This week, Rebekah Havrilla, an army rape victim, testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee on sexual assault in the military.
She had refrained from formally reporting the rape at first because she believed the system was broken. When she went to her military chaplain for guidance and support, Havrilla explained, he told her, "The rape was God's will and that God was trying to get [her] attention so that [she] would go back to church." Havrilla's response was silence.
Havrilla's case is just that: one case. Her chaplain's conduct shouldn't be taken as representative of the 3,000-plus chaplains on active duty as of 2011. Just this week, President Obama announced the military chaplain Capt. Emil J. Kapaun would be receiving the Medal of Honor for his heroic efforts on behalf of troops during the Korean War. Kapaun, who is a candidate for sainthood, risked his life to provide comfort to troops amidst battle, running from foxhole to foxhole to provide support and returning to peril, even after he had reached safety, to help his troops.
These dual cases give us a reason to explore the role of chaplains in the military and the significant influence they can exert. Chaplains are tasked with providing counseling to our troops. Their role cannot be understated. Without a chaplain, no battalion enters a war zone. Chaplains take on their role with the same risk as any other active serviceperson. In addition to meeting physical and educational requirements, Chaplains need to be endorsed by their faith group, while also being sensitive to our constitutional right to freedom of religion.
Especially in cases of trauma and PTSD, the chaplain has the opportunity to play an essential role as victims often experience a shift in their religious beliefs during these traumatic events. Although chaplains serve as counselors to servicemen and women of all faiths, 90 percent are Christian. Although atheist groups, such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, are pushing for atheist chaplains to represent the over 9,000 reported atheists (with quite a few more unreported) in the military, this change has yet to take hold.
Chaplains have direct access to our troops, as they are experiencing trauma, whether it be sexual trauma or the result of a physical injury on the battlefield. If more chaplains were to receive training for addressing PTSD, they would be able to provide non-denominational support to our troops, regardless of their faith, when our warriors need it the most. When I provide coaching to our Veterans once they've returned from war, many have been living with PTSD for so long that it is embedded in their minds, bodies and souls. Although in Havrilla's case her chaplain did more harm than good, I'm confident that chaplains have the ability to exceed their religious role to serve as a critical resource for our troops as the trauma that causes PTSD is occurring.