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On the front lines of sexual assault in the military: Army chaplains

With the Pentagon ramping up its efforts to root out sexual assault in the military, Army chaplains are poised to play an important role. Finding the right voice, however, can prove difficult. 

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / January 10, 2012

US Army soldiers with the 82nd Airborne in Kandahar, Afghanistan, prayed with a chaplain.

Julie Jacobson/AP/File

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Fort Jackson, S.C.

Inside a classroom at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, a group of some 40 Army chaplains are wrestling with what they just heard.

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They are focused on an overhead projection of congressional testimony from a former US Army sergeant allegedly raped by a fellow soldier. When she sought out a military pastor, she said the chaplain suggested the rape must have been God's will and that she should go to church more often.

A firestorm of discussion ensues. What chaplain could have said such a thing? How should he have counseled her? What if a chaplain disagrees with how a victim is living her life? What if he simply doesn't believe her?

The debate is a portrait in real time of how one of the Pentagon's most important tools in its fight against sexual abuse – the Army chaplain program – is learning to cope with rising reports of sexual assault as well as new responsibilities.

Last year, an Air Force study – the most comprehensive survey yet conducted by the military – found that 1 in 5 female airmen says she has been sexually assaulted since joining up. The report was seen as a key motivation behind an unprecedented push by the Pentagon to address sexual abuse in all service branches.

Last week, three Air Force Academy cadets in Colorado were charged with unrelated sexual assaults on female cadets only weeks after the academy released a report showing an increase in abuse from the previous year. 

In the effort to combat sexual abuse, chaplains are indispensable. Fewer than 1 in 6 sexual assaults among US troops is reported, according to estimates. For this reason, chaplains are often the first responders. Two years ago, Army chaplains became bound by confidentiality for the first time (other service chaplains have long been bound by it), expanding the scope of their ministry to the sexually abused.

This new privilege is a rare benefit in a workplace where soldiers not only work, eat, and sleep in close proximity, but also where even the most trivial of infractions can quickly become matters for high command. But confidentiality has also created new challenges for the chaplain corps – as has the Pentagon's new focus on rooting out sexual abuse.

Here at the Army chaplain school at Fort Jackson, military pastors are wrestling with those changes in their work. In the case of sexual assault, "chaplains need to know what the procedures are and how to provide not only the correct response within the Army, but also, because we're chaplains, how to provide for the emotional and spiritual needs of that individual as well," says Col. David Smartt, commandant of the school.

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