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How We Helped Reduce Suicidal Ideations and Sexual Assaults by 80% in 1 Year

Over the course of 2019, we continued to hold small weekly events along with larger monthly events with some of them involving the Command Religious Program. I will be honest though, I truly wondered if we were making a difference because life battles continued unabated among comrades in my unit. That is, until my chaplain broke shocking news to me...

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In my last blog post, I wrote about the experimentation I would start with mobile video technology during Total Fitness events. Despite all the difficulties I told you about in my last email, there were rays of light. One of those rays of light came in the form of meeting a chaplain who I now consider a close friend, Steve.

Steve came to my unit between December of 2018 to March of 2019 for only a short time, but he really helped turn the tide I believe with a Total Fitness program that almost went under in our command following the November 2018 martial arts event which Jeremey from Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs spoke at. He was covering for the previous battalion chaplain on an administrative absence and was at that time a Reserve Navy Chaplain who came on orders to help the unit out. Steve is an unassuming person but has a dynamite personality of initiative. When we first met, I presented an offer that started with facing the realities of the time he would have on deck being only a few short months. I explained that if he wanted to “deck plate” (chaplain speak for walking around visiting the military personnel of their unit in their work sections) or spend the majority of his time counseling Marines and Sailors, that was totally cool. However, I mentioned the time he had was so short that it would be hard for him to go deep with these individuals. Instead, we could work together where I would put together templates of presentations, letters of instruction, and advise him on how to navigate policy issues as well as the organizational dynamics in a manner that would enable a greater impact to the spiritual fitness of the unit as a whole. I explained my background as a lay leader with years of experience in the military community to make the case for complementing my friend's year's of pastoral experience and formal religious education. We discussed what it would take to expand the Command Religious Program outside of its traditional “box” for those who cared to listen by bringing it into more day to day interaction with the members of our unit. He was aware of the difficult challenges we faced, but he was excited to partner with me and together we got to work revamping the Total Fitness Program. I should also mention that Steve was unique in that like myself, he also had served as a CrossFit Level I coach in a CrossFit gym to conduct ministry and was well acquainted with the lessons I learned from serving in that type of ministry endeavor which we were now bringing to the military community.

The program we launched starting in January of 2019 started with mobile video viewings following CrossFit Hero Workouts and other workouts of Christian faith lessons as part of the Command Religious Program, but we found that this was reaching a small audience although it did serve to build up a deeper faith in the lives of the enlisted personnel and officers we worked with. These were small groups similar to other Bible studies and other religious faith studies going on in the unit, but were designed with the workout to increase morale and participation. We also worked to revamp the monthly Total Fitness program by figuring out speakers we could line up and started to lay a foundation for an obstacle course adventure race that would eventually take place in the next year. We also strategized on the issue of suicide in the unit and recognized that the Installation Personnel Administration Center (IPAC), the section which had the two back to back suicides the previous year, held the largest section of Marines in our unit (about 80) in comparison to the 800. This would be where we would start to focus our efforts. Something also of interest was for our unit, about 50% of the Marines were E-5 and below which is where most of our efforts were focused on due to accessibility, receptivity, and were of the demographic where most of the life battles seemed to take place and were in need of a solution. Focusing our efforts would be crucial to achieving success. Steve worked to boldly taking initiative to meet with the key leaders of the IPAC section which was followed up by myself training non-commissioned officers (NCOs) of this section in running a video based discussion forum. Steve left in March 2020, but he was able to turn over with Rufus, another Navy Chaplain whom I would continue to work with in my unit. Rufus and I continued the groundwork laid for the smaller section intimate discussions while continuing larger group conversations as part of the monthly Total Fitness program.

In June of 2019, an event that was collaborated on between myself, Steve, Rufus, IPAC NCOs, IPAC Staff Non-Commissioned Officers and the Officer in Charge, and one volunteer NCO who stepped up to lead Command Religious Program Christian faith session discussions following the main event went off very successfully. I was able to train a few of the non-commissioned officers to run discussion groups for the first 40 minutes of the Surrender film breaking it up into at that time 3 x 15 minute segments.

To see the trailer for this movie, go to Surrender Movie Trailer.

The discussions were initially planned for 60 minutes but went on for 80 minutes because the Marines were so engaged. I watched one group where a Marine choked up talking about the Corporal who had killed himself the fall prior because this Marine felt somehow responsible. When the option was given to do the Command Religious Program, this time unfortunately only about 8 of the Marines showed up (about 10%) in comparison to past events. We were fortunate to have one Christian Sergeant share his story of how his faith made a difference in his life to his fellow Marines. I learned a few things from this encounter. 1) Not having another break out event planned like previous times brought down participation in the Command Religious Program session even when free food and drinks were offered and they were freely given the time by their leadership to attend instead choosing other options with the time given to them 2) The Marines who did show up to the faith based session were not well versed on principles from the Bible. I realized that due to the culture in America today, many Generation Z and Millennials do not have a church background and so hearing a message from the Bible really is foreign to them. It is important to present messages and stories in a way that they will experience the context. 3) Having the NCOs who were both everyday leaders and those who volunteered in the Command Religious Program facilitate the training was clutch because their demographic group really listened to them. Lastly, the physical training and discussion groups went off without a hitch using NCOs in the IPAC who were involved with training the Marines on a day to day basis. Coordinating with the senior enlisted and the officers of the section enabled the “authority” buy-in to close the IPAC down for the time of the training evolution and boosted the participation numbers.

Over the course of 2019, we continued to hold small groups along with monthly events with some of them involving the Command Religious Program. I will be honest though, I truly wondered if we were making a difference because life battles continued unabated among fellow Marines and chaplains so it seemed to me at least. In February of 2020, Chaplain Rufus Mathews invited me to share a message on 360-degree leadership which had about 200 Marines and Sailors from Headquarters Battalion present after a fitness event. He provided me an opportunity to share how my faith impacted my leadership decisions and character which was given during an optional Command Religious Program message afterwards. However, only about 5 attended including myself and the chaplain where I shared a message about David and Goliath to explain how David had outsized influence 360 degrees based on his leadership even when he didn’t have a formal position when initially facing Goliath. I was pretty bummed out at the low turnout to the second part of the message, but this is where I learned what had been happening behind the scenes at my unit. The chaplain pulled statistics and saw an 80% drop in both suicidal ideations and sexual assaults along with a substantial decrease in alcohol related incidents over the course between 2019-2020! Wow! I was super encouraged. We were starting to smash negative cultural practices and really achieve operational excellence let alone get after the vision of our senior leaders all while allowing for the optional presentation of the Christian message that I believe sincerely helped all of this out. This was all done at minimal cost financially, time, and totally in line with policy. The chaplains looked like rock stars, were more seamlessly integrating with the daily training, and the Marines and Sailors who participated loved the events and got much value from them.

March of 2020 though would see the culminating event yet at our unit that would make the emotionally painful years before worth it. During December 2019-Jan 2020, I learned that the command wanted Headquarters Battalion to have a unit wide Field Exercise at Camp Villerie. The chaplain and I were able to convince the staff working on the exercise to integrate the Total Fitness program and the mobile phone presentation in the field I had seen work in June of 2019 with the IPAC while also using the lessons learned from the Freedom Defense Challenge in 2017. The only difference was we used tablets which had a bigger screen and could be seen by a group of 10 or more Marines. We would have two separate breakout events following initial discussion time to ensure a good turnout at the Command Religious Program session by ensuring that Marines and Sailors did not just walk off once the first part of the presentation was over. I worked with a Navy Psychologist, a Marine Corps Community Service Prevention Specialist, and Operational Stress Control and Readiness (OSCAR) Program coordinators to come up with 3 x skills that Marines could practice after going through the Surrender to Only One Discussion groups. Together we trained the Corporal’s Course E-4s, about 30 in total, to run the initial 40 minutes of view time for Surrender Movie discussion groups. They were also trained how to apply the latest in OSCAR techniques that were seen at making a real difference. I assisted the Battalion Operations Section with planning the field exercise to be an outdoor adventure race that would involve team building and also get after the new Marine Corps “Battle Skills” concepts to ensure that mandatory tactical training was aligned to spiritual training as well as physical training all in one event. This was done to maximize audience participation, get command buy in to complete required annual training, and ensure that Marines would be able to train like they would fight in combat. Having the command operations team plan the event really sped up the planning effort because they were 1) very good at planning these type of events and 2) they were given the command priority of time to do such a thing. From March 17-19, 2020 we were able to host over a 3-day period an outdoor adventure race field exercise evolution that in the end would have about 180 Marines participate, and 60 other Marines and Sailors participate as staff. Even more successful was due to COVID-19 ready to rear its ugly head, I was pulled into Crisis Action Team planning and had to leave the unit chaplain to run the spiritual fitness/Command Religious Program logistical and operational dynamics that he was not trained on in his standard chaplain training. However, over the course of our time working together, he became a pro at the breakout group opt in disclaimer methods and did an amazing job taking the concepts I presented to him working with the staff to make it become reality along with other Marines in the unit to really achieve massive success. On the evening of the last day, the unit chaplain called me up and told me that there was so much success. However, due to time constraints and the last day likely going to be the biggest group (about 100 Marines as compared to just under 50 each the first two other days), the staff was considering cancelling the resiliency discussion groups. We quickly brainstormed how to handle this and thankfully I was going to the third day. Together we quickly negotiated with the Operations Section. The unit chaplain was able to provide the staff authority on the discussion groups and I spoke the language of the Marines operationally to quickly figure out the logistical challenges and negotiate accordingly. Chaplains should certainly partner with senior officers and enlisted who are allies. They will open doors for chaplains when others want to shut their efforts down without good reason or when operational and logistical challenges arise that are outside of their purview. Being a chaplain can make you feel like an outsider to the service members you work with as the “religious guy”, but if you are seen as one of the team members based on your credibility as a good staff officer who understands and works within the battle rhythm, unit mission, Commanding Officer priorities, and inner working staff mechanisms, you will be successful while integrating the Command Religious Program and spiritual fitness programs. Case in point, a gentleman who served under chaplains as a para-church volunteer in Camp Pendleton once complained to me how he could not get Marines to come to his mid-week Bible study in Camp Horno. If you do not know is “grunt land” with multiple Marine infantry battalions. I knew the real issue though was that many of these Marines were typically in the field mid-week. This individual would have been more successful having his study on a Monday or Friday evening or better yet training Marines to run the study in the field themselves! Dawson Trotman, the legendary Navigators founder understood this during his work with sailors during WWII where he would meet sailors from various ships next to a particular pier and then encourage them to teach their fellow sailors the concepts he taught them instead of them bringing to him their friends. In the end, the unit chaplain mentioned to me that it was the best “week of his time" at our unit and we saw almost 80% of the Marines choose to watch the porition of the Surrender videos that was to be shown only under the Command Religious Program since it was of a Christian faith based nature over the 3 days of the event. The other Marines really got after it with the OSCAR training as well and the event was a smashing success with the command team wanting to do it again in the fall.

I did not realize it particularly starting 2017, but I would gain the ability to advise both newer and more senior chaplains in integrating better with their units by expanding the “box” that policy allowed in terms of various initiatives to get after moral and spiritual issues to include the Command Religious Program. I realized I had a lot to offer from my years of being part of operational planning teams, studying policy as a staff officer, understanding the nuances of negotiating to get things done given the complex personalities in a typical unit, and knowing how to communicate a plan for decision to key leaders when not in a formal decision making position. Together this along with the work of the two unit chaplains I primarily served with as well as a few other senior chaplains, a Navy Psychologist, and Marine Corps Community Services prevention team really made a difference. The official credibility of these leaders was a must. I as a line officer could not advocate on the staff effectively without a good chaplain and other professionals backing me up. The Commanding Officer and other senior leaders also in general look to the chaplain (and rightfully so) as the most senior expert to him/her on religious and moral matters in the unit. Part of my work with the chaplains in my unit started me on a journey studying the policies of religious programs in the Navy and Marine Corps in particular which helped me better advise solutions to how the chaplains I worked with could be successful while getting out of the box of their typical duties to expand in particular small group programs. Having the non-commissioned officers speak the language of spiritual fitness was crucial as well to opening the junior enlisted to get excited about discussions. Getting mid-grade senior enlisted and officers buy into the program was crucial to overcoming logistical and operational challenges and especially driving participation. Lastly, it was important to get Commanding Officer and other executive staff buy in by speaking the language of their priorities and knowing their concerns and wishes.

All of this being said, I believe we saw what is to come for the future of turning around the moral culture of military units in the United States and beyond to get them “fit for the fight and life”, namely physically, mentally, and spiritually prepared for the violence of combat and tackling the obstacles of everyday life. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I believe we can see a day where toxic things like “Marines United”, high rates of sexual assaults, rampant issues of suicide, alcohol and substance abuse, hazing, divorce, domestic violence, toxic leadership, etc. can significantly abate as military units work with operational excellence and character. Work environments can be fun and safe even with high performing individuals ready to take on dangerous situations with the challenge of workups and deployments. Military service members can be spiritually prepared to deal with the realities of “pulling triggers” while still “coming back whole” to live fruitful lives. I am passionate about this as I figure you have gathered at this point.

I am so convinced of this change to come that I have taken the lessons learned from the events I participated in the past few years and summed them up in an easily digestible form under the organization of Freedom Fitness America. Freedom Fitness America is now proud to host a brand-new special video course titled the “Unit Total Fitness Accelerator” program just for unit chaplains and lay leaders. It is a 90-minute video series that gets after the best practices of what I have learned through the school of hard knocks particularly since 2015 so you don’t have to endure the hard lessons I did that took so long. You can achieve similar results I did in less time, effort, and I believe in even greater capacity. I cannot of course guarantee the results of behavior change because after all humans have free will and can blow off the best training and social settings. However, I am sure that a difference will still be had, and it is better to do something than nothing just because you cannot guarantee influence.

On September 11 at 12:30 PM EST, I will be doing a Facebook Live video telling you more how you can be involved in the movement to be fit for the fight and life. In the meantime, please like us on Facebook by going to so you can be ready for our live presentation. Please share with your co-workers and colleagues if this has been of value to you. Also, please feel free to share feedback with me through email or at our website of where there is a “Contact Us” form so I can learn what your pain points are and better be able to serve you.

Fit for the Fight and Life,

Chris Reardon