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13 Nov 2023

Military Chaplains: Their Vital Role in Our Military

The Continental Congress established the first Chaplain Corps in July 1775 by providing one chaplain for every unit in the Continental Army (U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, 2015). Because of this, chaplains can be found wherever Service members are, and they have served with regiments in every American war (Otis, 2009). Chaplains are dedicated spiritual leaders of all religious denominations and provide spiritual support to Service members regardless of their member's religious affiliation. Their responsibilities include providing spiritual guidance, conducting public worship services, leading religious study sessions, and ministering to the wounded and/or dying (Otis, 2009).

To gain more insight into the role of chaplains, I connected with Captain (Capt.) Terry Gordon, who conveniently is also my father! A retired Navy chaplain, Capt. Gordon has 30+ years of experience serving Service members and their families. With many tours and deployments both overseas and domestic, he has seen how a chaplain’s roles and responsibilities have evolved over time, especially with the increased awareness of mental health. Although I accompanied him for only about half of his military career, I can attest to how his work impacted the Service members around us and how he grew within his role as a religious leader and counselor. With Capt. Gordon’s help, I gained even more insight into the roles and responsibilities of military chaplains, who has access to their services (and how to seek their services), how chaplains interact with others in the workplace, and some common myths and assumptions.

Roles and Responsibilities

A chaplain’s responsibilities typically extend beyond roles performed in similar occupations, such as mental health professionals. Chaplains are often used as a source for counseling, and it is typical for Service members with high levels of combat exposure and mental health concerns to seek support from chaplains (Morgan et al., 2016). While the roles of both chaplain’s and mental health professionals are very similar and often overlap, Capt. Gordon highlighted the differences:

  • “Chaplains bring one unique component in, which is purely a faith-based component. Many chaplains have higher education in counseling or social work, however, they’re not there to solely be a counselor but to be an ordained religious leader. Chaplains can be trained in certain counseling techniques, but faith and spirituality counseling is the main focus.”
Accessing Chaplain Services

Outside of who are military chaplains, how to seek out their services may be the second most commonly asked question. For Service members it’s a bit easier, considering their close proximity and initial contact with a chaplain during their basic training. Capt. Gordon explains:

  • “For service members, it’s easy because there are chaplains in every phase of training upon entering the service. They meet their first chaplain at basic training and will have continued contact with them throughout that training. It is the chaplain's duty to explain their role as their chaplain, and how they and their families can contact them. Outside of training, a Service member and their family should always have ready access to a chaplain throughout their career.”

For families, Capt. Gordon explained a process called “deckplate ministry.” This is a Navy term (also known as ‘walking the flight line’ for the Air Force, or ‘walking ministry’ in general) that refers to chaplains walking around their duty-station so Service members and their families can visually see them, and it provides an opportunity to talk. Capt. Gordon also emphasized the importance of chaplains participating in family programs. Chaplains can continue walking ministry at these events and informally meet with them in a relaxed atmosphere and provide them with resources as needed.

Collaborative Model Approach to Treatment

A collaborative model (i.e., the process of referring someone in need to other mental health professionals and working together as professionals to provide care) is a practice that many chaplains and military mental health professionals incorporate. Because chaplains serve alongside Service members and are in close proximity with them, they are naturally the first in line for providing support for mental health concerns (Howard & Cox, 2008). This may be because chaplains can build a trusting relationship with their unit members more easily. Chaplains provide initial services and refer Service members to trained mental health professionals when needed (Besterman-Dahan et al., 2012). Successful collaborative models include close collaboration between chaplains and mental health professionals from initial patient contact through termination of services (Howard & Cox, 2008). Capt. Gordon emphasized the importance of this model, saying:

  • “Chaplains are there to compliment the counselor. Many chaplains will try to foster a solid relationship with the unit’s counselor [and] use it as a complimentary resource. If there’s something out of the scope of a chaplain’s abilities or vice versa, both sides should be able to use each other. A chaplain can pray for anybody, but a chaplain's counseling may not be enough compared to a professional counselor's technique.”
Common Myths and Assumptions

As is the case with many services, there are some common assumptions about military chaplains. Capt. Gordon has busted common myths throughout his career, the most common being that chaplain services are only available to a Service member:

  • “That’s not true, we’re available to anyone who carries a military ID card. Could be a spouse, a dependent, a contractor; as long as you have a Department of Defense ID card, you will have access to our services.”

Additionally, one barrier to accessing mental health services seen within the military is fear that mental health providers will disclose private client information, and that a Service member’s ability to progress in their career may be obstructed (Evans, 2021). Ethical standards involving confidentiality within mental health disciplines ensure the protection of clients’ privacy by not disclosing their personal information or therapy contents to others (American Psychological Association, 2017). However, Service member mental health care information may be revealed to commanders if one or more of the following criteria is met (Evans, 2021):

  1. 1. “Threats to personal or public safety (harm to self/others), harm to mission, or deployment readiness
  2. 2. Acute medical conditions that interfere with duty, including inpatient psychiatric hospitalization and substance abuse treatment
  3. 3. Judicial, law enforcement, and administrative proceedings; special sensitive personnel; or specialized government functions
  4. 4. Personnel accountability”

Chaplains on the other hand maintain “absolute confidentiality.” Capt. Gordon explained absolute confidentiality, saying:

  • “Our confidentiality by law is absolute. This is because of the sacramental right of some faith traditions that confessions made in religious repentance are kept in total confidence with the chaplain. It’s an official policy and military law. There should always be someone a Service member can talk to without fear of repercussion. It is a powerful tool and ensures people are getting the help they need, and fixing problems before they become huge problems.”

It is important to note that chaplains are equipped to maintain absolute confidentiality while still ensuring the safety of all the parties involved. For example, if a Service member plans to harm themselves, their chaplain can encourage them to seek services to improve their wellbeing. Additionally, their chaplain can continue to meet with the Service member until they are receptive to meeting with a mental health professional.

A Chaplain's Presence and Impact

Despite these negative assumptions about meeting with chaplains, there are many positive assumptions people have about the Chaplain Corps. While it can be easy to find the flaws within a system, Capt. Gordon still had a lot of good to say about his Corps:

  • “A good assumption is ‘the chaplain is always there.’ There should always be a chaplain in every forward deployed unit, no matter what size. A good chaplain will boost morale and aid in lowering mental health problems. People assume we’re just spiritual folks, we’re just there to pray and we provide nothing else for the unit. Obviously, that’s not true. When a chaplain walks into a room, it brings a spiritual consciousness and a sense of the presence of the divine. It gets people thinking, and back to a reality that’s more than just a ‘warrior ethos’. We bring a sense of humanity back into the soldier. We’re there to keep the balance so they don’t lose sight of who they are as people. It’s a very good thing.”

Chaplains continue to play a vital role in our military today. Whether performing religious services, mentoring Service members, or being advocates for Service members and their families’ wellbeing, it is safe to assume that chaplains are dedicated to improving our Service member and their families lives, and therefore the military, every day. To learn more about chaplain services or how to find a chaplain at your installation, check out Military OneSource guide, “The unit chaplain: Roles and responsibilities”.

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