Spirituality: Chaplains play important role in overall fitness

  • Published
  • By Military Health System Communications Office
  • Military Health System

Service members’ personal beliefs and practices help strengthen their ties to hope, meaning, and purpose. Such ideological and spiritual forces play an extremely important role in Total Force Fitness and the ability to persist when confronting adverse situations.

“The existence of spiritual strength and faith, whatever that is for the individual, provides the gasoline for the engine, to keep people moving forward in the fight,” said Navy Capt. Raymond Houk, chaplain for Navy Medicine.

“In other words, it’s that tenacity, that grit that keeps people engaged and moving forward,” Houk said. “In Defense Health Agency terms, it’s what keeps them taking care of their patients and keeping themselves ready should they be called upon to go to war.”

Army Lt. Col. Linda Lesane, chief of the Department of Ministry and Pastoral Care at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, explained that every element of a service member’s life is in some way influenced by faith or spirituality.

“Spirituality impacts all areas of Total Force Fitness. It affects how people relate to and interact with one another in social and familial environments,” Lesane said. “Even how you manage your financial resources and obligations can be a spiritual matter. It’s all interrelated.”

Houk added that, in his view, a sense of service is something being in the military, being part of the medical community, and spirituality all have in common.

“I think the sense of continuing to serve is a theme that covers both serving your country, serving your patients and serving a higher power, whatever that may be,” Houk said.

A sense of working for a greater good and something bigger than yourself is something people may need to be reminded of when they are feeling down.

“It’s our job, it’s what we get paid to do, and yet people won’t do it for very long if they’re burned out,” Houk said. “People may have the tendency to be disgruntled unless there’s some other intrinsic, internal motivation, and I think that’s where faith, spirituality, wanting to make a difference, and wanting to serve goes beyond a contract and beyond a paycheck. People joined an organization because they wanted to make a difference in the lives of our warriors and their family members.”

In a potentially stressful work environment, challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have added an additional layer of complexity in the medical field.

“I think the stressors that are on our health care workers, front-line providers, our medical personnel and their families are challenging, both when they have to work from home and when they have to leave loved ones to go in physically to see patients, do surgeries, or encounter them in other ways, especially when they might risk exposure,” Houk said.

The pandemic may have even led to more “spiritual resiliency,” as Lesane put it, in that individuals have had more time to focus on how they practice their faith on a personal level rather than being part of a group.

Houk furthered that the supportive role of chaplains doesn’t necessarily have to be as a religious confidant who shares the same faith. They are also present as someone to talk to and as an alternative to formal counseling or going to your chain of command. Chaplains can assist and provide support with making ethical and moral decisions outside of traditional channels.

“Chaplains bring the presence of faith into the workplace so that they can encourage those on medical teams, for example,” Houk said. “Chaplains can also advise commanders, not only regarding the overall welfare of the crew, but also the impact of religion, ethical, and moral issues on operations. Chaplains can provide professional and personal advice. Everyone needs someone to talk to, and chaplains can be that impartial, supportive person.”

Chaplains can provide encouragement in dealing with internal and external battles.

“To ‘stay in the fight’ could mean a fight against cancer or another physical ailment, the spiritual struggle that comes along with that, whether that be grief or loss, or operationally in a combat zone,” Houk said.

Preparing for different situations and scenarios, he explained, is no different than it is with any other aspect of military service or operations, mentally or physically.

“We train like we fight in the military, so in the teaching hospitals and the military treatment facilities where we’re training those doctors, nurses, and corpsmen to take care of patients and take care of one another, we carry those same skills forward,” he said, “and part of that skill is to be spiritually resilient.”

“Sometimes, just the presence of a chaplain in a combat situation can encourage warfighters to keep going, to go that extra step in taking care of their buddies or going out on another patrol,” Houk said. “Faith adds strength and value to peoples’ lives and allows them to continue on through difficult situations.”

He added that the Chaplain Corps is always looking for all the help it can get.

“The Chaplain Corps is always recruiting, and we’d be delighted to have qualified people apply,” he said.