Narrative Counseling: Helping Women and Minority Service Members Navigate Trauma

Even though the Department of Defense continues to promote equality through training and policy, minority groups, including women, non-Whites, and LGBT service members continue to experience a higher level of emotional trauma, bias, and discrimination than men, Whites, and heterosexuals. Military women are sexually assault at seven times the rate of men (Davis, Grifka, Williams, & Coffee, 2017). Based on 2016 statistics, the Marine Corps was the most dangerous for women with an 8% sexual prevalence rate and the Air Force was the safest with a 3% rate. Men experienced sexual assault at a far lower rate than women. The Navy had the highest rate for sexual assault on males at 1%. The rest of the services hovered around one half percent for men.

Women experienced sexually hostile work environments in the military at four times the rate of men. Approximately one in four women in the Navy and Marine Corps faced repeated sexual jokes, innuendos, or unwanted contact, even after perpetrators were asked to stop (Davis et al., 2017). This rate was slightly less for the Army, but the rate for women in the Air Force was half that of the Navy and Marine Corps. Only about one in 16 men suffered the same sorts of humiliation. 

In a study published by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI, n.d.), American Indians/Alaskan Natives, Asians, Blacks/African Americans, and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders were all more likely to hear racioethnic jokes than Whites. Compared to Whites, races/ethnicities with higher representation in the military were less likely to hear such jokes than lower represented ethnicities. Thus, Blacks were less likely to hear racioethnic jokes than American Indians. Enlisted personnel were significantly more likely to hear racioethnic jokes than officers. Other studies reported lower promotion rates, unequal justice, and lower access to health care for Black than White service members (Burk & Espinoza, 2012). 

LGBT veterans are more likely to experience PTSD, depression and alcohol misuse than heterosexual veterans (Goldbach & Castro, 2016). Non-heterosexual veterans also have higher lifetime rates of suicidal ideation than heterosexual veterans. Previous policies that excluded LGBT people from military service might have resulted in increased sexual victimization of non-heterosexual people while preventing reporting of assaults over fear of being discharged for their sexual orientation. Even though Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed and LGB service members (but not transgender persons) are able to serve openly in the military, a significant percentage of lesbian and gay soldiers do not feel comfortable discussing their sexual orientation with their medical service providers. LGB members who do not want to be identified also fear that their sexual orientations will be discussed outside of medical circles.

Sexism, racism, and heterosexism can combine in the life of one person such that a Black female lesbian might experience more stress than a White female. While the military continues to work towards eliminating bias and discrimination, in a quick snapshot, the previous paragraphs show that minority service members continue to experience emotional distress at a greater rate than members of dominant groups. Even if the Department of Defense was a perfect organization, many minorities have experienced a lifetime of trauma and abuse, and they bring these experiences with them when they join the military. 

Chaplains need to not only be aware of the realities that minorities face, but also have a counseling approach that takes these things into account. Narrative counseling is such a philosophy. 

Narrative counseling theory is grounded in a constructionist set of assumptions. This means that people construct meaning and that it is the meaning that people attribute to themselves and their experiences that constitute both identity and the development of resources for living. We make meaning and live our life through the stories we have created to give our lives coherence. (Neuger, 2001, loc. 1186). 

We decide who we are by the stories our parents, society, and others tell about us. The narratives that we accept are the ones that become truth for us. For minorities, many of these narratives are demeaning, minimizing, and disempowering. Women are told that they are too soft or too “bitchy” for leadership. Asians are smart but passive. Blacks are violent and less intelligent. These false narratives are spread and fertilized by the media, the internet, and social encounters. Even if one is aware of popular stereotypes and seeks to avoid them, he or she can still fall victim to biases. 

Narrative counseling is a way to help clients discover the disempowering stories that they have accepted for themselves and develop new narratives to counter them (Neuger, 2001). The pastoral counselor become a mirror and a guide to the counselee. As a mirror, the chaplain reflects the person’s story back to the client so that he or she sees how the story has been disempowering. For instance, a female soldier once came to me because she was unhappy in her marriage. At one point, she said, “I am unhappy, but I know that being happy in marriage is not the point.” 

To which I responded, “You don’t think happiness in your relationship is important?” 

She replied, “My mother told me that you don’t have to be happy to stay married.”

I asked, “Was your mother in an unhappy marriage?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “I never saw her happy with Dad.”

“What do you think is the point of marriage?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, “but Mom said I have to stay with my husband no matter what. God does not like divorce.”

In this instance, narratives about God and marriage passed down by her mother had prevented the person from considering alternatives other than staying married to a husband who was mistreating her. He was not physically abusive, but he neglected her emotionally. The above dialogue showed how I acted as a mirror.

Next, I guided her into developing a new story for herself. Through several counseling sessions, we discovered that she had contributed to the problem because she was afraid to tell her husband what she wanted and needed. She always just acquiesced to his wants. I asked her to think about the possibility that happiness is important in marriage and that she had a right to expect her husband to respect her wishes. She resolved to begin working on a new story for herself — one of strength, confidence, and self-actualization. 

We discussed several options going forward. She decided to seek marriage counseling with her husband and work on being more outspoken with him about what she wanted. The couple did not use me for counseling because I was in the same military unit as the wife and he wanted a “neutral” counselor. She later told me that the counselor was completely disempowering by blaming her for all the relationship problems. Eventually, she divorced the man because he refused to change. I continued to help her work through the challenges of being a single mother, standing up for herself in relationships, and being happy. She was quite confident as a soldier, but needed to learn how to feel worthy of happiness and self-confidence in marriage. Much of her problem was due to the ideas passed on through her own family experience growing up. When I last saw her, she was quite pleased with her life and was taking on many new experiences.

There are many aspects to narrative counseling, but it is well suited for the disempowered and disenfranchised. Through webinars, case studies, vignettes, and on-site seminars, Roberts Research and Consulting (RRC) can help religious professionals and organizations add this style of counseling to their inventory. RRC seminars are a great option for continuing education needs.

Dr. Daniel Roberts is an author, consultant, and teacher who conducts world-class education and research in military chaplaincy. He has over 15 years of experience in providing emotional and spiritual support to the men and women in the armed forces. Daniel also provides training and mentorship to thousands of military chaplains through conferences, classroom instruction, and one-on-one coaching. His students include chaplains from the US Army, Air Force, and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Dr. Roberts also helped the CAF develop military doctrine for the deployment of chaplains as religious advisers.


Burk, J., & Espinoza, E. (2012). Race Relations Within the U.S. Military. Annual Review of Sociology, 38, 401-422.

Davis, L., Grifka, A., Williams, K., & Coffee M. (Eds.). (2017). 2016 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members

Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute. (n.d.). No Laughing Matter: Interracial and Intra-Ethnic Patterns in “Off Color” Jokes (Technical Report No. 11-13). Patrick AFB, FL: DEOMI. 

Neuger, C. C. (2001). Counseling Women: A Narrative, Pastoral Approach. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press [Kindle].

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