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Spiritual Fitness is Crucial to Maintaining Unit Combat Readiness!

"War is a nightmare. War is awful, it is indifferent and devastating, and evil...War is hell. But war is also an incredible teacher, a brutal teacher, and it teaches you lessons that you will not forget. In war, you are forced to see humanity at its absolute worst. You are also blessed to see humanity in its most glorious moments. War teaches you about sorrow and loss and pain and it teaches you about the preciousness and fragility of human life..." (Jocko Willink)

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a bold statement.

War has a deeply spiritual, emotional, moral, and ethical component where the issues of life are out in the open for all to see with no hiding from them. I have a recent memory of watching with my father-in-law, my father-in-law, a veteran of 30 years of service in the US Navy, the movie “Saving Private Ryan” on Memorial Day. I believe the producers of the movie do an incredible job at bringing to life the intangible human side of war, through the eyes of Army Rangers. For example, you see one sniper gathering courage praying the Psalms out loud as he hits targets with his weapon of choice in defense of his unit. Another soldier with a similar faith tradition is on the beach praying over his rosary beads as bullets fly overhead, explosions are all around, and his comrades are dying or getting wounded in mass all around him. In the middle of the movie, the main character played by Tom Hanks is given the moral dilemma of what to do with a German POW who just a few minutes ago was part of a unit manning a machine gun that killed one of his fellow soldiers in Hanks’ unit. Towards the end of the movie, we see another moral dilemma where the Corporal in the movie who speaks German is afraid to kill and/or face mortal danger and eventually lets his comrade die in brutal hand-to-hand combat.

The brutality of war means that warriors who will fight in it need to be able to come to grips with some core basic issues which are::

1) Be prepared to kill.

2) Be prepared to give orders to kill.

3) Be prepared to be killed or seriously maimed.

4) Be prepared to watch others including those close to you be killed or seriously maimed.

MCTP 3-30 E, the US Marine Corps Combat and Operational Stress Control publication, which underpins the Corps’ leading mental health readiness programs, touches on these issues in varying degrees between pages 3-26 to 3-31 discussing the importance of units preserving spiritual resources, particularly in light of the dark environment of combat. One telling quote states,

“For most, beliefs about the nature of life are permitted to evolve only very slowly over a lifetime as life experience and wisdom accrue. On the other hand, research on the mental and spiritual components of psychological trauma, loss, and moral injury has shown that one of the defining features of such stress injuries is that they shatter existing assumptions about God, goodness, and the moral order in a way that leaves a void in understanding and meaning.” (MCTP 3-30E, Combat and Operational Stress Control, 3-27, 28)

Given the infamous quote, “war is hell," it stands to reason then for leaders to prepare their people to go through the gates of hell if stress injuries are to be minimized. To paraphrase a chaplain whom I respect very much, CAPT Thomas Holcombe, USN, put it to his Tank Battalion Commanding Officer (CO) in the run-up to OIF in 2003 under then the famous General Mattis’ 1st Marine Division:

“I need to speak into this because we need to be able to have these warriors pull triggers and come back whole.” -CAPT Thomas Holcombe

Their CO listened and eventually allowed then LT Holcombe to use the movie Saving Private Ryan to help the Marines understand the lawful vs. unlawful killing or killing vs. murder in combat. While he did not go on that deployment to his chagrin for reasons outside of his control, he recalls that the unit performed bravely under fire and in general, came back whole. If for nothing else, military leaders no matter how rough and tough must understand the importance of this side of combat readiness in terms of having units perform bravely in the heat of combat while at the same time exercising moral and legal restraint that allows them to return home with honor, and be mentally intact upon return.

Since the summer of 2015, I have been experimenting with a concept to help military units in partnership with their chaplains really get after the difficult concept of “spiritual fitness”. This is a term that really came into vogue particularly in the US Marine Corps when the then Commandant, General Neller, and the Chaplain of the United States Marine Corps, initiated a push in 2016 to develop the heart and soul of warriors in terms of developing moral integrity in garrison as well as steeling the heart of warriors to withstand the great challenges of the military life, especially regarding the violence of combat. General Neller in particular wrote a white letter where he charged leaders at all level to develop their Marines to be “physically, mentally, and spiritually prepared for the violence of combat” (Message to the Force 2018: “Execute” by General Robert B. Neller). As an active duty Marine Corps Officer reading this message, I was really convicted and inspired to think hard of what role I wanted to play in being part of the solution to train military professionals to thrive in the crucible of combat and come back whole.

That being said, in 2016 a Navy chaplain I was serving with as a volunteer working with Marine Recruits at Edson Range confided in me that he thought the spiritual fitness initiative in the Marine Corps was great, but it was generally designed by chaplains. He felt at least from his vantage point that non-commissioned officers, staff non-commissioned officers, and officers were generally not involved which in this chaplain's opinion was a mistake because they would be the ones in the end to really implement this vision if it were to really stick. That conversation really stuck with me and made me wonder how I could partner with military chaplains to leverage my insight from almost 19 years of service in the military community, particularly with almost 15 years serving as a Marine Corps Officer with plenty of experience in planning and operational efforts.

I can tell you, as a military planning official in my primary military duties, the Great Power Competition we are currently in as a nation brings forebodings for future combat that are very ugly and will test the spirit of our military and nation like never before with quick and awful carnage that some unclassified war games estimate could lead to tens if not hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women being lost in a World-War III scenario in days, weeks, and months vs. years given the speed of warfare today. Watching war play out between Ukraine and Russia as ugly as it is may just be a taste of the horrors to be revealed of the real present dangers of World War III breaking out in the foreseeable future.

If the men and women we serve with are not prepared in their hearts and souls for this, let alone the nation, we as military leaders will have a real problem on our hands greater than the physical threat of the enemy’s bullets. LtCol Grossman, USA (Ret), a former Army Ranger and West Point Military Psychologist, who wrote the books “On Killing” and “On Combat” has become a world renowned expert in dealing with these issues. He touches on the importance of warriors being able to “suck up bullets and live”, the professional responsibility to restrain oneself to employ deadly force until absolutely necessary, or a chapter on the Judeo/Christian principles of killing in combat in terms of drawing out the question of “thou shalt not kill vs. thou shalt not murder. He goes into great lengths discussing how to create the fortitude that must be instilled physically, mentally, and spiritually into military men and women as well as police officers if they are to do their dangerous jobs with bravery and honor.

Maybe the first real struggle with developing training for the spiritual side of warrior readiness is first defining it in warrior terms in a manner that can be grasped and thus owned by unit members. I am told that in the Navy Chaplain Corps and potentially the US military Chaplain Corps as a whole, there is not wide agreement on key issues. It wouldn't surprise me then that spiritual readiness then doesn't get implemented even if talked about in polite circles.

Almost two years ago, I dialogued via email with a Marine General Officer who confided in me that the concept of spiritual fitness is important, but it is difficult to figure out how to articulate it from a regular military leadership role. It made me realize that typically unit leaders pass the buck to chaplains for good reason to tackle that issue and focus on traditional warfighting training. Some chaplains passive-aggressively in turn pass the buck to their commanders when telling everybody regarding the Command Religious Program that it is the "Commanders' Religious Program" and thus the command needs to come up with a solution with just advice from the chaplain instead of championing the issue themselves. That mentality is like me as the Assistant Security Manager expecting my Commander to solve the issues of information and personnel security instead of taking a proactive leadership approach to it. That being said, I also see a real issue of the chaplain being seen as the "religious guy or gal" and unless they have formed a particular bond with their unit, are somewhat an outsider to interacting with military professionals on a daily basis when compared to the rest of the chain of command from non-commissioned officers to senior officers in a unit in terms of really driving the culture of the unit. Therefore, I think it is important that spiritual, mental, and emotional fitness aside from physical conditioning which has a high value in military culture are messaged in a way that everyday military professionals can relate to.

Col Tom Connally, USMC (Ret) developed a warrior ethos for his command called Samurai Goals which help to articulate in meaningful ways what spiritual fitness in particular looks like. He describes in a command letter in 2008 that warriors must "be so imbued with the warrior spirit, faith in their God and their Brother Marines that they are willing to march to the sound of guns."

He goes on to address spiritual readiness as a leading component of readiness with the following definition in his command lines of efforts letter:

"Spiritual Readiness: The end state of spiritual readiness is Marines who are so inculcated with the ethos of our Corps and have faith in their God and each other to be willing to sacrifice their lives for another Marine. There is no specific training plan associated with this end state, although core value training, customs, and traditions all build toward spiritual readiness. The most powerful tool in building spiritual readiness is the personal example of every leader. Strong moral leadership that emphasizes the value of every Marine to the team is essential to spiritual readiness and builds the bonds for which a Marine will sacrifice his life." (Samurai Goals, 21 January 2008)

Col Connally masterfully articulates for his unit what spiritual readiness is about and why it is move towards the sounds of guns. Marines know that when they sign up for service, they are signing up to have to face death on a battlefield and willingly lay down their lives for their country and each other. As is stated in the movie Gladiator "what we do in life echoes in eternity." Service members are not robots and without preparing them for the real-life and death issues they will face both in terms of coaching, mentoring, having unit leaders leading by example, and taking opportunities in training to develop strong bonds, units, and their leaders are setting themselves up for failure in war if this training is not taken seriously in peacetime.

Col Connally does mention that he didn't have a specific training plan for spiritual readiness. I recognize this as a shortfall in general of many units and have taken the initiative to start addressing it. If you are a military unit leader and are interested in learning more about how to develop spiritual readiness in your unit, please check out the Freedom Human Performance Academy link below. The Level I course, also known as "Be a Boss on the Battlefield and in Life" is a series of videos from an interview with MSgt John Rudd, USMC, an EOD Tech and a decorated combat veteran in OIF/OEF who served with the elite Marine Raiders in combat. He tells his own journey of understanding the importance of developing spiritual readiness and other facets of personnel readiness after practically falling apart when team members of his from a Marine Special Operations Team were tragically killed in a training accident one fateful day. The Level III course is a more holistic look at the development of spiritual fitness in conjunction with other tactical training and physical fitness based on past successful training events I have had the opportunity of leading.

Enroll in Freedom Human Performance Academy and Learn How To Integrate Military Human Performance and Life Mastery Training into Unit PT Today!