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In Place of Mental Health Care, Are Some Troops Being Evangelized?

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Yesterday, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and Veterans for Common Sense sent a startling letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It alleged that the military has sent some psychological casualties to chaplains for counseling, rather than to mental health care professionals for diagnosis and treatment. In a few cases, the letter alleges, chaplains sought to provide comfort through evangelism. In essence, it seems wounded and disturbed troops were encouraged to put their trust in Jesus: that He would provide for them if only they accepted Him.

General George S. Patton Jr. was fired during World War II for slapping soldiers with PTSD. Assuming the MRFF letter is correct, are we prepared to fire chaplains for seeking to alleviate PTSD and other disorders with a healthy dose of scripture and heartfelt appeals to Jesus?

I would advise against this.

I can well imagine that a few chaplains, perhaps of an evangelical bent, in their zeal to provide help, may have conflated their own personal conversion experiences and the resultant comfort they gained from them with the kind of professional care and treatment provided by mental health care experts. If one's own doubts and problems were resolved through heartfelt conversion, it's quite possible one would believe that evangelism in the name of Jesus could cure all ills -- a belief they may then have tried to transfer to hurting, even desperate, troops.

Such misguided ministering, if it exists, must stop.

But at the same time let's not forget that chaplains are invaluable as counselors. The equivalent at times to a "big brother" or "big sister," they are both part of a unit but also in a (moral) sense stand above it and the entire military system. It's a demanding job -- indeed, it's more than a job, it's a calling -- and the vast majority of chaplains perform it well.

Chaplains, of course, are not mental health care providers. Psychological trauma and other serious mental health issues clearly go beyond their abilities and training to treat and meliorate. The letter from the MRFF and Veterans for Common Sense reminds us of this fact, as well as of the burdens of war on our troops and of the dire shortages of qualified mental health care. It's the latter that requires the lion's share of our attention and resources.

That said, allow me a moment to praise military chaplains. The several I've known have been dedicated, decent, godly souls as well as good troops. They share in the burdens of their units even as they provide selfless counsel, spiritual or otherwise. One older chaplain I knew eagerly went through jump training prior to joining the 101st Airborne. If he was going to serve alongside airborne troops, he wanted to know what jumping out of airplanes was like.

National prayer breakfasts I've attended, run by military chaplains of multiple faiths, were always open to troops of any faith (or no faith at all). There were no distinctions between Protestants or Catholics, or for that matter between Muslims or Jews. As celebrations of non-denominational and undifferentiated spirituality, they were irenic, life-affirming, even moving.

Let's be careful, then, not to let instances of Christian evangelism in the ranks distract us from a healthy exercise of spirituality and religious feeling. Let's applaud our military chaplains even as we recognize that they too have limitations. But most of all, let's be sure to get our troops the professional mental health care they both need and deserve.

Professor Astore currently teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, PA. He writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

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