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Sustaining Spiritual Resiliency Inside the Enemy's Engagement Zone

An emphasis on military personnel being cared for and developed physically, emotionally, and spiritually is crucial to developing a hardened resolve and will to win that prove decisive in future combat. However, just as the force of yesterday needs to be redesigned to meet future battlefield conditions, the way soul care is done currently must change both in and out of combat because current operating concepts will not hold up in the crucible of the security environment mentioned above.

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In 2018, I witnessed for the first time a seismic shift in my career since 9/11 in terms of the direction that the Department of Defense was taking based on an evaluation of the global strategic environment. The 2018 National Defense Strategy stated that terrorism, although still a threat, would be from peer and near peer state actors who had capabilities to really give the US military a run for their money on a not too distant battlefield. Secretary Mattis warned, “America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.

A few years before this strategic document came out, the Marine Corps projected into the future to articulate what a not too distant battlefield would look like:

“Peer and near-peer state adversaries have and will continue to refine sophisticated anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities that threaten our strategic reach and operational freedom of maneuver. Technology proliferation will ensure numerous non-state adversaries and individuals gain at least some capability at the tactical level. Many will be able to gain access to engineering knowledge for specialized weapons, commercially available unmanned systems, chemical and biological weapons, and new “intelligent explosive devices” that can hunt down their targets. Standoff weapons such as anti-ship cruise missiles, precision-guided munitions, armed and persistent unmanned aerial systems (UAS), networked ISR and targeting systems, and surface-to-air missiles – all once the province of only the most modern militaries – are becoming commonplace. Increasingly lethal counter-air weapons and their growing availability even to non-state actors will further challenge our use of low-altitude airspace for maneuver, supply, and fire support. Any monopoly we might have on “breakthrough” systems will likely be short-lived. Designs can be stolen from compromised information environments and cutting-edge equipment can be captured or illicitly acquired and reverse-engineered. Advances in computer controlled machining and the maturation of 3D-printing/additive manufacturing will enable competitors to quickly transition designs into production and introduce systems into operation at a pace far faster than our current acquisition process allows. We need to streamline our ability to evaluate and acquire advanced technologies to ensure we gain advantages from innovations faster than our competitors and adversaries.” Furthermore, the Marine Corps recognized detection challenges by stating, “Tomorrow’s fights will involve conditions in which “to be detected is to be targeted is to be killed.” Adversaries will routinely net together sensors, spies, UAS, and space imagery to form sophisticated “ISR-strike systems” that are able to locate, track, target, and attack an opposing force. In complex terrain, adversaries will collect targeting information through eyes and ears and spread it through social media. No matter the means of detection, unmanaged signatures will increasingly become a critical vulnerability.” The requirement then articulated for the Marine Corps to “be able to fight at sea, from the sea, and from the land to the sea; operate and persist within range of adversary long range fires...achieving this end state requires a force that can create the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration, thanks to mobile and low-signature sensors and weapons.” (Marine Operating Concept 2016).

With all of this being said, the Marine Corps foreshadowed what has always and will be true of battle: “It is critical to emphasize, however, that technology will never override the human dimensions of war. Like conflicts of the past, wars of the future will be characterized by their destruction, bloodshed, and suffering. No level of automation or use of robotics will replace the fact that war will always center on violence directed by humans against other humans. Killing is inherent to fighting, and war’s violent essence will never change. Hence, war will continue to be an extreme trial that will test our strength, stamina, and endurance. On the battlefields of tomorrow, our Marines and Sailors will still have to contend with danger, fear, exhaustion, and privation. While new technologies and scientific advancements may grant us advantages, ultimately, it will be our hardened resolve and will to win that will prove decisive in future combat.

General Berger, the current Commandant of the Marine Corps in his 2019 guidance to the force further articulated the human dimension of warfare with a charge to all leaders by stating: “Leaders must ensure Marines are well-led and cared for physically, emotionally, and spiritually, both in and out of combat.

As I ponder these issues, there are a few key takeaways that I feel must be addressed:

  1. The not too distant battlefield will still demand incredible fortitude and spiritual toughness.
  2. An emphasis on military personnel being cared for and developed physically, emotionally, and spiritually is crucial to developing a hardened resolve and will to win that prove decisive in future combat.
  3. The current security environment means that the concept of static forward operating bases will be a liability and thus low signature movement and dispersion will be key to avoiding targeting as well as creating tactical advantage at the right time and place.
  4. Just as the force of yesterday needs to be redesigned to meet future battlefield conditions, so does how soul care is met both in and out of combat because current operating concepts will not hold up in the crucible of the security environment mentioned above.

For antiquity to include up into the current time, the concept of developing physical, emotional, and mental toughness has been trained and developed in peacetime to gain fortitude for war through physically, mentally, and emotionally realistic and demanding training that mimicked combat conditions. This will still be important moving forward. However, typically the idea of developing spiritual fitness at the same time practically plays out with unit leaders providing a token plug for the chaplain by inviting personnel to attend divine services if they wish, chaplains relegating their spiritual duties to performing religious rites, running various annual training or specialized retreats, conducting counselings, and helping facilitate religious studies for those who feel inclined to do so. For the most part though, this approach only reaches a relatively small slice of a unit demographic other than brief training briefs or end of week stand downs where the chaplain gives a little quote or maybe even a written newsletter that may or may not be paid attention to. However, as stated in paragraphs above, two senior Marine Corps leaders recognize the need for military personnel to have the spiritual fortitude to withstand the crucible of combat and expect leaders at all levels to facilitate that. I wonder if this part is really neglected in a manner that will have serious tactical problems on a future battlefield. You don’t have to be religious to know that not caring for your inner soul, mental health, etc. is crucial to staying in the game with day to day life. My wife told me the other day how back in San Diego while I am currently stationed overseas that she has had fellow Americans who are fed up with COVID-19 literally act towards her in ways that a few months ago would have been unthinkable. Cracking under stress, some people have flipped her off for wearing a mask, somebody tried to run her off the road, and still another individual made a rude comment before abruptly getting up to leave while my wife and son ate and drank at a park with their masks off basically implying, “how dare they.” I don’t mean to get into the controversy of COVID-19 mask wearing, but with that and everything going on with racial tensions in our country on top of that, we are watching what happens when a nation is put through a difficult emotional time and basic civility towards fellow humans breaks down.

Military professionals have known for years how the stress of combat can bring the worst out of humans as well. Just doing “check in the box” spiritual development is not going to cut it. In particular for chaplain facilitation of small group activities, I have noticed in my experiences of 15 years of serving in various lay leader roles that chaplains in general do not intentionally recruit and develop lay leaders and volunteers. Most of these volunteers and lay leaders serve to provide support during a divine service and some help lead religious text studies like a Bible study or even lead divine services for a religion the chaplain is not endorsed to lead. In a deployed environment, as a military planner, I often hear senior chaplains trying to figure out how to circulate fellow chaplains around the operational area whether it be cross-decking ships or visiting certain outposts. Nothing wrong with this in general, but this worked in general for a relatively static battlefield environment and only provides so many touch points. Now compound the environment I mentioned above using Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations and other concepts that the Navy, Marine Corps, and other services are advocating, and you have out run your logistics train before it even started. Furthermore, what happens when due to operational security reasons, units are in the field for long periods of time constantly moving around just to stay alive and are maintaining a low electromagnetic or physical signature? How is the chaplain going to find them to talk with them? Furthermore, there are not enough chaplains already and they sure as heck won’t be to go with every small unit going out the door to set up divine services. Given the speed and difficulty of warfare that will only increase, how will chaplains and the unit leaders they serve ensure that their people maintain the hardened resolve to keep fighting under rough conditions?

I believe just like there is a major push across the Department of Defense to restructure personnel, equipment, training, and operational concepts to meet the 21st century security environment of the current Great Power Competition we are in, so does the way that spiritual development is encouraged and formed for the souls of our warriors in the US military. So, what are major steps that I feel chaplains and military leaders need to take to accomplish this? I am going to provide 3 Simple Methods that are known for their effectiveness:

Method # 1: Hold Ethic and Leadership Discussions Around War Movies or Credible Military Experts

If realistic training such as simunition rounds pelting against your bodies, live fire exercises, gas chamber exposure, blank machine gun fire rattling over service member heads low crawling under barbed wire through the mud, or other you name it training is necessary to simulate the difficulties of combat, then the same approach must be taken to develop the souls of our warriors. Chaplains and military leaders must find ways to exercise moral and ethical tactical decision making games with discussions on what if’s long before these issues play out in combat. Train like you fight and fight like you train.

One of the best ways I have seen this done that can be replicated easily without the use of low density and high demand trained motivational speakers is by the introduction of Hollywood movies or other similar video productions to draw service members into stories they can relate to. The Marine Corps recently highlighted the movie "Flags of Our Fathers" to help present day Marines remember the hardships World War II era Marines went through to take Iwo Jim and upon returning home. Movies like this have an emotional impact in ways that few other training sessions can have. When I was a midshipman at the US Naval Academy, I went through ethics training and the instructors utilized movies like the Hunt for Red October, U-571, etc. to highlight key leadership and ethics principles that had a realistic vignette acted out by Hollywood. When I was a Second Lieutenant at The Basic School, our chaplain showed parts of the movie, “Saving Private Ryan” to the class of Lieutenants and then compared and contrasted how one soldier was paralyzed on the beach while praying but not really moving forward almost as if to just pray for deliverance. However, another soldier, a sniper, was praying Psalms confidently while moving bravely and shooting enemy soldiers. I’ll never forget the chaplain asking, “which one would you rather be?” in terms of comparing and contrasting two faith mindsets. Regarding the same movie, another chaplain friend of mine, Thomas Holcombe, told me a story where he taught on the morality of legitimate killing in war vs. illegitimate by showing a scene in Saving Private Ryan from the sniper in the movie marking targets to soldiers killing surrendering German soldiers while laughing about it. If I recall the story correctly, Thomas then asked the Marines in his unit, “who murdered and who killed”? He then broke out this difference and remarked that his unit performed bravely AND ethically under fire returning back home whole. Movies like Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, The Patriot, The Pacific, Band of Brothers, Lone Survivor, U-571, Midway, etc. have so many realistic and generally historical battlefield conditions depicted with realistic decisions being made in the heat of battle. These can spiritually inoculate service members through regular training that they will very likely pay attention to. By the way, who doesn’t like watching movies? My wife Kristine is a former teacher and she used to show movies in her classroom to drive home certain teaching points to her students which was highly effective. The unit chaplain and military leaders can discuss which topics are most crucial and then go to town on having a regular series to develop their people.

Another method can be to facilitate YouTube video discussions from individuals like “Jocko Willink” a retired Navy SEAL thought leader who teaches on ethics and morality in a very macho but fun manner which has gained him an audience with GQ magazine and TED Talks and a few hundred thousand views on various weekly programs. Others like Jocko are my friend Chad Robichaux and Jeremy Stalnecker who have their “Mighty Oaks Warrior Program Show” where they talk about veteran and military related issues from both a faith based and non-faith based perspective. The chaplain and unit leaders can select the most applicable video topics and then have their unit leaders facilitate discussions surrounding it.

Method # 2. Facilitate Regular Small Unit Discussion Groups in Peacetime Training That Can Be Maintained in an Operational Environment

General Berger is quoted in his 2019 Planning Guidance for stating: “I have noticed over the past several years that there is an increasing dissonance between what we are doing with regard to training and education, and what we need to be doing based on the evolving operating environment. Specifically, many of our schools and training venues are firmly based in the “lecture, memorize facts, regurgitate facts on command” model of industrial age training and education. For our schools, it is more about the process of presenting information, and for our students/trainees, it is about what to think and what to do instead of how to think, decide, and act. What we need is an information age approach that is focused on active, student-centered learning using a problem-posing methodology where our students/trainees are challenged with problems that they tackle as groups in order to learn by doing and also from each other. We have to enable them to think critically, recognize when change is needed and inculcate a bias for action without waiting to be told what to do. We should train the way we expect and intend to fight. If we expect to operate in a contested information environment, then we will train to that standard and expectation.” (38th Commandant Planning Guidance 2019). Over the past 5 years I have been working on innovating new ways to develop education and training to better facilitate spiritual development in service members in the manner General Berger mentions for information age techniques and I have found best practices have come out of regular small unit discussions where a facilitator posed tough questions that service members then were asked to respond to as a group. I’ll cite a few examples of real life military units where chaplains and supporting unit leaders took this approach that got real results:

1) “No Slack” Battalion of the 101st Airborne Unit: Army Chaplain Justin Roberts noticed an alarming rate of suicides after his unit returned from combat in Afghanistan on their first tour. Following this, he pioneered an approach to do away with the traditional annual training PowerPoint brief on suicide prevention and led facilitated discussion groups where soldiers got the chance to practice role playing what now would be considered “Safe Talk” training. As a result, there was a 70% in suicides after the second deployment as a result of the soldiers now as a whole confidently looking out for one another if they noticed their fellow soldiers were struggling. Their story is told in the movie, "No Greater Love".

2) The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit under the command of Col Joseph Clearfield took an approach of holding weekly discussion groups using a video from the Graduation among other lessons for the command element and subordinate units that were tied into physical fitness. The chaplain of this unit told me that over a period of 18 months after implementing this program, from what I recall there were no suicides and only 9 of the 900+ couples deployed underwent divorces following the deployment they did.

3) Over the course of one year with Headquarters Battalion, Marine Forces Reserves in New Orleans from 2019-2020, there was a drop of about 80% in suicidal ideations and sexual assaults after a “Total Fitness” program was put in place by the then commanding officer, Col Miller, with the assistance of his chaplains, staff, and other motivated volunteer leaders according to the unit chaplain. This program took place monthly with speakers after physical fitness events along with other smaller sessions held with video based discussions.

There are other units that I am aware of that are now taking this approach, but essentially the idea of utilizing a more adult learning modality instead of the industrial age presentation style of learning has dramatically better results of education and training that is also much more easy to replicate. Service members don’t take too well to the “death by PowerPoint approach”.

Method # 3: Recruit and Develop Small Unit Leaders to Facilitate Resiliency Discussions

I was talking on a Zoom call the other day with my friend Chaplain Steve Pate and he expressed to me how he was running a discussion group program that was designed to teach Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Marine speak with the help of a Company Commander, a Marine Captain, for about 35 Marines. He found that the Company Commander and Marines were loving it, but we discussed the reality of not having enough of him to go around to teach everybody else as he explained to me the time constraints he was under. It is necessary for Steve and other chaplains like him to train other facilitators. John Maxwell calls this principle “leading leaders” to achieve “explosive growth”. Let’s look at this example: 1 motivated discussion group facilitator (let’s say the chaplain) leading 10 discussion groups at 10 people per group can safely mentor 100 people. However, let’s take that same motivated chaplain and have him/her hold just one session and then train and develop 10 small unit leaders to lead one discussion group of 10 people each will accomplish the same mission of impacting 100 people in a much more efficient, flexible, and scalable manner. Then let’s have each one of these small unit leaders develop another 10 leaders and we now are impacting 1000 people with each person just leading 1 group of 10! The process goes on as you can imagine. Multiplication will always beat out addition any day! Most people attempt to lead followers through a process of addition where they invite people to their group to listen and then try to run as many groups as possible. At some point, without adding other highly trained leaders, you run out of scalability and flexibility. Furthermore, all it takes for the program to stop is to take out the initial leader. I love one scene in the movie “We Were Soldiers” where Mel Gibson steps up next to a helicopter as the motivated small unit leader is ready to take the charge out of the helicopter when Mel Gibson’s character reaches up and says, “you’re dead”. The other soldiers hesitate and Mel Gibson says, “you’re dead, you’re dead.” He then asks, “what are you going to do?” One of the soldiers in desperation says “get out of the chopper” which they all proceed to do. Mel Gibson then huddles the team up for an after action to have the unit members train each other how to do each other’s job because in combat people die and others have to be able to carry on. It is no different here. We are training for war and I hate to break the bad news, but even with Geneva Convention rules, chaplains get killed in combat too or can be taken out of the fight due to an emergency back home, sickness, or other issue and it is not easy to replace them especially given the long training pipeline of 7-10 years when you take into account college, seminary, practical minister experience, and basic training let alone recruitment issues in the first place.

If chaplains partnering with their unit leaders have trained their people well, then the unit can still carry on the resiliency mission.

In similar terms of developing a Command Religious Program model that will survive and thrive within the weapons engagement zone of a contested near peer/peer fight where small units are dispersed all over the battlefield in a low signature mode, it is crucial for chaplains to develop in peace time young motivated volunteers that they intentionally recruit and develop to hold small group discussions relevant to military issues from a faith based perspective. For example, let’s say that a unit has on average 70% of its members at least stating that they subscribe to a Christian faith background. A chaplain can then be on the lookout for and reach out to solid leaders among this group, let’s say 1-2% of a 1000 member unit (so like 10-20 people) in various units and sections. He/she then asks if they would be interested in undergoing a training regime where the chaplain would “do life” with these individuals, teach them what he/she knows on how to execute appropriate counseling techniques, facilitate small group Bible studies, answer difficult questions, pray with fellow service members, etc. This training would be done then with practical application weekly with feedback to complete the training and education loop during peacetime. The chaplain would then send these volunteers out to facilitate the spiritual needs of the Christian community in the unit even without the chaplain present. During a time of combat, that same unit chaplain can push materials and check in on these leaders as able, provide training frameworks, and release these volunteers to be part of the Religious Ministry Team in dispersed locations where the chaplain himself/herself is not physically able to be. This can be done for any religious group based on the needs present and the interest of volunteers. Based on the chaplain’s own expertise he/she then is now giving away his expertise. This entails a bit of risk I will admit, but the bigger risk that is the elephant in the room again is one person can only be in one place at one time. Video teleconferencing can help to a degree with this and I advocate for its use, but in the midst of a contested electromagnetic environment, you will still need boots on the ground representation. I also guarantee these volunteers will have unique placement, access, and day to day relational and work credibility with their fellow service members that is impossible for one chaplain to have with each member of their unit no matter how hard they try. I myself have experienced this where I have had very deep spiritual conversations with fellow officers and enlisted members to include in sensitive classified areas chaplains did not have a security clearance to enter. Just the other day I got into a deep conversation with a fellow officer who is a mobilized reservist who in his civilian job is a police officer. We got into a very deep discussion among other things the use of deadly force and Biblical morality surrounding it stemming from conversation about one of his friends having to shoot 4 people in a righteous killing but not having any credible police chaplains to talk to. Ultimately I’m talking about a mindset shift in how units get after developing ethical and moral development just as much as they do training small unit leaders to conduct martial arts and tactical battle drills. Back during World War II, a famous religious leader from the Christian faith, Dawson Trotman, who would go on to start the organization known as the Navigators, was known to mentor young sailors whom he met on a pier next to their ships. He trained them in all he knew about the Christian faith and later when they asked him to meet their friends he would reply to them no, they should teach the principles he initially taught. History proved Dawson right and his method survived and thrived during World War II with these sailors being dispersed all over the Pacific to minister to Sailors and Marines Dawson would never meet. By the way, Dawson died an unfortunate death in his middle age but his organization and movement continued to this very day because he prioritized teaching others how to do what he was doing. The founder of the Christian faith, Jesus, did this as well by training 12 Jewish men how to do the things he did and said before sending them out in practical training missions where they were instructed to pray for healing, teach the message of Jesus, etc. Jesus did this over a 3 year time frame before he died himself during an awful crucifixion. This was how (and still is how) the Christian faith expanded globally over 2000 years to well over a few billion people. If it was just up to a few paid ordained ministers leading the charge, the faith would have died out a long time ago...

Ok, so to sum it up, the three main methods are as follows: 1) Facilitate Moral and Ethics Guided Discussions Around War Movies 2) Hold Regular Small Unit Discussions and 3) Recruit and Develop Small Unit Leaders to Hold Resiliency Discussions. For this last point, this is crucial for incorporating the Command Religious Program as well. I imagine that if you have taken the time to read this, none of these methods are rocket science or complex. What IS difficult is execution especially for brand new unit chaplains who aren’t all that familiar with a military unit culture to get after the hard work of putting these methods into practice. Therefore, I've partned with a fellow Marine named John Rudd who is an EOD Tech with the Military and has some experience in the Special Forces.

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Fit for the Fight and Life,

Chris Reardon