Sixteen years ago, I began a journey that would transform the rest of my life. In February of 2002, I entered the military chaplaincy as a member of the dominant group – a White, male, conservative Christian. In my prior service as an infantryman, I had never worked with female soldiers. I assumed, like many of my fellow troopers that when it came to the military, women were the weaker sex. I also assumed that everyone is able to get the care they need. Both assumptions turned out to be wrong.
The military is full of strong women. Since the beginning of our nation, women have served as fighting troops, spies, medics, and support personnel (Devilbiss, 1990; Monahan & Neidel-Greenlee, 2010; Sherrow, 1996). In addition to their full-time jobs as warriors and leaders, they are mothers, spouses, confidants, and chefs. Many female soldiers are single mothers. “More than 30,000 single mothers have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan” (Mattocks et al., 2012, p. 538).
My first assignment as a unit minister was in a drill sergeant unit. These great professionals were responsible for introducing civilians to the military way of life. The female drill sergeants in the unit were every bit as capable and competent as the males. They cut no slack, expected none, and fully earned my respect. Now, women continue to prove their strength by passing some of the toughest schools in the military – Army Ranger school and Marine Corps Infantry Officer training. These women always knew they were powerful, it’s just that some of us, like me, were slow to come to that realization.
The stress on military women is immense, but they handle it well. One study found that men exit the military at a significantly higher rate than women (Finestone et al., 2014). Another study showed no significant difference between male and female soldiers in burnout levels, commitment, or constructive coping strategies during infantry training (Tarrasch et al., 2011).
Not long after I transitioned from the infantry to the chaplaincy, I learned to love, admire, and respect the women who put on the uniform in the active and reserve forces. However, I was disturbed to learn that they did not always get the spiritual and religious support they needed. As I went about my ministerial work, many women told me stories about how they sought chaplain support but were ignored, treated lightly, or quickly referred to someone else.
One woman told a horrific story about how she tried to stop a fellow soldier from committing suicide. Despite her best efforts, the man shot himself with his own rifle. She was greatly disturbed, but the chaplain never stopped in to see how she was doing. I am sure that that chaplain does not represent most clergy, but he certainly failed in that instance.
I also found that some male chaplains were overly cautious when dealing with female soldiers. These men seemed to be more concerned about avoiding false accusations and inappropriate relationships than caring for the women in their ranks. It smacks of an underlying assumption in the untrustworthiness of women. I know that false accusations do happen in life, but I find it laughable that this is a major concern given that chaplains have no command authority and there is no evidence of widespread accusations against military chaplains. What would a soldier have to gain by accusing a chaplain? Chaplains have no influence on soldiers’ careers.
I now see women as an underserved population when it comes to chaplain support. I am not suggesting that most male chaplains are doing a poor job. But as a whole, men are not working hard enough to understand the needs of women service members and provide adequate emotional and spiritual support. In my dissertation study, only 30% of women I interviewed received sufficient support from military chaplains (Roberts, Kovacich, & Rivers, 2017).
Because of the additional stress, prejudice, and harassment women still face, they experience the military differently than men (Roberts et al., 2017). As a member of the dominant group, I have never experienced the kind of minimization and emotional assault women in society face on a daily basis. One woman I interviewed, who had been in the military for a decade or so, said that this interview was the first time that anyone had truly asked her opinion on anything. The first women to graduate from Ranger school received death threats online (Myers, 2018). The Department of Defense does not tolerate harassment and discrimination, but there are still some military men and women who quite frankly do not belong in the service because they cannot lay down their own prejudices.
Because of my work, I developed a deep desire to see that our female service members receive the kind of spiritual and religious support that they truly deserve. I used my research to develop the Comprehensive Female Soldier Support Model. It is a framework for providing emotional and spiritual assistance based on research with women soldiers, expert advice from female chaplains, and my own experience in working with rape and trauma survivors.
The model calls for empathetic listening, trauma mitigation skills, self-awareness, and counseling techniques. It also calls on male chaplains to become fully aware of the unique ways in which women cope with the stressors of military life. Treating all service members the same misses the boat because it fails to address the realities of male-dominated cultures. Most women, LGBTQ, and non-White service members have experienced a lifetime of harassment and discrimination.
The skills and attitudes needed to be an effective religious support provider of women soldiers can be learned by anyone. I deliver seminars and workshops that teach clergy, religious organizations, and seminary students effective techniques. Contact me to learn more. I guarantee your knowledge and capabilities will grow after just one seminar.
Dr. Daniel Roberts is an author, consultant, and teacher who conducts world-class education and research in military chaplaincy. He has over 16 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.
Devilbiss, M. C. (1990). Women and military service: A history, analysis, and overview of key issues. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press.
Finestone, A. S., Milgrom, C., Yanovich, R., Evans, R., Constantini, N., & Moran, D. S. (2014). Evaluation of the performance of females as light infantry soldiers. BioMed Research International, 2014, 1-7. doi: 10.1155/2014/572953
Mattocks, K. M., Haskell, S. G., Krebs, E. E., Justice, A. C., & Yano, E. M. (2012). Women at war: Understanding how women veterans cope with combat and military sexual trauma. Social Science & Medicine, 74(4), 537-545.
Monahan, E. M., & Neidel-Greenlee (2010). A few good women: America’s military women from World War I to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Myers, M. (2018). First female Ranger grads open up about the aftermath and joining the infantry. https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2018/03/13/first-female-ranger-grads-open-up-about-the-aftermath-and-joining-the-infantry/.
Roberts, D. L., Kovacich, J. & Rivers, M. J. (2017). The comprehensive female soldier support model. Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy, 24(1), 1–19.
Sherrow, V. (1996). Women and the military: An encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC- CLIO, Inc.
Tarrasch, R., Lurie, O., Yanovich, R., & Moran, D. (2011). Psychological aspects of the integration of women into combat roles. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(2), 305-309. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.10.014