PTSD Spirituality: Air Force Chaplains to Better Grasp PTSD’s Soul Wound

The United States Air Force has partnered with the Colorado-based Ilif School of Theology to prepare its chaplains to offer competent pastoral care to PTSD afflicted service members.  This is a welcome development given the Air Force’s long-running leadership problems with sexual  predation by its top non-commissioned officer, losing track of its nuclear weapons, and religious intolerance and sexual assaults at the Air Force Academy  (Thankfully, the Air Force Academy’s religious intolerance situation appears to be improving.).

The Ilif School of Theology’s pastoral care program focuses on caring for PTSD.  Dan Elliott of the Associated Press reported the story in an article entitled, “Chaplains try a new path to deal with PTSD.”   The program is directed by Dr. Carrie Doehring.

Ilif, a theology and pastoral care graduate school from the United Methodist tradition, has an emphasis on diversity in its curriculum and serving the spiritual needs of individuals regardless of their particular religious backgrounds.  This is a positive approach to understanding and healing the wounds inflicted by PTSD.   Openness and acceptance of another individual’s experience is vital to help someone regain their life from the crippling symptoms of PTSD.

What I found most impressive is the program’s emphasis on non-proselytizing, being non-judgmental, and trying to understand what the service member actually went through.  PTSD sufferers, and their families, do not need someone who is going to moralize to them, try to blame them for their suffering, or try to recruit them to a particular denomination.  Those are recipes for further alienation and avoidance of further care.

PTSD sufferers need to know

  • their lives have value,

  • their PTSD symptoms do not have to be their “new normal,”

  • their soul wound can heal, and

  • life is worth living.

Teaching Chaplains To Heal and Not Take Scalps

Ilif’s pastoral care for PTSD program ensures the chaplain does not push his or her own religious views on a PTSD afflicted person.  In the past, some ministers and chaplains have been more focused on conversions and taking scalps for Jesus instead of trying to understand how trauma has wounded a human soul.  Given the Air Force’s past failures by pressing its service members for conversions, this is a crucial and positive development. (If my assessment of the Air Force’s and chaplains’ pastoral care failures seems harsh, it is because I have encountered people who have experienced those failures firsthand.  My comments here have already watered down their disdain for what they experienced.)

The Ilif School of Theology offers a wide array of programs in theology and pastoral care, ranging from graduate certificates, Masters degrees, and the PhD.  Their graduate program in pastoral care for PTSD is limited to those who already hold a Master’s of Divinity degree.

Positive Steps for Pastoral Care of PTSD

I am pleased that the Air Force has taken these steps.  Critics could say, too little, too late.  Yet, any step to deal with the spirituality of PTSD by the Armed Services is a valuable leap forward. 

The Ilif program allows for three positive contributions:

  1. Care of PTSD afflicted service members.
  2. Training Air Force chaplains to minister to actual needs and not just push their personal denomination.
  3. Allows further study in the spirituality of PTSD on the academic and pastoral levels.

How Do We Measure Success in PTSD Recovery?

Dan Elliott’s article also reports an officer from the Air Force’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains stating the success of the program will be difficult to assess.  I would suggest that if they can reduce suicides, domestic abuse, drug-alcohol-porn addictions, and preserve marriages, then they will have done just fine.  Saving even one life, one family, one marriage has an immense value.

Caring for the spiritual needs of PTSD means less suicide, despair, and broken families.  For those who are only interested in the financial bottom line, reducing any of those will also save an organization money through increased productivity and lowered personnel costs.

The Air Force, and all of the Armed Services, still have great strides to make in helping to heal the PTSD soul wounds acquired while on active duty.  Whether the trauma is self-inflicted by our own people through sexual assaults or toxic pastoral care, or through a combat situation, or non-combat accidents, our service members deserve the best care they can get.  They deserve not only the best medical care, but also the best pastoral care.  By teaming up with Ilif School of Theology, and learning from its past mistakes, the Air Force could become a leader in understanding and healing PTSD soul wounds.

Harmed by a Toxic Chaplain, Pastor, or Priest?

Were you harmed by a toxic military chaplain (or civilian pastor or priest) who was more interested in the results on American Idol than the pain you have been suffering?  I don’t blame you if you fled that form of toxic pastoral care.  But, know that pastoral care does not have to be poisonous.

Chaplains and pastors and priests are people too.  There are good ones who really care and want to help you heal, and there are self-centered rotten ones.

I apologize for poor pastoral care.  You deserve better.  Your life has value.  You are more important than a silly game show.  Seek out healthy pastoral care and don’t let some self-absorbed fool turn you away from God, yourself, your family, and the very real hope that your PTSD soul wound can heal.

Semper Pax, Dr. Z


  1. Charles D. Smith says:

    I am interested in learning more about pastoral care and treament of PTSD. I work in a state mental hospital, and have 5 units of Clinical Pastoral Education. I will soon retire and am thinking of volunteering for work in the VA system.

    • Hello, I am actually rather unconnected with the credit-earning side of PTSD care. I have a series of lectures I give in some of my undergraduate theology classes, which I hope to one day print or create in video. Given your current CPE status and connection with mental health work, I’d contact the director of the program mentioned in the above essay. I would also contact the VA directly to see what opportunities you would have to volunteer or certify in PTSD care. Lastly, you may want to contact Ed Tick, author of “War &the Soul,” at his “Soldier’s Heart” organization. I know he has at times been affiliated with a university with regard to his work with PTSD. I am grateful for your interest in helping those afflcited with PTSD. Semper Pax, Dr. Z

  2. (Edited on Feb 3, 2011: Turns out the comment I had written this reply to had been spammed to several PTSD sites. So I deleted it. I left my reply in the event anyone is interested in whether or not biofeedback is actually brand new or if it has some history. Life would be nicer if people did not spam the comment’s section of one’s website.)

    Yes, the VA and other organizations use biofeedback. It is not particularly new as a technique, while it is frequently refined as all techniques should be. It appears that the results are mixed. These mixed results are no particular reflection on biofeedback as a technique as they are a validation of the complexity of PTSD and how unique each individual’s PTSD really is.

    I need to mention that your rhetoric, the way you explain and present your version of biofeedback, makes it sound as if you are selling something. I am reminded of the old phrase, “Sell the sizzle and not the steak.”

    That said, I included your comment as it may offer some opportunity for those who are exploring the wide range of PTSD treatment. Semper Pax, Dr. Z


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