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The Battle for Hearts and Minds of Service Members in The Big Easy

In 2018, in a unit I was with, we would see two back to back suicides in the late summer/early fall of 2018 just 45 days apart in the largest section of our unit (about 80 Marines) to include a Chief Warrant Officer. He had shot himself and his teenage daughter came home to find blood everywhere. To this day, nobody is quite sure what happened. Another married Corporal in his section who seemed like he was getting help for some of his issues also committed suicide not long after.

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Yesterday, I told you about my work in Southern California regarding the integration of spiritual fitness with physical fitness and outdoor adventure events. You’ll recall that I mentioned problems with costs running high and marketing problems in terms of outreach efforts. I was perplexed and going through personal challenges of my own, but there was some innovation that resolved these issues in the last few months of my time stationed in San Diego in 2017.

In April of 2017, I was coming off a series of both successes and failures which included going through a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the wake of a massive small business failure adventure and was also brand new to being married just a little over a month. Oh by the way, I found out 3 weeks after being married that surprise, surprise, I was going to be a dad! My wife got pregnant it looked like on my wedding night or initial honeymoon period. So much for wondering how long it would take before we had kids! Welcome to family life Chris! Lol. To top it off, I was preparing for orders to New Orleans, LA after finding out my wife did not qualify for overseas orders and would eventually get put into the Exceptional Family Member Program. The changes were so rapid that apparently one night I got up out of bed and was kneeling by the bed saying loudly, “my head hurts, my head hurts.” I do not recall the incident personally, but after waking up out of this subconscious act, my wife told me about it. Apparently my brain processing group was really trying to make sense of all the massive changes going on between moving on from negative experiences of the past, hope for the future, getting married, transitioning to a new location and new job, finding I was going to be a dad, getting promoted later that year…it is a miracle I made it through that time!

It was during THIS time shortly in early April of 2017 that I felt inspired to put together an outdoor adventure race similiar to the Crucible events I mentioned in my last blog post while I stood duty one lonely night preparing for my PCS to New Orleans in just a few short months. I struggled back and forth with the idea, but decided to go for it.

I brought my idea up to one of my unit chaplains at that time and he enthusiastically supported it. We strategized the need to bring in an expert who could speak the language of the Marines we intended to serve. The chaplain and I also wanted to provide insight from operational stress control techniques that would be solutions to the message of the speaker along with an optional message under the Command Religious Program that would provide a faith based approach to dealing with difficult issues that warriors face. We settled on a speaker who was a Marine veteran who after getting married found his life fall apart as his anger raged to the point where he would break things inside of his home, verbally abuse his wife, and eventually cheat on his wife. Facing a divorce, our speaker recognized he needed to change course…real fast. The chaplain knew that the speaker had a credible faith background through a personal friendship with him and wanted to make sure that Marines got an opportunity if they wanted to hear how faith was critical to healing from the wounds of war.

After the speaker did his initial message to all, I stood up to give a disclaimer to all the Marines present and said something to the effect of, “ok, you’ve all heard so and so speak, but the speaker has a portion of his story he would like to share with you that really turned his life around. He particularly likes to share his faith journey from a Christian faith perspective and so we want to give you the option on behalf of the unit chaplain under the “Command Religious Program” to listen in on this. If you don’t want to listen to this message, that is fine, but we have set up for you another further break out discussion with another chaplain and Marine and Family Life Counselor to discuss the issues brought up. You are now on a 5-minute break so make your decision and we’ll see you soon.” This all sounds really simple and profound, but I do have to still admit I remember feeling an adrenaline rush because I was very conscious about the importance of balancing the line between allowing for the free expression of faith that could help solve real issues while also not giving the impression that service members would be forced to participate. To my surprise, we got an almost 82-91% return of Marines choosing to listen to a Christian message when given the opportunity to do so under the Command Religious Program. The only thing I wish I had thought of at the time was to have some type of count and follow up mechanism so they continue to find answers to their questions and strengthen their faith more.

After the speaking event, the Marines participated in a physical outdoor obstacle race which had a stress shot. There was a challenge of locking on the range, but thankfully being a line officer, I knew how to speak the “lingo” with the range Chief Warrant Officer where I stressed the importance of a “super squad like challenge” (notice I didn’t say Tough Mudder although I did use the term “Spartan Race”) because this language is something that Marines in particular understand and wouldn’t raise eyebrows of having issues with commercial enterprise endorsements. An US Army equivalent would be the “Best Ranger” competition. The Range Chief Warrant Officer a.k.a. “Gunner” was able to allocate ammunition and help me coordinate weapons coaches and weapons itself along with a stress shoot event for the Freedom Defense Challenge which really lent to credibility with my unit’s leadership given his expertise running live fire events in a safe manner.

On the fitness side of things, I met with the Single Marine Program Coordinator and soon enlisted the help of multiple Marines to serve as fitness station coordinators and help run the event. I also reached out to Public Affairs/Combat Camera to document the event for the future (I am so glad I did this!). To outreach to the unit given the fact the CO loved the idea, but wanted to make it “max participation encouraged”, I had to beat feet around the multiple sections of the unit to explain the concept for the Marines to the senior enlisted and officers of these units in the hopes of convincing them to have their Marines and Sailors attend on work time. The unit chaplain secured some money for snacks. I also secured the use of a resiliency/operational stress control message to be given by another chaplain chaplain and Military Family Life Coordinator (MFLC) for Marines who needed to be presented with a solution to the issues initially brought up but didn't want to participate in the Command Religious Program session.

Crucial lessons learned here were:

1) The optional disclaimer message to highlight an optional Christian faith message given under the “Command Religious Program” event was on solid ground in accordance with current military policy.

2) Providing a break-out session where the service members had to choose between either operational stress control or Command Religious Program training brought higher numbers of participants in the faith based session than otherwise might have showed to a separate event like a evening event at the chapel.

3) Having an event that was physical and tactical in nature really helped draw the crowd to the resiliency/spiritual fitness message. The message also had to have relevance to the military unit and couldn’t just be some sermon on a generic topic at the whim of the speaker. A few years back from this time when I was working as a lay leader at Edson Range, the Navy chaplain who onboarded me explained to me the need to have a message that was “Marine Corps like” or in other terms, had a professional connotation to it that senior leaders could at least respect even if they didn’t agree with it that some sort of personal development was happening for the service members under their charge and not brainwashing by a wacko speaker.

4) Since the event was overseen by the command vs. a non-profit for the unit members, we were able to use government resources for “training” which enabled us to spend a fraction of the cost on events when compared to the SoCal Military Crucibles I had spearheaded in 2015-2016.

During the same month following this event, I PCS’d to New Orleans where I would continue experimenting with the concept of the Freedom Defense Challenge. Over the course of the next year though, I and other fellow Marines and chaplains would experience the biggest life battles I had ever experienced up to that point. We would see two back to back suicides in the late summer/early fall of 2018 just 45 days apart in the largest section of our unit (about 80 Marines) to include a Chief Warrant Officer who lived just a few houses away from me in base housing. He had shot himself and his teenage daughter came home to find blood everywhere. To this day, nobody is quite sure what happened. Another married Corporal in his section who seemed like he was getting help for some of his issues also committed suicide not long after. Between 2018-2020, multiple chaplains went through divorces, multiple Marines I knew either struggled themselves or had family members struggling with mental illnesses, and one military friend would experience a home invasion break in right before he went on active orders as a chaplain candidate. Alcohol abuse was rampant which was no surprise given the free-flowing alcohol culture of New Orleans. Sexual assaults as well were at a high in our unit despite the recent exposure of "Marines United" back in 2016 and annual training against this type of behavior.

In October of 2018, I would help take decisive action against all that was going on in my unit by coordinating with my command and unit chaplain to have the same speaker I worked with in San Diego to speak after a physical fitness event that would kick start a monthly “Total Fitness” program that the Commanding Officerwanted. The Commanding Officer had heard that in one Marine Expeditionary Unit that a weekly “Total Fitness” small group program was run that used videos with much success over 18 months. The chaplain of that unit told me the success was extremely high as he saw only 9 of the 900 couples get divorces and no suicides occur over 18 months. I was shocked in a good way as I realized I was on to something. However, we would need to persevere in a team effort between officers, enlisted, and chaplains if we were going to turn the culture of our unit around much like the Marine Expeditionary Unit.

This event would be a physical workout where about 200 Marines showed up and listened to the speaker's initial message. We then gave a disclaimer that an optional Command Religious Program session would be set up where the speaker could talk about his Christian faith and how that helped him heal from the scars of war. About 50 Marines showed up to that portion of the event and about 25 this time would commit for the first time to subscribing to the Christian faith. Overall, the event was a great success.

However, the next month we invited my friend Jeremey Stalnecker, a former USMC Captain who had served as a Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAAT) Platoon Command commander in the initial invasion of Iraq and was the Vice President of Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs. He gave an awesome message but to my dismay, the operational leaders of the unit put Jeremey’s message called “March or Die” (an amazing message and book by the way) right in the middle of the martial arts event. I knew instinctively at this point that there was no way anybody would go to the Command Religious Program portion because the martial arts event would occur right after and his portion would go inside somewhere. Sure enough, that is exactly what happened. About 150 Marines showed up initially and at least 1 Marine did show up for the optional faith-based session, but eventually went back to his section I think. Part of the reason for this failure was because the unit chaplain at this time was not available to advocate for the Command Religious Program portion being put in an appropriate setting. After this event, the Total Fitness Program almost fell apart, but was re-energized to varying degrees over the next year. The key here is the unit chaplain has to be a present and strong player on the command staff to advocate for the Command Religious Program and Spiritual Fitness program in general! Without this advocacy, the service members they work with can get strong armed otherwise.

One of the problems I needed to resolve still was the procurement of live presenters. Good presenters are in short supply and have busy schedules that do not align to military unit needs. So I experimented with mobile video technology to help provide content that could be scaled across multiple units at a very cheap and easy to facilitate cost. More on that in my next blog post.

Still in the Fight,