Can Jesus Cure Shell Shock?

Tuesday, 03 August 2010 12:56 By Matthew Harwood, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

Can Jesus Cure Shell Shock?
(Photo: The National Guard; Edited: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t)

Many Christians believe faith in Jesus Christ can cure almost anything: alcoholism, cancer, homosexuality, even the Son of Sam. But can it cure post traumatic stress disorder in troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq? The Army Reserves' top chaplain for military policemen believes so, and published his prescription on the Army Reserves' official Web site for everyone to see, in an act a watchdog organization argues is unconstitutional and dangerous when soldiers continue to kill themselves at an alarming rate.

In a nearly 11,000 word essay, "Spiritual Resiliency: Helping Troops Recover from Combat," Command Chaplain Col. Donald W. Holdridge of the 200th Military Police Command at Fort Meade, Maryland, argues belief in Jesus Christ and Bible reading, particularly King David's Psalms, can help cure a soldiers' PTSD. "Combat vets need to know that most of these [PTSD symptoms] do fade in time, like scars," writes Holdridge, a professor at the Baptist Bible College, as the Army Reserves banner hangs from the top of the Webpage. "They will always be there to some degree, but their intensity will fade. What will help them fade is the application of the principles of Scripture."

The tone of Holdridge's essay only gets more unapologetically evangelical as the chaplain's initial wading in a Christian sea slides into more brackish waters, evangelizing soldiers with PTSD that their service was part of a larger theological plan and dangerously merges church and state. "Military and law enforcement personnel bear the additional burden of contending with evil by acting as an arm of the state to punish those who have no respect for human life (Rom.13:4)," he writes. "It is messy business, but necessary in a fallen world. If the military member knows Christ as savior, they can be assured that Jesus is with them until the end of the age (Mt.28:20)." (If this doesn't seem offensive or incendiary for a military Website to publish this, replace "Christ as savior" with "the Prophet Mohammed" and "Jesus" with "Allah.")

Holdridge concludes the essay by recommending further resources for those seeking help with PTSD. By then, soldiers are swimming in the Sea of Galilee. While six of the ten resources deal with nonprofit and government programs like the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the Department of Veterans Affairs, the remaining four are all evangelical organizations that devote significant resources to evangelizing military personnel. One of those organizations, Military Ministry, was unabashed a few years ago about their mission: "Responsibilities include working with Chaplains and Military personnel to bring lost soldiers closer to Christ, build them in their faith and send them out into the world as Government paid missionaries." Military Ministry did not respond to an e-mail inquiry asking for comment.

The question, of course, is whether Command Chaplain Holdridge is acting as an evangelical fisherman, luring soldiers with the bait of normalcy after the psychological fractures of combat. Mikey Weinstein, the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the civil rights organization that discovered the essay, argues Holdridge's "Spiritual Resiliency" is a pernicious example of fundamentalist Christianity using the machinery of the state to promote its sectarian worldview.

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"This is a carefully calculated base, evil, vile, filthy and despicable perversion of the United States Constitution," Weinstein said, "which, at once, heinously divides and demoralizes military unit cohesion while concomitantly lubricating and accelerating soldier suicides."

Weinstein, along with his foundation's senior researcher, Chris Rodda, believe Holdridge's essay isn't only an unconstitutional establishment of religion but an irresponsible prescription that could harm, if not kill, many soldiers. "Non-Christian or non-religious service members who are actually suffering from PTSD or contemplating suicide who read something like the chaplain's article on their official unit website might decide not to contact anyone for help, because they think they're going to get the Bible shoved down their throats," Rodda said.

And that moral hazard should concern the Pentagon, Weinstein and Rodda said, particularly on the heels of the Army's latest suicide statistics. Thirty-two soldiers - 21 on active duty and 11 either in the National Guard or Army Reserve - took their own lives in June, the highest rate of suicide suffered by the Army since Vietnam. Weinstein insisted soldiers deserve professional mental health advice, not Christian fundamentalism masquerading as such.

After reading the chaplain's essay, Dr. Frank Ochberg, a PTSD expert and a former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health, believes Holdridge has the best of intentions but worries the chaplain may be irresponsibly using his military rank and the Army Reserve Web site to push his beliefs."I think he has to be careful about creating an appearance that he's saying things on behalf of the DoD or behalf of the Army Reserves," he said, noting the byline addresses Holdridge by rank.

In his professional opinion, Ochberg isn't opposed to using religious belief to treat PTSD, but believes therapists must work with the religious beliefs already held by the patient and not force their own beliefs on patients, especially ones so vulnerable. Holdridge's essay dangerously dances along that hard to discern line between good faith advice and coercion, Ochberg said.

But the 200th Military Police Command's Public Affairs Officer, Sgt. Darius R. Kirkwood, said these concerns are nothing more than a tempest in a teapot. "Bottom line - this article abides by Army regulations, and Ch. Holdridge is WELL qualified to give out faith-based advice," Kirkwood said in an e-mail. "It is one article, by our own Command Chaplain, reflecting his point of view on how a Warrior can recover from PTSD. In no way is it a comprehensive solution, nor has he or the Army made it out to be (emphasis original)."

While Kirkwood said Holdridge's essay abides by Army regulations, that's questionable. None of the vague regulations he cited from the Army Regulation 165-1, Army Chaplain Corps Activities say a chaplain can use military Web sites to promote sectarian religious solutions to problems affecting military life. Asked if Truthout could speak with Holdridge, Kirkwood denied the request.

Rodda said Kirkwood doesn't understand the directives. "It's fine for a Christian chaplain to recommend Christian organizations and provide Christian counseling in the setting of a Christian worship service or event, or when counseling a Christian service member who wants Christian counseling," Rodda said. "But in an article on an official military website about an issue that affects all service members, a chaplain promoting only Christian resources and the Christian religion itself as the only solution is not appropriate."

Sgt. Kirkwood told Truthout that Holdridge's essay is the only PTSD resource on the 200th Military Command's Website, because no other faith group has submitted one for publication. He assured Truthout that when one does, the unit will publish it. But even if this assertion is true - and skepticism is justified; consider Muslim PTSD resources on a U.S. military Web site - there's still that pesky establishment clause, which says the government cannot give preferential treatment to any religion or religion in general. But that's exactly what the 200th Military Police Command's Unit Military Team's Webpage does: it provides one chaplain with the endorsement of the Army Reserves to proselytize soldiers using evangelical Christian PTSD treatments. And Kirkwood all but acknowledged it in his e-mail.

"Until we receive a similar submission from a Chaplain from another faith group, perhaps the Web page in question will not be as useful for them - yet. Hopefully it can be soon," Kirkwood said in an e-mail. "As for nonbelievers, they would not value a UMT site anyway."

Kirkwood's flippant statement proves that not only has Holdridge's evangelical beliefs been given preferential treatment, but religious belief itself. The 200th Military Police Command should take down Holdridge's unconstitutional and dangerous essay from its webpage. If evangelical soldiers suffering from PTSD want Holdridge's evangelical advice, they can meet with him individually. Or Holdridge could also post it to another private website or blog, and direct soldiers to it.

The military has no business giving him the venue to peddle empirically unproven evangelical treatment to a problem that's killing soldiers at a tragic rate.

Matthew Harwood

 Matthew Harwood is a journalist in Washington, DC, and a frequent contributor to the Guardian's Comment is Free. His writing has appeared in The Washington Monthly, Progress Magazine (U.K.) as well as online at Columbia Journalism Review, CommonDreams, and Alternet. He is currently working on a book about evangelical Christian rhetoric and aggressive US foreign policy. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mharwood31.

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 August 2010 15:13