Ranger Suicide Prevention Becomes Christian Sermon
Update 12/28: Chris Carroll with Stars and Stripes quotes Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commander of Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning as saying, “[the chaplains’] role is not to provide religious instruction during non-religious mandatory training classes… Chaplains may appropriately share their personal experiences, but any religious information given by a Chaplain to a military formation should be limited to an orientation of what religious services and facilities are available and how to contact Chaplains of specific faiths.”
This is an entirely appropriate response, providing appropriately for personal expression and reference to religious services but prohibiting specific religious instruction.
Update 12/11: Liberty Institute attacks unit for disciplining chaplain. Update 12/3: the back of the flyer has been added below.
Chaplain to Ranger Battalion troops at mandatory suicide prevention training: “Invite Jesus into whatever you’re feeling.”
click to enlarge
Serving as senior trainer at annual suicide prevention training on November 20th, the battalion chaplain for 5th Ranger Training Battalion presented Christian scripture and solutions. On November 19th, just the day before, in a Congressional spectacle, and under the banner of “conscience protection” and religious liberty, evangelical activists were invited to tell evangelical Members of Congress about their imagined and often fabricated plight of evangelicals in the military. Just a day later, a chaplain used his official position to force his personal religious beliefs on a captive military audience.
Suicide is an epidemic in our military. When the military condones evangelism in mental health training, the epidemic will get worse not better. The document at the right was used during the training presentation and focused exclusively on Christian solutions to suicide. Make no mistake that this would at best separate humanists and non-Christians from scientific and like-minded solutions and very likely do psychological harm by making them feel even more alienated and depressed.
Instruction material: Coming out of the Closet to God: Following the Pattern of David. Including 19 bulletized points, 14 relying directly on Christian scripture. 5th Battalion solution for suicide: “Invite Jesus into whatever you’re feeling.”
Nearly the entire audience of 150 military personnel were junior in rank the the chaplain and compelled to attend this day-long session of various topics including suicide prevention. The Battalion Commander and senior officers were in attendance and apparently condoned the mandatory sermonizing in this event. Discussion with evening staff duty personnel did not produce an immediate response. “If evangelicals in Congress want military chaplains to enforce Christianity in their official duties, then they are getting their wish.” said Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers. “But if we all seek religious liberty and the mental health of our military men and women, then there should be swift action against that chaplain, his endorsing agency, and the Battalion Commander who participated in this wanton abuse of their military authority.”
This event recalls a prior mandatory training event in 2012 where 800 soldiers at Joint Base San Antonio were forced into worship sermon and a candlelit prayer vigil. At the time, whistleblower and Army Staff Sergeant Vicki Gettman had this to say.
“I am scared for the younger soldiers that try to go in there and make complaints because I know that it can be intimidating. I feel bad for all these young soldiers in this situation who are trying to get help.”
She points to a privilege ignored at the Congressional briefing – chaplains are given a captive audience and a position of power to help military personnel, not to treat as their personal flock. This power and access afforded to the chaplain by virtue of the chaplain military responsibilities comes with the responsibility for the chaplain not to inflict his ‘conscience’ on those entrusted to him. The chaplain is carrying out a program of instruction to a captive audience on behalf of the United States Army. That means the program of instruction is Army instruction not a chaplain or commander’s personal religious beliefs. No amount of caveats like ‘this is just for me’ or ‘something to consider’ can hide the coercive and evangelical message being sent by a senior officer. The only solution is to have the personal integrity to keep personal opinions out of official duties.
This event also points to recent issues of command-facilitated proselytism at NAS Lemoore where a chaplain spent months preaching at length about Creationism and against science in his emails to the entire installation. And every subordinate who salutes a senior officer at 2-34 Armor Battalion in Kuwait is “Fear God”. These sorts of religious messages being pushed through official channels are by any definition coercive. Anyone who has the slightest understanding of military culture understands the power of even implied tasks.
Let us all be clear about a few things:
- The chaplain’s Christian approach to suicide prevention would be 100% appropriate in the context of an opt-in denominational Christian sermon, even if it were given by the chaplain on a military installation. Such an event would be clearly faith-based and optional. A mandatory official training event should not morph into Christian church. MAAF affirms the right of any trainee to have equal access to Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Humanist, and other values-based services, so long as it’s optional.
- The candlelit vigil at Joint Base San Antonio mentioned above would be entirely appropriate if it were an optional event, even if it were scheduled outside on a military installation. (Though scheduling it in front of the Post Exchange as a way to push religion on passers-by would then cause it to cease to be an optional event.)
- The Creationist messages at NAS Lemoore are distasteful because they were often justified as science not as faith. But misrepresenting science should be within the freedom of speech and religion rights, so long as official non-optional email distribution lists are not used to spread such featured, undiluted Christian evangelism. Distribution meeting the chaplain email policy recommendations of MAAF provide lots of room for Christian messages on official systems.
- The Fear God motto of 2-34 Armor Battalion is so outrageous an enforcement of religious fear by the command that it cannot be condoned in any way, yet it continues.
- The event was held in civilian clothes and only for military at the campus of the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega. Civilian clothes were the required uniform since the event was off the installation, but it was no less official or mandatory. They were just borrowing the larger auditorium.
- The chaplain did provide secular suicide training instructions, and many sessions in addition to suicide prevention were held during the day.
- The unit is subordinate to Ft Benning and is remote in order to conduct the mountain phase of Ranger School north of Atlanta at Camp Frank D Merrill.
- This is an issue of military health, effectiveness, and command policy. Any attempt to characterize this issue as someone simply being “offended” is a tactic to blame the victim for the failures of their senior officers.
Update 12/3: Back of the flyer
Unit personnel, including the chaplaincy and the public relations personnel MAAF contacted while researching the story did not provide the back of the flyer. A source provided this, supposedly the back of the flyer listed above.
The flyer has a giant soldier bowing to a cross, which exacerbates the problem on the other side. As noted in the original article, legitimate secular resources were provided. But that does not excuse overt, mandatory, command-sponsored proselytism.
It’s unclear whether the four featured counseling services on the flyer were selected by the chaplain or if there was proper selection by a team of professional therapists. Alpha Hope is first on the list and provides only “Christian counselors”. This adds to the proselytism found throughout the flyer. ACCARES promotes Christian/herbal therapies. MAM is a single practitioner promoting eye-movement therapy. North Georgia seems to be a general secular practice. While there may be reason to question the others, only Alpha Hope seems obviously evangelical. The phone numbers provided seem exclusively to be military/government resources.