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Military chaplains serve nonreligious service members

By Spc. Samuel Keenan | Massachusetts National Guard | Feb. 21, 2018

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – During basic training, every Airman and Soldier of the Massachusetts National Guard is issued two oblong stainless steel tags on a beaded chain. Imprinted into these "dog tags" is information that could be critical on the battlefield to either save a Guard member's life or ensure a dignified handling of his or her remains.

The first two lines list the service member's full name. After that, a serial number, which is followed by blood type. Then, embossed on the last line of the tag is the Guard members's religious affiliation.

As of March 2017, the Department of Defense recognizes 221 belief and faith groups, including the nonreligious designations agnostic, atheist, no preference and no religion.

According to the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, an advocacy group for nonreligious service members, there is an upward trend among military personnel who are deciding not to associate with any religious tradition.

In Massachusetts, that trend is evident with 49.5% of the state's Army National Guard Soldiers choosing not to have any specific faith identified on their official record.

Even though they may not subscribe to the same religious tenets, service members can still rely on a network of professional military chaplains for assistance when it comes to their wellbeing.

Air Force Capt. Derek White, a full-time military chaplain with the 102nd Intelligence Wing, Massachusetts National Guard, said that chaplains are available for all Airmen, Soldiers and families at all times.

"We want folks to know that the chaplain is approachable. We want to remove the stigmatism that people only come see the chaplain when there is a problem," said White.

"I want to be able to celebrate with them when things are good," he said. "It's a joy when someone walks into my office and they go, ‘Chaplain! I've got to share this great news with you!'"

"It doesn't matter if they're religious or if they have no religious preference," said White. "The fact that I am the person that they feel they can share their life with… that's a really great feeling."

His sentiment does not change when a service member may have a bleak outlook on life.

"In the same way, it's very honoring that when someone who is going through a difficulty, and they go ‘Chaplain, I trust you and I need to talk to you about this," he said. "We provide that safe space for them to talk about their struggles. It's an honor to know that we've built that relationship of trust."

While connecting with a chaplain may come through attendance at weekly religious services, White recognizes that is not how he can reach all of his troops, particularly those not of faith.

"I try to be highly visible with unit engagement," White said. "I am constantly visiting people in their work stations. I am getting to know the details of people's lives – their families, their spouses, their children, their goals, their dreams and their aspirations – because I want to have that relationship trust with them."

On those rounds through the 102nd Intelligence Wing, White doesn't actively pursue theological discussions, instead opting for mundane subjects. 

"There are certain things you can reach out and find commonality with almost anyone," said White. "Talk about family. Ask someone about their children. If you're married, talk about it. If you're single, talk about it. Talk about sports. Talk about weather. It can be anything. It's really about getting dialogues going … so that when they need to talk about more important things they feel comfortable talking to you."

Whether it is a spousal disagreement, a career-changing decision, or even suicide ideation, White says that chaplains are firmly planted on the side of the service members and are allowed to maintain the confidentially of Soldiers and Airmen.

"I tell everyone, let's talk about it. Let's take the pressure off. You're going to be OK," said White, describing his initial conversation with a service member who comes to him with a serious issue. 

"You're not going to be alone," he continued. "My job as the chaplain is to be with you, support you and provide that source of strength for you so you don't have to feel overwhelmed. "

Before, during and after a hardship, chaplains also help service members build the skills necessary to get through the inherent difficulties of military life.

"Regardless of religious preference, or non-preference, everybody hits a wall with human limits," said White. "Chaplains provide hope that the wall is not an obstacle that cannot be overcome." 

As clergy, military chaplains are subject matter experts in spiritual resiliency, one of the five pillars of the military resiliency program. Spiritual resiliency is the inner strength that can be used when all hope seems lost.

While spiritual resiliency may come through a recognition of a higher power, that is not necessarily true for all personnel.

"There is a part of you that can dig deeper and go beyond what most people think is humanly possible," said White. "That grit, perseverance, indomitable spirit – or whatever it is – is the spiritual part."

Even as fewer and fewer service members declare their faith, chaplains will remain essential to advise, counsel and mentor troops with a voice of authority and wisdom.