Military chaplains offer spiritual freedom, resilience

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Timothy Moore
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
When thinking of the phrase "separation of church and state" and its embodiment, a multitude of examples may swarm a person's mind, but military chaplains are probably not one.

In fact, as a Department of Defense employee and a religious leader, a military chaplain may be what comes to mind as the opposite of the phrase.

However, it is a military chaplain's primary responsibility to uphold the will of the Establishment Clause of First Amendment and ensure every DOD member's religious freedoms are respected.

The First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

While military chaplains practice a religion, they also ensure other service members, their family members and authorized DOD civilians are able to freely practice their religious beliefs.

"Our purpose is to first of all provide to the First Amendment rights of our Airmen through freedom of religion," said Chaplain (Capt.) Christopher Underwood, 86th Airlift Wing.

To perform this duty, military chaplains aid service members in acquiring the resources they need to practice their religious beliefs.

According to Underwood, this can be anything from providing a place for a group to gather or helping them find someone who is recognized as capable of performing the duties the individual needs.

Chaplains also offer counsel to commanders on how to best accommodate service members' religious beliefs.

"If someone comes to a commander and says, "I need to do this, eat this or get permission to do this,' and a commander has questions about it, the chaplain is there to be their advisor on religious accommodation issues," said Chaplain (Capt.) Kristin Swenson, 86th AW.

There is a list of DOD-recognized religions that chaplains can vouch for to ensure commanders are respecting actual practices and not ones made up by individual, but it is in this respect of ensuring everyone is able to practice their religious freedom that many military chaplains differ from their civilian counterparts.

"For me, it doesn't necessarily change a whole lot in the sense that I would probably conduct myself in a much similar way," said Underwood. "However, when I'm in a civilian pastorate I function interactively with the community as a minister from that denomination as opposed to a provider of religious freedom to everyone."

The role of military chaplains allows them to speak on a variety of issues.

"With the units, we are imbedded with them so we can check up on them," said Swenson. "A commander will often want us to talk at a commander's call, teach a class on resilience, or if there is a desire, teach a Bible study or religious education in the unit. We talk with them and take care of their spiritual and religious needs."

As many units are as religiously diverse as they are culturally diverse, chaplains often welcome individuals with different spiritual backgrounds, in the terms of what internally motivates someone to bounce back and keep pushing forward.

"A person can come in, and we'll never speak about religion," Swenson said. "We're there to take care of their spiritual and religious needs."

In order to take better care of Airmen, family members and authorized DOD civilians, chaplains have a very unique aspect of their career that extends to very few individuals in either the military or civilian world.

"We call in 'privileged communication,' and we offer 100 percent confidentiality through it," said Underwood. "That means the people we talk to own the privilege for divulging the information to anyone. The chaplain does not."

According to Underwood, privileged communication allows an individual to speak with a chaplain about anything spiritually or morally on their consciousness without fear of the information being reported up the chain of command, or even to a legal agency.

Privileged communication also extends to chaplain assistants, the enlisted members who aid chaplains in their duties.

While chaplains may try to guide a person to do the right thing, they must maintain privileged communication. If they do not, a chaplain can be subjected to punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The chapel hosts Warrior Care events throughout the year to promote spiritual resilience for married couples and single Airmen. They also offer counseling for individuals at any stage of a relationship, or just for individuals who want to talk.

While the chaplain hosting the event or talking with a person may speak through the lens of their spiritual background, the chapel encourages everyone to utilize the services provided by chaplains and chaplain assistants.

Whether individuals are looking to ensure their right to religious freedom is being upheld or they want to recharge their inner wellbeing, chaplains are there for them.