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 , Staff writer

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    US Army soldiers with the 82nd Airborne in Kandahar, Afghanistan, prayed with a chaplain.
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Inside a classroom at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, a group of some 40 Army chaplains are wrestling with what they just heard.

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?

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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.

The congressional testimony of the Army sergeant is a teachable moment. The instructor, Lt. Col. Carl Rosenberg, asks the class what they think of the chaplain's words. Some doubt the victim's claim; others are outraged. "It frustrates me, sir," says one chaplain. "I'd say the chaplain's response is – I wouldn't say equally traumatic, but now you have two traumas instead of one."

Rosenberg later seizes on that theme. "I hope and pray for you, that you will take this seriously so as to develop care practices that will not retraumatize victims," Rosenberg says. "Let's use this time to develop our skills as a corps."

This is a serious issue for chaplains. They are not sexual-abuse counselors. And as followers of different faith traditions, they bring their own values to the cases that come to them.

What if, one chaplain asks, a soldier who has had an abortion as a result of a rape asks for guidance? "I would feel for that person, but I'm not going to ... say it's OK."

Indeed, the clash of conscience with compassion can chill the effectiveness of chaplains in dealing with sexual abuse. Army Sgt. Andrea Neutzling, who says she was raped by two fellow soldiers during a year-long deployment to Iraq in 2005, says her experience with a chaplain compounded her feelings of isolation and sadness.

The chaplain seemed to cast aspersions on her by saying she didn't act like a rape victim. And when she felt most vulnerable, he recommended that Neutzling's rifle be taken away after she joked to him that she wouldn't mind maiming her attackers.

"I'll admit, because of him I kind of lost respect for chaplains," she says.

One chaplain wonders if there are circumstances when a pastor should request a release from the sexual-assault victim to speak to the commander. "I'm reluctant to tell a commander that kind of information," Rosenberg says. Another chaplain agrees. "Regardless of it being a closed investigation – it's not. Someone else always finds out."

Also difficult is when chaplains must counsel perpetrators as well as victims. "That's one of the more difficult juggling acts," says Maj. Harold Cline, course manager for the Chaplain Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Jackson.

The bottom line, the chaplains agree, is striving for care that helps to heal, rather than further injure victims. Toward the end of the class, Rosenberg turns the discussion back to the chaplain in the congressional testimony.

"That chaplain was a bonehead," he said. "It is not God's will for someone to be raped. It's not. And anyone who wants to argue theologically on that, I'm glad to do it right now."

The point is to "offer a space that feels safe. It's not our responsibility to be the investigators," says Rosenberg. "Suspend judgment, and trust that this person is speaking their truth to us."

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