I’m twenty-two years old, and I proudly serve my country in the United States Navy. I have served since 2005, and in that short time I have striven to be nothing less than an outstanding sailor. Permanently stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, I have received Blue-Jacket of the Quarter twice as well as a Navy Achievement Medal. Also, I was the most junior sailor onboard my ship to earn the coveted Enlisted Surface Warfare pin. I have been moving up through the ranks in record time and have received relatively great praise throughout my short time in the Navy. I also happen to be a proud atheist and homosexual man. In the military, both of those identities are greatly frowned upon.
I was recently forward-deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Through circumstances beyond my control, my homosexual identity came to the attention of my command. When I was approached about this “deviant lifestyle,” I saw the world around me collapse. Since I was a youth, it has been my dream to serve successfully in the Navy and later seek election to public office. Now all that seemed in dire jeopardy, and I became seriously depressed.
The first person I was referred to after my “outing” and subsequent depression was a chaplain (a priest or minister attached to the military but operating within his own faith tradition). As a secular homosexual, I couldn’t help but feel a bit intimidated at the prospect of being judged by a “counselor” who had been chosen for me.
Chaplains are supposed to provide counseling and comfort to people of all faiths. This he did extremely well. He counseled me as to precisely what the Holy Bible has to say about homosexuality and about my lack of discipline in losing the battle over my body and soul between God (heterosexuality) and Satan (homosexuality). I’ve heard this rubbish my whole life; to this atheist, it is nothing more than repetition of a prejudice that is sadly prevalent in most major religions, throughout the military, and in much of American life. This particular chaplain asked me in what esteem I hold the Bible. When I told him that I found it to be a dangerous scholarly work that too many people adhere to like the Qur’an or the Torah, a religious discussion about the nature of the Bible ensued.
Normally, I would look forward to engaging in dialogue with a religious leader about the nature of the “Holy” scriptures. I would relish exploring which parts of the Bible he would espouse (homosexuality is wrong) and which he would decline to endorse (slavery, say, or the Islamic-style subjugation of women). But at that time, I was in desperate need of something completely different. When I shook his hand to leave, I thought to myself, “This is reprehensible.”
I’d been sent to the chaplain, but he provided me with nothing resembling mental health services. He was just one more bigoted person telling me how wrong I was for being who I am. To imagine that his was the opinion held by the majority of my countrymen is an extremely depressing notion. And indeed, I found myself more depressed than I had been when I had entered his office.
By now, legal charges were pending against me. (They have since been dropped.) Now that my whole life’s goal was in serious jeopardy, I no longer saw a reason to live. I resolved to take my own life.
After trying unsuccessfully to commit suicide, I was referred to a wonderful military psychologist. I realized that the first person that the Chain of Command should have referred me to was someone with a PhD, not a divinity degree. This is the proper course for someone in the civilian world who is contemplating self-harm. Had this happened in my case, I am convinced a mental health professional would have identified my dangerous psychological situation before it spiraled out of control. Unfortunately, it is standard practice, even demanded by regulation, that a troubled serviceperson be referred to a chaplain first, no matter the serviceperson’s religious background, even if he or she has none. I cannot blame the Chain of Command, as they were following their own orders, taking what the military had conditioned them to believe was the proper action. Even I had no idea that I was being led to the slaughter until the damage had already been done.
In my experience, the military puts too much, ahem, faith in the chaplain as a sort of counselor—a role for which many of them are neither trained nor licensed. Further, they are not subject to the legal and ethical standards governing genuine counselors. The military ordinarily stigmatizes almost anyone who seeks help from an actual mental health provider. Yet the first duty of a chaplain is to provide comfort and spiritual guidance to those who seek it in regards to their faith, not any sort of serious psychological help. Surely in my case, a chaplain who responded to my anguish by shoving his imaginary friend’s prejudiced dogma down my throat only made matters worse.
All of this was doubly burdensome as I am gay; the military expect gays to serve in silence. We must be two different people at all times, showing the military (straight/asexual) face when at work or military functions, then getting just a few hours a day to be who we actually are. This is psychologically taxing; imagine not being able to talk about your spouse or any real details of your personal life with your coworkers out of a very reasonable fear of serious repercussions. Gay service members are left with no outlet for their personal problems and often descend into self-hatred and ultimately self-destructive actions ranging from suicide to psychological breakdowns to premature withdrawal from duty. These in turn cause America’s armed forces to lose highly trained, skilled soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen in uncounted numbers, creating personnel voids just where people and skills are needed to get a dangerous job done right. Responsible for this regrettable state of affairs, in my opinion, are the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the pervasive Christianization of the military, and the general commingling of church and state throughout American civilian life.
My story, however, raises a more immediate question of management. What authority or competence does a chaplain have to evaluate personnel psychologically? Shouldn’t that be done by someone with years of training and experience in a recognized mental health discipline? The policy of turning to chaplains first may be more workable for religious service members, but it fails desperately to meet the needs of members who are gay, nonreligious, or who may have serious mental health issues. I don’t think someone who breaks with the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association by refusing to recognize homosexuality as nonpathological is qualified to assess, counsel, or treat someone for anything other than religious or spiritual problems. The military needs to outgrow its reliance on religion in this area; when a service member is having personal problems, there should be an immediate option to consult either a religious figure or a highly qualified counselor.
Granted, some clergy, particularly in the mainline Protestant denominations, undergo extensive education, and many have solid credentials in counseling or psychology. Unfortunately, today’s military is far more likely to fill chaplaincy ranks with ministers from fundamentalist or evangelical traditions where education solely in religious studies—and sometimes, not much of that—is the norm. This only increases the chances that genuinely needy military members will be seen first by chaplains who are untrained in psychology. Of course, a chaplain with a degree in psychology or counseling who still held traditional views about homosexuality could also produce a negative result. The problem is that you never know which sort of chaplain (trained or untrained in psychology, traditional in outlook or less so) you’re going to get.
While I continue to serve, I am reminded every day that I am an outsider in a world of insiders and uniformity. Each time I pass the chaplain’s office—every time I walk to breakfast, lunch, or dinner—I see the chaplain’s flag flying over it, featuring a white cross on a dark blue field. Oddly, this is supposed to represent all religions. This ominous representation of religion (the right religion) is an apt reminder that our constitutional freedom of religion does not equal a freedom from religion, even in what is supposed to be a secular organization.
Most important, should the military really espouse or endorse any religion the way ours has? For instance, why on a ship at sea is a nightly prayer conducted, with readings from the Bible (note: never the Qur’an or the Torah) blaring shipwide over the loudspeakers? Why must a captive audience be forced to listen to religious nonsense over an official communication line? Why does that need to be an integral part of the day? This is the most constant reminder I can think of that someone else’s religious beliefs are meant to be yours, whether you like it or not.
For most gay people, religion can take away hope; in the military, it can do the same to any who are bold enough to be themselves and not take religious “authority” or stereotyping as law. Without hope, people in the military cannot continue doing what they do best—serving their country while placing some of their personal freedoms on hold. It is a disgrace that military members who have made such a sacrifice must live and work under a policy that does not recognize its members’ accomplishments if they happen to be gay. It is a disgrace that service members who happen not to believe in God should be ostracized only slightly less completely. This state of affairs should seem a disgrace to anyone who believes in equality, freedom, and the true American dream.
N. Bonaparte is the pseudonym of an active-duty Petty Officer Third Class in the United States Navy. He acknowledges the editing assistance of Petty Officer Second Class M. Antoinette.