FORT BENNING, Ga., Dec. 14, 2014 — In the United States Armed Forces, there are three types of special staff officers: 1) the Judge Advocate (JAG), 2) the medical doctor, and 3) the chaplain. These three officers enter the military with advanced degrees, and so come in at a higher rank than all other officers. No commander would dare tell a JAG how to do his job. No commander would dare tell a medical doctor how to do his job. Likewise, no commander has the authority to tell a chaplain how to do his job. These officers, as special staff officers on the commander’s personal staff, are experts in their fields, and it is for them to tell the commander how they do their own jobs and what services the commander can expect from them.
On November 20, 2014, the 5th Ranger Training Battalion (RTB), Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade (ARTB), United States Ranger School, Fort Benning, Georgia, conducted a mandatory Suicide Prevention Training seminar at the University of North Georgia in Dahlongega, Georgia. The commander of the 5th RTB is LTC Michael A. Scarpulla, headquartered at Camp Frank D. Merrill, Dahlonega, Georgia.
The mission of the 5th Ranger Training Battalion is to conduct the Mountain Phase of Ranger School in the vicinity of Camp Frank D. Merrill in order to produce Rangers whose primary mission is to close with and destroy the enemy in direct fire battle. As battalion commander, LTC Scarpulla oversees the Mountain Phase of the Ranger School. He also oversees all other training that occurs under his command to include the Suicide Prevention seminars.
The various RTB commanders are supervised by the ARTB commander. The commander of the ARTB is Colonel David Fivecoat. Each battalion is responsible for specific phases of the Ranger School. Colonel Fivecoat’s supervisor is Maj. Gen. Austin S. Miller, commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at the Ranger School.
The battalion chaplain for the 5th RTB is Chaplain (CAPTAIN) Joseph Lawhorn. He is the advisor of morale, ethics, and religion as a special staff officer on the personal staff of his commander, LTC Scarpulla.
Various individuals may conduct the Suicide Prevention seminars, including the mental health officer (psychologist), the chaplain, or perhaps even others designated to do so. Army wide, the chaplains most often conduct the seminars and they typically write their own material. No one may order a chaplain what to say in any seminar or sermon except for his faith group.
The Ranger School is intense and rigorous. The Ranger School graduation rate is roughly 48.99%. About 51.01% fail. Chaplains help in the retention of soldiers by meeting the spiritual needs, and overseeing the morale and welfare of the troops. By regulation, chaplains are to represent their respective faith groups 100% because they are endorsed by their faith groups for that very reason. Chaplains who fail to represent their religion may have their endorsements pulled by the endorsing officials of their church and can no longer serve as chaplains.
The diversity in demographics (race, religion, linguistics, culture, gender, etc.) illustrates that the Army’s emphasis on tolerance and pluralism helps everyone to get along better. Those who cannot tolerate a pluralistic milieu usually do not last long in the Army. They instigate discrimination and invite equal opportunity complaints, inspector general investigations, and eventually are passed over for promotions, resulting in the demise of their careers and their ouster.
The Army Times stated on December 12, 2014 that after the Suicide Prevention seminar was over, a soldier went straight to the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, without discussion with Chaplain Lawhorn or Equal Opportunity (EO) in the unit, complaining that Chaplain Lawhorn advocated Christianity and used the Bible during the seminar. This was untrue. The atheistic organization did not advise the soldier to go to his own command or to EO, but instead went directly to the Huffington Post, not giving the military system a chance to resolve the issue. Today’s political climate in the military is such that any time an issue occurs concerning rights and religion, leadership tends to go into defense mode to save their own jobs, irrespective of truth.
Without consulting Chaplain Lawhorn for clarification of the alleged charge, Col. David Fivecoat summoned Chaplain Lawhorn to his office on Thanksgiving Day and issued a Letter of Concern. Had a commander treated his JAG or a medical doctor in this manner, the commander would not have gotten away with this kind of conduct. The letter stated,
- On 20 November 2014, you conducted mandatory suicide prevention for 5th RTB at an auditorium on the University of North Georgia campus. During this training, you advocated, or were perceived to advocate, for Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions. This is in direct contrast with Army Regulation 600-20 and violates the Army’s Equal Opportunity Policy. As a result, an individual in attendance wrote an article about the event on http://militaryatheists.org.
- As the battalion chaplain, you are entrusted with the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of the Soldiers in the battalion. You, above all others, must be cognizant of the various beliefs held by diverse Soldiers. During mandatory training briefings, it is imperative you create an environment of tolerance and understanding. I trust you will take the steps necessary to ensure future non-religious briefings will adhere to Army regulations and policy.
- This Letter of Concern is administrative in nature and imposed under the provisions of AR 600-37 and not as punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. You are advised I intend to file this letter in your local personnel file for a period not to exceed three years. IAW AR 600-37, paragraph 3-4b, and prior to directing local filing, I will consider any matter you present to me.
- You will acknowledge receipt of this letter of concern in writing. You may forward any matters you wish me to consider in extenuation, mitigation, or rebuttal within seven (7) calendar days. I will consider any matters you submit before I make a final decision on whether to direct local filing or withdrawal of this letter.
The Letter of Concern is not punitive, not a reprimand, and not a condemnation as others in the media are calling it. But I agree with Attorney Michael Berry that it violates Chaplain Lawhorn’s Constitutional rights and freedom of expression. If it goes unchallenged, next time Colonel Fivecoat might put an administrative letter in Chaplain Lawhorn’s Official Military Personnel File and hurt his career.
What is glaringly missing from Colonel Fivecoat’s letter is a reference to the section in AR 600-20 that he thinks Chaplain Lawhorn violated or to any section violated in AR 165-1 which governs the responsibilities and role of chaplains. It is also ironic that the Letter of Concern did not come from Chaplain Lawhorn’s own commander, but from Colonel Fivecoat who does not even supervise the chaplain. He would not know what kind of chaplain he is dealing with from behind a desk. He sided with an enlisted person over a special staff officer before getting both sides of the story. He seems very prejudicial. I note that he did not capitalize ‘Scripture’ in his letter, violating the rules of writing, which may be indicative of deep-seated animosity toward God, not to mention writing up a chaplain without discussion. Further, he was inconsistent in capitalizing ‘Letter of Concern’ only once. Also, the complaining soldier apparently did not follow avenues of redress provided by his unit. When you have troubled personnel from enlisteds up to Colonels at the Ranger School, and they criticize the chaplain who is obviously the only person who knows how to do his job, I think this is a serious sign that Army leadership is in peril and spiritually bankrupt. At this stage nations cannot win wars. When they focus on making a mockery out of good chaplains, they are not working. I suggest these personnel be relieved and replaced with Colonels who will go to work in the morning and get in line at the mess and serve turkey on Thanksgiving Day where the Colonel should have reported for duty. He lost face time with the soldiers. I am positive that is what Chaplain Lawhorn would have been doing had he not been at the Colonels office being insulted.
In contrast, Army Regulations (AR) 165-1, 1-6(b) states, “Chaplains cooperate with each other without compromising their faith tradition or ecclesiastical endorsement requirements to ensure the most comprehensive religious support opportunities possible within the unique military environment.”
Chaplain Lawhorn’s endorser, Chaplain (COLONEL) Ron Crews, USAR (Ret.), indicated that Chaplain Lawhorn abided by AR 165-1 in that Chaplain Lawhorn did not compromise his faith tradition in conducting the Suicide Prevention seminar. According to Hillel Fendel, reporting for Israel National News on December 12, 2014, Rev. Crews, who is the endorsing agent of Grace Churches, International, and executive director of Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, defended Chaplain Lawhorn, stating to Fox News that Chaplain Lawhorn “did nothing wrong. At no time did he say his was the only or even the preferred way of dealing with depression. And at no time did he deny the validity of any other method.” This means Chaplain Lawhorn abided by AR 165-1.
Further support from Army regulations for a chaplain not compromising his faith demands is found in AR 165-1, 3–1(a), which states, “All Endorsing Agents support the pluralistic requirements of the Army without relinquishing their respective faith demands. Chaplains are responsible to keep the command informed when they perceive a requirement that may exceed their endorsement accountability (see paras 3–2 and 8–9).
Army Regulations 165-1, 3–1(b) further requires chaplains to “remain fully accountable to the code of ethics and ecclesiastical standards of their endorsing faith group.” Additionally, the military provides its own Covenant and Code of Ethics for Chaplains of the Armed Forces (CCECAF), which all chaplains agree to abide by upon graduating from the United States Army Chaplain Center and School. In part, it states “I will carefully adhere to whatever direction may be conveyed to me by my endorsing body for maintenance of my endorsement” (paragraph 2). Rev. Crews revealed to Fox News that Chaplain Lawhorn did just that.
Todd Starnes, reporting for Fox News also stated, “During the course of conducting the training session, Rev. Crews, the endorsing agent for military chaplains for Grace Churches International, explained that the chaplain discussed his own struggles with depression and the methods and techniques he personally used to combat depression. Rev. Crews said the chaplain did provide a handout with religious resources, but he also provided a handout with non-religious resources.” Chaplain Lawhorn fulfilled paragraph 4 of CCECAF, which states, “I will respect the beliefs and traditions of my colleagues and those to whom I minister” by not imposing his religion upon anyone during the Suicide Prevention seminar, but letting the soldiers know what worked for him when he faced depression, presumably when he, too, went through the Ranger School in 1999.
A gentleman and an officer, Chaplain Lawhorn did not violate anyone in any manner in the way he simply shared how he made it through tough times. He encouraged all in attendance to pursue the means, religious or otherwise, to get through their “Mountain Phase” in life. The CCECAF states in paragraph 13, “I recognize the special power afforded me by my ministerial office. I will never use that power in ways that violate the personhood of another human being, religiously, emotionally, or sexually.” This chaplain clearly “gets it.” He adheres to regulations and is an example to the United States of America, the United States Army, the Army Ranger School, and the Chaplain Corp.
Todd Starnes revealed that Chaplain Lawhorn is an Army Ranger himself. He wears the Ranger Tab, which he earned in 1999. According to Fox News, Rev. Crews said it was through that identification that he shared his story about depression.
As an Army Ranger chaplain, Captain Lawhorn stands head and shoulders above many of his chaplain peers. Aside from being a chaplain, he is on a level with his fellow Army Rangers. His fellow chaplains and senior chaplains seem strangely quiet. There is a moral obligation, which they swore to uphold to also be Armed Forces chaplains. Paragraph 9 of CCECAF requires chaplains to “…defend my colleagues against unfair discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, or national origin.”
Israel National News also stated, “The letter aroused the ire of a U.S. Congressman, Doug Collins (R) of Georgia, who wrote his own letter to Col. Fivecoat. ‘I find it counterintuitive to have someone lead a suicide prevention course but prohibit them from providing their personal testimony.’ He added that the Army’s Equal Opportunity policy was formulated precisely to protect the personal beliefs of military personnel.”
It is also noted in Israel National News that Chaplain Lawhorn’s presentation is defended by the “right of conscience clause,” in the National Defense Authorization Act, section 533.
Army Regulations 165-1, 1–6(a) states, “The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits enactment of any law “respecting an establishment of religion” or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Congress recognizes the necessity of the Chaplain Corps in striking a balance between the establishment and free exercise clauses. Also, paragraph (d) states, “The Chaplaincy is an instrumentality of the U.S. Government to ensure that the ‘free-exercise’ rights of religion are not abridged. This constitutional principle is deeply imbedded in the statutory foundations of the Army.”
Chaplain Lawhorn conveyed to the soldiers how free exercise of religion enabled him to overcome depression. Part of tolerance and pluralism is respecting whatever it is that soldiers follow, not hiding it. I do note the double standards when tolerance and pluralism is allowed for everyone except for Evangelicals. Attorney Michael Berry said, “It took a great amount of courage for Chaplain Lawhorn to discuss his own personal battle with depression.” He said the Army should rescind the Letter of Concern, which he called a “violation of the chaplain’s constitutional rights.”
Michael Berry told Fox News that he has submitted to Colonel Fivecoat 33 letters of support from soldiers who attended the Suicide Prevention seminar and others who know Chaplain Lawhorn personally. Mr. Berry said, “They all almost universally say that he said, ‘I’m not telling you that using faith or religion or spirituality is the only way to deal with it. I’m not telling you it’s the correct way to deal with it. I’m just saying this was what worked for me.’ ”
According to Fox News, Mr. Berry told Colonel Fivecoat, “Had Chaplain Lawhorn known of this, he would have happily sat down with this soldier and answered any questions or concerns he or she had.” The soldier violated Army guidance, which is to first take concerns to the offending party, the command or EO. Never does the Army advise soldiers to take issues to the media. Soldiers are instructed to work the system. The Army provides resources for handling disputes constructively.
One last observation I would like to make, that perhaps Colonel Fivecoat might want to note, is that AR 165-1, 3–4 (c) states, “Commanders will not—(1) Detail a Chaplain as….suicide prevention program manager.” If they do, they are in clear violation of Army Regulations and should themselves be punished, stripped of their commands.
When 33 soldiers testify in writing that Chaplain Lawhorn did not evangelize, preach, or recommend his religion during the Suicide Prevention seminar, their testimonies then condemn the report the lone soldier took to the “world” without discussion with the chaplain, the command, or with his unit’s Equal Opportunity representative. And this should bring severe scrutiny to Colonel Fivecoat’s agenda in the way he handled the matter. He could have easily resolved the matter with a sensing session and a follow up report mentioning the 33 witnesses who would have cleared the chaplain’s good name.