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Chaplain explains Army’s support for soldiers following Fort Hood attack
Chaplain explains Army’s support for soldiers following Fort Hood attack

Lt. Col. John Bjarnason, Fort Leonard Wood’s family life chaplain, explains the role of chaplains in caring for Army families.
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Nov. 7, 2009) — Shortly before Army personnel nationwide conducted a moment of silence Friday afternoon for the 13 soldiers and others killed by a Muslim psychiatrist at Fort Hood in Texas, an Army chaplain assigned to family life issues at Fort Leonard Wood explained how the Army tries to help soldiers and families.

“Our military is grieving now this great loss at Fort Hood,” said Lt. Col. John Bjarnason. “We feel very sad for the families that have lost a dear one there.”

Bjarnason, 64, entered the Army during the Vietnam era, returned to active duty military service as a chaplain in 1982, retired after serving in both Gulf Wars in 1991 and 2003, and was recently called back to active duty to help respond to family life issues caused by the stress placed on Army families.

“I have been recalled back to the Army because of our two-front war,” Bjarnason said. “I am one of many who sit on a task force that began earlier this year tasked with taking care of people ... We try to look at and find ways to best care for the whole person, physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, family, social. We are looking out over all our community and also a 50-mile radius around Fort Leonard Wood where we could find services whatever their needs may be.”

Key parts of the duties of that task force include responding to what Bjarnason called an “Army-wide suicide problem” as well as stress issues related to combat or other post-traumatic stress.

“The whole idea is that if we are going to help take care of people, then we ought to look the whole wide range of the whole human dimension, and this task force is doing our very level best to examine that,” Bjarnason said.

Bjarnason, who is one of about three dozen Army chaplains at Fort Leonard Wood, said the role of a chaplain is “very humbling,” in part because it often falls to the chaplain to determine what a struggling soldier actually needs.

“Often soldiers come to a chaplain or any other helping agent and they don’t really know exactly what they need. So a lot of it is to listen carefully to them, to understand what their circumstances and concerns are, and then, of course, try to put them into the right relief for their circumstances,” Bjarnson said. “We try to encourage them to self-report and to try to get help, but there is always that stigma and the fear of losing a portion of their career. We try to encourage them to indeed step forward and say, ‘I’m having trouble and I want to get help.’”

That’s a major change from the Army during the days when Bjarnson was in basic training in 1969 at Fort Lewis, Wash, or even for much of his military career as a chaplain.

“In my very first briefings with family readiness groups, I would say to them, ‘The Army doesn’t care about your families. Show me that the Army cares.’ Now I have to be careful about my words. I have seen millions and billions of dollars thrown toward caring for families,” Bjarnason said. “I am so very impressed, but tragically it has taken this two-front war for have the army realize that what it needs to be doing to care for our families. But I have been persuaded that the Army has made a great change for the better.”

Examples of that caring outside the formal counseling structures include highly developed family readiness groups in which spouses work with each other and what Bjarnason said are “double or triple” the programs available through Army Community Service.

“It is a great way for our spouses to socialize and to get information and to keep the flow of the most current information available,” he said.

For more serious concerns, soldiers with issues are referred to Army chaplains, social workers, or the Warrior Transition Unit, which is used for soldiers suffering from either physical or mental health issues who may be planning to leave the Army for civilian life or trying to recover to the point that they can return to duty.

An estimated 20 to 30 percent of soldiers returning from combat operations have some level of post-traumatic stress disorder that should be addressed, Bjarnason said. While not all cases are serious, some are, and those may require rapid intervention.

“From my own experience, I do know of cases where we have stopped them from having access to weapons and we have watched them more closely, but it is an individual one-on-one decision based on circumstances,” Bjarnason said.

Referral to off-post mental health providers is also appropriate in some circumstances, Bjarnason said, since some soldiers or spouses do not trust a mental health professional who wears an Army uniform and is answerable to the military chain of command.

“Well, it’s the very military that caused the problem, and now it’s the military that’s going to help solve the problem,” Bjarnson said — an irony that isn’t always appreciated by soldiers or family members in trouble.

“That may not be exactly the best care for the individual,” Bjarnason said.

Chaplains are in a special position with soldiers, Bjarnason said, since even if they aren’t subject to the Army’s chain of command, off-post psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and most other non-ordained people who do counseling are members of professional organizations that have ethical standards requiring disclosure.

“If you know that person is going to hurt themselves or their spouse or their children or there is molestation, then you must report,” Bjarnason said. “Us chaplains, we have another standard, and that is the priest-penitent privilege standard. This is the very highest standard where a penitent goes to the priest and makes a confession and this is held very sacrosanct.”

The distinction between confessions and counseling becomes complicated, Bjarnason said.

“More and more as chaplains become involved in counseling, they have to learn about these requirements of disclosure that is not part of the priest-penitent privilege, and part of my job as the family life chaplain is to work through with our chaplains what they should disclose and what they should not disclose,” Bjarnason said.

In a basic training environment, drill sergeants also play a key role in identifying soldiers who need help. While a drill sergeant’s duties include giving high stress levels to a trainee to prepare them for combat, those stress levels aren’t intended to push a trainee over the edge into suicide or violent reactions.

“Some of the great unsung heroes at Fort Leonard Wood are our drill sergeants,” Bjarnason said. “These guys have returned two and three times from combat, they are on the trail training our young men and women who have chosen to check out the military, and when they leave the trail, they’ll return back to a deployment again, two and three and four deployments. These are truly my heroes.”

Most soldiers with mental health problems won’t turn their guns on themselves or others, but they may turn on their families or friends with words rather than weapons. The divorce rate of soldiers returning from deployments is skyrocketing, and Bjarnason said that’s where the role of a family life chaplain can be especially helpful.

“I have a heart for marriage, I have a heart for families, and we are placing a heavy burden on our soldiers as they deploy again and again,” Bjarnason said. “If they can go into that deployment prepared to know what may yet happen, that does help our military families and couples ... This is probably where the first symptoms arise in that home with that spouse where there are sleep disorders or flares of anger or miscommunication and there is a tragedy of increased acceleration of divorce throughout our military.”

Preparing for deployment is easier when a soldier knows how long he can expect that deployment to be, Bjarnason said. Unlike most of his Army career in which soldiers trained for a war that might happen at some future date, trainees at Fort Leonard Wood know that about half of them will be deployed within a year of finishing basic training and advanced individual training.

“I think the first thing they want to do is let their family know, and then we help them make preparations,” Bjarnason said. “Most soldiers like to know an end date. They like to know, ‘Hey, it is going to be one year,’ and then they begin to make plans for that.”

Those plans include spiritual matters but also practical issues such as filing power-of-attorney documents and making arrangements to have personal property stored. Those arrangements can become very difficult when soldiers don’t know when they will return.

“When it is gets to be open ended, for a time there were a few units, who left right here at Fort Leonard Wood, and headed out for deployment with an open-ended date and no idea when they would get back,” Bjarnason said, noting that his own deployment to Iraq in 2003 was open-ended and he did not know when he would return to his family.

Chaplains go with the soldiers and also stay behind as rear-detachment chaplains who deal with family issues at home.

Both pose challenges, he said.

“If you were to offer me a choice between going to combat and staying with family members, I would choose combat. I have done both,” Bjarnason said. “Each of them have their respective demands.”

While acknowledging that chaplaincy can be difficult, Bjarnason said it’s something to which he’s devoted most of his adult life and is glad he’s made that decision.

“I was at Fort Bragg, N.C., I was a relatively young man at 26, and one day I woke up and I said to myself, ‘Well, what am I going to be when I grow up?’ I looked at the company commander, and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be like that company commander.’ I looked at the first sergeant … and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be like him,” Bjarnason said. “And a chaplain came to introduce himself ... he was like a football player with a big neck and massive pecs and he said, ‘I’m a chaplain and I’d like to invite you to church.’”

As a former Mormon missionary, Bjarnason had invited many people to his Latter-Day Saints congregation, but said nobody had ever invited him to church before, so he went with the chaplain to his church service.

“I wrote my church and asked, ‘How do I become a chaplain,’ and that’s how I got started on a 10-year odyssey from that time to the time I went in again as a chaplain in 1982,” Bjarnason said.

While chaplains sometimes have a reputation in the Army for being an “easy touch,” Bjarnason said the most difficult thing for him as a chaplain has been to tell some soldiers that he can’t help them get what they want.

“I have to be honest with people,” Bjarnason said. “There is a structure in the military and we have to stay in harmony with that and that sometimes disappoints some people because they want something and we can’t give it to them.”

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