Atheists, Chaplains and Counselors in Foxholes

There’s a good letter to the editor in this month’s Armed Forces Journal in response to a column from March bemoaning the lack of chaplains in the Air Force (and by extension other services).

In the initial column, Chaplain (Maj.) Robert A. Sugg writes,

“Once upon a time, our Air Force chaplains knew every face in their units and could call out many airmen by their first names. Today, we get lost searching for the commander’s office. A profound cultural shift, two decades in the making, is driven by dynamics as diverse as expeditionary warfare, personnel shortages and a proliferation of programs that divert chaplains to administrative work. Tethered to desks and redundant programs, our chaplains are no longer able to provide effective spiritual guidance and pastoral care to commanders and war fighters.”

That’s probably true. But, strangely, the column is titled “Counseling crisis.” I think we can all agree there’s a mental health crisis in the military — just look at recent news coverage of the suicide rate, sexual abuse and other problems among military personnel. And while chaplains are great sources of support (even as an agnostic I used chaplains for support while in basic training), I think Maj. David Bigelow’s letter, “Counseling For All,” hits the real problem firmly on the head:

“. . . I believe that replacing chaplains with nonreligious counselors is a wonderful step forward in putting the needs of airmen before the needs of the various religious groups.

. . .

Nonreligious, professional counselors will focus entirely on the needs of the airmen and will not bring in the baggage of religious accoutrements and subtle proselytizing that all chaplains exude. The shortages of new chaplains and chaplain assistants and reduced support by wing commanders are likely more attributable to the ever-growing number of nontheists in the ranks and the country as a whole than to decisions on how best to manage the Officer Performance Reports of chaplains.”

Maj. Bigelow is absolutely correct in calling for more non-religious, professional counselors to serve our troops. (I’m sure others will contest his “ever-growing number of nontheists in the ranks” assertion.) The Department of Defense and Veterans Administration have both only recently started employing Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) to serve our troops. There simply aren’t enough Licensed Clinical Social Workers, psychologists and psychiatrists to serve the number of soldiers requiring mental health care. And such professional care can rarely be provided by a chaplain. (Indeed, maybe part of the problem is that going to the chaplain isn’t nearly as stigmatized as going to mental health.)

Hiring LPCs and LMFTs is a good — long-in-coming — step. From yesterday’s The New York Times:

“Under intense pressure to expand and improve treatment and prevention programs, the armed services have hired additional mental health counselors, conducted advertising campaigns to encourage troops to seek care and instituted resiliency programs to help them control stress through diet, exercise, sleeping habits, meditation or counseling. Commanders are being instructed on how to identify the telltale signs of suicidal behavior as an early-warning system.”

Moral support, spiritual support and increasing morale among religious soldiers may be a better role for chaplains — and that requires fewer chaplains. The real counseling crisis is the lack of professional counselors (military and civilian) who can serve all troops equally.

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