thereof.  They can refrain from proselytizing.  They can help troops find ways to nurture their spirit on the troops’ terms, not theirs.  And, to the troops who share the chaplain’s religious beliefs, they can act as mentors and spiritual leaders.

Luckily there are plenty of chaplains already doing this – some of them are featured in our doc.  The challenge is to help our legislators realize the potential impact of laws governing chaplains’ behavior.  And to help our military leaders figure out what old habits are worth keeping and which are maybe best altered to fit the challenges of today’s wars.

A first step, of course, is for us all to think of these issues not in abstract terms but instead to look at them pragmatically.  For that, we civilians need to gain a better understanding of the realities of military life.

a screening for Republican staffers in DC

Back to Chaplains Under Fire web site


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3 responses to “Why do chaplains act as counselors?

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