Apparently there’s been a controversy brewing for some time now that, until today, escaped my notice: the question of whether military chaplains should be paid to proselytize to members of the armed services. It’s a case of being blind to things that are so familiar we take them for granted.
All the chaplains I’ve met or known personally have been kind, courageous people. I knew a Catholic priest with the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job when it came to human frailties. After eight years as a Navy chaplain, he served in the reserves and was recalled to active duty during the first Gulf War. When a favorite student of mine was in a coma after a car accident, the hospital chaplain was the very personification of peace and the courage we all needed to get past denial and accept the inevitable. I have nothing but admiration for those who lend their humanity to others in times of crisis.
What good chaplains use to help others in need are the same psychological tools that counselors and psychologists use: unconditional positive regard, active listening, reframing, critical incident stress debriefing (CISD), and various other techniques for individual and group counseling. Having this kind of intervention available in times of extremely fast change, crisis, and anxiety is known to be one of the best ways of preventing long-term psychological harm, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is entirely right and proper for the United States military to employ people able and willing to provide personnel with timely, appropriate psychological services.
And if they want to pray, too, fine. But praying—or proselytizing— should not be what they get paid to do.
In the aftermath of 9-11, two psychologists I know—a husband and wife team who own and operate a local clinic—went to Ground Zero as volunteers for a Red Cross trauma team. Working day and night for two weeks, they immersed themselves in the pain and trauma of surviving firefighters, witnesses, and recovery workers until they, themselves, were saturated with grief and horror and in need of psychological care. Then they were extracted and debriefed, while others skilled in crisis intervention took their places.
Although they are not religious, the work this couple did in Manhattan is no different from the work done by chaplains on a battle field. With academic degrees in psychology and counseling, as well as specific knowledge of how trauma affects the brain, they may have been more aware and deliberate in their use of crisis intervention strategies than a chaplain without similar training. But people who successfully help victims of trauma and crisis, regardless of their background, are using the same skills.
Anyone can pray. But not everyone can employ the skills and knowledge required to provide psychological services. Call them what you will, it’s those skills and that knowledge for which counselors and crisis intervention specialists should be employed by the military—not their religious orientation.