As a man myself, and someone who served in the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps for 18 years, I can honestly say that I had no idea how difficult it was to serve as a woman in the military. Four years ago I began to get a clue and it was very disturbing.
In 20I6, I completed my first research project, a dissertation study called, A Comprehensive Plan for Providing Chaplaincy Support to Wounded Female Soldiers: A Delphi Study. That work had a profound impact on my life. In the study, I interviewed women who served in the U.S. Army and were wounded in an overseas deployment. Of the many findings that appeared, two in particular created an emotional stir for me.
First, it became clear that women do not experience the military the same way as men. Despite many policy, regulatory and legislative changes, women are still the object of ridicule, harassment, dismissiveness and disrespect by male peers, leaders and even subordinates. During my interviews, one woman who was a senior level sergeant said, “This is the first time anyone has ever asked me what I think.” A very disturbing statement given that the Army had been paying her for many years to give her opinions and lead soldiers. Unfortunately, too many people blame women for not being outspoken and confident, when it is men who are most to blame for creating an environment in which women are not free to lead in the same way as men. Women who dare to lead with aggression and strength are called “bitches” or “cunts”. Women who are kind and loving are often taken advantage of.
The second disturbing finding was that most women did not have a positive experience with a military chaplain. All of the chaplains were men, and the women found the clergy to be dismissive, uncaring, or quick to refer them to someone else. Based on participants’ statements, the chaplains lacked the empathy, experience, and skill to provide emotional and spiritual support to women struggling to function in a male-dominated world that was already saturated with the stress inherent in a combat environment. I believe that the main problem was not that the chaplain men did not care, but they lacked the training to understand the difficulties women experience in military life.
While my dissertation moved me to continue researching the needs and experiences of military women, it did not prepare me for what was going to happen next. The turning point in my life came as a result of a moral injury study I currently co-lead with a colleague from the University of Phoenix. Moral injury has become a hot topic over the last few years. Unfortunately, most studies and concepts focus on the experiences of men and assume that the data and principles apply equally to women. This is a faulty assumption.
Our study is developing a theory of moral injury in servicewomen by focusing exclusively on the experiences of women veterans. In 2018, I began conducting in-depth interviews with participants and was not at all prepared for what I heard. Women told stories of forced abortions, gang rapes, acts of violence, and other crimes perpetrated against them by the sergeants and officers who were supposed to care for and protect them. Everyone knows that sexual assaults happen in the military, but reading official reports written in the business language of the military or attending semi-annual training that mostly describes victims’ rights and the process of reporting does not have the emotional effect of hearing first-hand what has happened to people. That might be one reason that despite the best efforts of military leaders, little change has occurred in the reported numbers of military sexual violence. We are numb to the devastation that military sexual trauma is having on our young women because they are just numbers on a page, colors on a bar graph.
In listening to these women, my world was rocked. For a while, I had trouble sleeping. Only a heartless person could be unmoved when hearing someone talk about how she had to clean her best friend’s brains off of her own face when her friend shot herself in the head because of an endless string of sexual assaults. These and other stories caused me to think about how little I knew about what was really happening to some women in uniform. I learned that I could only conduct so many interviews in one week. I needed time to decompress, otherwise I would be unable to help anyone.
I also knew that few of my fellow ministers understood either. We think we care. We think we understand. But we don’t truly understand. We all need to hear these stories and recognize that so many servicewomen live in a dark and dangerous place, a place where they are not safe from harm by their fellow soldiers, a place where they cannot afford to express emotions or show weakness.
The conferences this spring in Charleston, SC and Richmond, VA are my answer to the ignorance I share with many of my fellow chaplains and civilian clergy. In these events, we will hear some of the stories of the women veterans who have suffered at the hands of people they once trusted. We will be moved to take action, and we will learn how to provide holistic healing and support from both a spiritual and mental perspective. The conferences will change the lives of all who attend because we will begin to develop collaborative relationships between military chaplains, Veterans Administration chaplains, civilian faith leaders, and community health providers. Women veterans will be exposed to a variety of healing modalities, many of which will be taught by other servicewomen who have been through the fire and came out on the other side. Registration is only $50 and it will probably be the best most important money you have ever spent. Share this article with every woman veteran and faith leader you know.
Dr. Daniel Roberts is an author, consultant, and teacher who conducts world-class education and research in military chaplaincy. He has over 18 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.