Humanists Raise Concerns With Air Force Family Counseling

“The air force chaplain is making married air force couples watch Gary Smalley’s Hidden Keys to Loving Relationships as their “couples counseling” prior to moving off post. They just gather all the couples in a big group in the basement of the squadron building, where they lounge around on couches napping or playing games on their phones and just generally not paying attention to what’s being played at them. The air force chaplain would not hear it from me that what he was doing was inappropriate. He said “freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion” and that we would just have to put up with it.”

The above quote is from the initial report I received from a MAAF member at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey regarding her experiences. DLI leadership generally requires* married and engaged couples to have marriage counseling. The report as provided tells of chaplains providing a nominally Christian counseling session with no oversight and no consideration for the non-Christians who may be subjected to it. But that is not the end of the story, and this article and a second follow-up will provide some insight into the challenges faced by service members, by MAAF, and by military leaders in identifying and resolving complaints of military proselytism.

Greater care should be taken when the Air Force steps into a marriage

In response to this complaint, I contacted the chaplains and leaders at DLI to investigate the resources and programs they had available. I spoke with Wing leadership and chaplain representatives about the issue, asking whether their family counseling had a Christian bias. Such an investigation can be essentially impossible for a service members concerned about retribution from higher ranking officers. The initial responses were that the training might have some Christian bias but that individual could have private sessions with the chaplains or they could find private alternatives at their own cost. I objected to this idea that a Christian training program would be the funded default option and that non-Christians would have to find their own resources.

The chaplain’s office conferred and adjusted course on their response. They reported instead that they had conducted a review of the entire 12-hour program (VHS tapes) and found that the Smalley Hidden Keys program they use almost never reference God:

“I have reviewed the material being used.  What I discovered is that Gary Smalley’s presentation is based upon sociological research.  It is over 983 minutes long and 99.6% of the material does not reference God.  The four minutes (.4%) during which God is mentioned merely cites studies that found a belief in God impacts marital relationships in a positive way.”

Copyright restrictions and time has made it impossible to review the VHS tapes or the DVDs to confirm, but the chaplains seem to have taken the time, and that’s a good step forward. However, it does not address every concern with the training or the chaplain-centric counseling approach.

“My Christian wife and I were told we would never last in an interfaith marriage. We were told that we needed to ‘get right with god’ or we would be going to hell, five years later, we are both going strong.”

AF Staff Sergeant Dan Rawlings, quoted above, was at DLI and is now a MAAF chapter organizer and lay leader at Travis AFB. reports that he and his Christian wife were subjected to mandatory counseling from a Protestant minister at DLI and that they were told that Jesus was the only solution to their marriage and that there would certainly be no possible chance of success for an atheist/Christian mixed marriage. Despite chaplain counseling that discouraged their relationship, Dan and his wife are still together and happy today.

I encouraged more openness to the nontheist perspective within the chaplaincy to help open the chaplaincy to diversity within the training Wing at DLI. To start, I offered, as part of the MAAF Chaplain Outreach program, to provide brochures for atheists and humanists, but they declined. On the other hand, they have provided facilities for the local chapter of MAAF at DLI.

The focus of this article is that the military uses chaplains in general and also uses nominally religious resources for marriage counseling. The Army, for example, has Strong Bonds, its family counseling program, as $100 million foundational program of the chaplaincy and the Army. Family counseling for deployment stress (FOCUS) and other resources outside the chaplaincy do exist, but the chaplains are recognized as the default resource. While this article isn’t an in-depth review of military family counseling, suffice it to say that the chaplains do handle marriage counseling at the Defense Language Institute (DLI).

The chaplains at DLI have addressed concerns and provided some support to the local humanist community, but concerns remain about the nature of the mandatory counseling programs run exclusively through the chaplaincy. This is part of the military’s larger effort to treat chaplains as full-service, secular counselors or risk managers in addition to their religious duties.

This secular/religious conflict continues to create issues like this where the nonreligious are skeptical of chaplains who represent a faith-based perspective, especially when that faith-based perspective comes through in many programs that are nominally secular. It would be easy to say the chaplains are always wrong or that there is no problem at all in chaplain-run counseling programs, but neither of those claims reflect reality. This article will be continued with a further review of the Smalley program used at DLI and alternatives MAAF is pursuing to work with the military to ensure all service members are provided scientific and customized counseling programs. Only with continued dialogue between the chaplains and the currently unrepresented nontheist community can these issues or perceived issues be resolved.

Do you have counseling stories or similar issues in your area? Tell your story in the comments below or contact MAAF.


* It may sound objectionable that DLI requires premarital counseling. The decision may be made to make the training optional, but that option is not reviewed here.

4 Responses to Humanists Raise Concerns With Air Force Family Counseling

  1. Pingback: Premarital Counseling in the Military Should Not be Based on Christian Beliefs

  2. As a person directly and recently affected by this policy (Army married to Air Force), I would like to state that I actually liked the tapes. Mr. Smalley is a motivating, fair, cute old man and in his tapes he honestly does not push Christianity. His intent with the tapes is to encourage you to start asking questions about yourself and your relationship, rather than to push dogma. I think it’s reasonable to allow that religion/faith are a valid part of one’s world-view and identity. Good leaders can speak about and acknowledge this part of their identity without forcing it on others, and Mr. Smalley does so.
    That said, I did feel that the Air Force’s choice to make this a 12-WEEK program was extremely patronizing. Yes, people get married for stupid reasons. Yes, in other training environments you can’t get married anyway because you can’t even leave post. Without going into too much detail, DLI is a unique case, and it isn’t clear when you sign up what you’re getting yourself into.
    The main point of this is: the decision to simply pop the DVD in the player without any prefacing by the chaplain or time given to discussion was incredibly irresponsible and lazy – simply another example of bureaucratic “checking the box” that passes for “learning.”

    But for me, the ultimate issue here is: when will the DoD wake up to the fact that it’s not their job to define who your “family” is?! This isn’t just a gay marriage issue. Married soldiers get paid up to twice as much as non-married soldiers, whether or not they have kids; whether or not the spouse works or is disabled. I sympathize with some of the reasoning behind this:
    1) If a soldier’s family is in hardship, s/he will either a) desert or b) his morale will decrease. Therefore, the military’s readiness is only as good as our families’ readiness. Taking care of families is both good politics and good policy.
    2) To an extent, upon entry, the government creates a unique contract with the soldier, determining his incoming rank, pay, bonuses, and benefits. From the beginning, all soldiers are not equal. It costs more to entice a married soldier to join than a non-married one. As a volunteer army, we do have to work to entice people.

    Obviously, hardship that a long-time boyfriend is going through would also place a great deal of stress on a soldier. I have had good leaders so far, and I believe they would try their best to accommodate a soldier in this situation; but even they are limited if the relationship is not documented.
    As an atheist, before I joined the military, I would never have considered legal marriage. But it is prohibitively expensive to pay out of pocket to move your non-legal family around with you, and difficult to be stationed near your dual-military non-documented partner.

    I am grateful for the training the military has provided me, and for the amazing leaders I have worked with. I am glad the Air Force chaplain took steps to review the tapes, and while I recognize it’s beyond his power to make such drastic policy changes, I do hope he will amend the already-nominal counseling to a much shorter and discussion-based counseling. I don’t need a religious figure to tell me what marriage should be, but I would concede that it’s worth talking about.

    • I disagree with your first point, but chalk it up to perception. I don’t see Gary Smalley as “fair” or “cute”, rather as creepy and with an insular view on relationship dynamics. How long ago did you and your spouse receive this training? Here’s a refresher for you http://www.shadowmountain.org/Content/HtmlImages/Public/Documents/General/EBI/Articles/Hidden%20Keys%20To%20Loving%20Relationships.pdf

      Did you honestly agree when Smalley said women don’t desire sex as much as men, they just want to know they are loved? How about in that pdf accompaniment where he says “women enjoy talking and planning more than the activity itself”?

      Is it not pushing dogma to insist that the most important key to a healthy relationship with your spouse is sharing a relationship with god? To say that the major destructive factor in a relationship is a “closed spirit”? Yes it is reasonable to disclose your religious view of the world when addressing a particular audience, but no it is not reasonable to mandate attendance to a series of clearly biased counseling sessions to be afforded the very basic right of cohabitation.

      Aside from dogma, misogyny, and lack of current perspective, the blaringly obvious issue with this training is that it deals in no way with the stresses of balancing a military career, even if temporary, with a relationship, even if equally temporary. I understand that the Air Force leadership must be so tired of the married at DLI – divorced at GAFB trend, but instead of creating a buffer zone/deterrent they should be focused on actually teaching couples how to have successful relationships.

      Another direct example from Hidden Keys:
      “Six Characteristics of a Close-Knit Family
      1. They verbally express a high degree of APPRECIATION for one another.
      2. They spend a great deal of time together having FUN.
      3. They spend time TALKING with and understanding one another.
      4. They are committed to promoting one another’s HAPPINESS.
      5. They participate in RELIGIOUS activities together.
      6. They are able to deal with crises in a POSITIVE manner.”

      I don’t fit the mold for ANY of these six things – does that mean my husband and I have no chance at being a close knit family?
      1-I hate verbal appreciation. It makes me feel patronized. My husband knows this and shows me in other ways. He likes when I vocalize my thoughts, so I try to do so but if I am not verbally appreciative enough, it doesn’t suddenly tear us apart – he knows to feel appreciated in other ways or ask for affirmation.
      2-My husband and I are 2,000 miles apart having just about the least fun of our lives so far.
      3-We spend time talking about how we don’t understand one another.
      4-Well I guess I fit in with this one, I do love my husband and want him to be happy. Unfortunately, being a soldier comes first and I often find myself doing things that are the opposite of being committed to promoting his happiness, and vice versa.
      5-uh, no. (still not pushing dogma?)
      6-I am incapable of this, it’s just so much more gratifying to be doom-and-gloom about crises and be pleasantly surprised when things turn out ok.

      all that said, my husband is my best friend. we are separated by thousands of miles and a couple of time zones, but that doesn’t stop me from texting him as soon as i wake up or him from texting me when he goes to bed. we don’t get much face time, or voice time, or even text time to be honest, we don’t mail each other love letters or care packages, but it doesn’t stop him or me from maintaining what we (and many other married people) perceive as the keys to a loving relationship – mutual respect, deep trust, transparent honesty, and the true desire to continue to be in a relationship together

  3. When did the AF element at DLI get a chaplain? On each of my 3 training tours there, all they had was a command staff that consisted of ROAD officers and senior NCOs placed where they could do the least damage prior to actually retiring, training staff consisting of NCOs inbetween operational (usually overseas) assignments, and a marginally competent administrative support staff from Castle, Mather, or who-knows-where now with all the bases closing. Seriously, how many times can Finance screw up pay for geographically-separated servicemembers? (3 times on one tour.)

    Most of the base support (chaplains included) was provided by the Army; all other Service branches were tenants. Things must have changed in the last decade.

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