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Chaplain under fire for comments during training

December 10, 2014 (Photo Credit: Army)

The chaplain for 5th Ranger Training Battalion is fighting back after a soldier complained that he advocated Christianity and used the Bible during a unit suicide prevention training session.

Chaplain (Capt.) Joseph Lawhorn received a letter of concern from Col. David Fivecoat, who commands the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, the 5th RTB's parent unit. The complaint stemmed from a mandatory training session Nov. 20 in Dahlonega, Georgia. The 5th RTB runs the mountain phase of the Army's storied Ranger School.

"During this training, you were perceived to advocate Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions," according to the letter of concern. "You provided a two-sided handout that listed Army resources on one side and a biblical approach to handling depression on the other side. This made it impossible for those in attendance to receive the resource information without also receiving the biblical information."

The letter goes on to state: "As the battalion chaplain, you are entrusted to care for the emotional wellbeing of all 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 are careful to avoid any perception you are advocating one system of beliefs over another."

The letter is administrative, Fivecoat wrote, adding that he intends to file it in Lawhorn's local personnel file for no more than three years or until he leaves the command.

"As occurs with many issues in a unit, the command conducted an inquiry to determine what, if any, corrective action was necessary. The command determined issuing a local letter of concern was appropriate," said Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, in a statement on Friday. "A local letter of concern is not punishment. Rather, it is an administrative counseling tool, with no long-term consequences. By design, letters of concerns are temporary, local administrative actions that are removed from a Soldier's personnel file upon transfer to another assignment."

Miller clarified the role of chaplains in training environments.

"Regarding the issue expressed by someone during the class, the role of military chaplains is to serve the religious needs of military members of a unit and their families," Miller said in the statement. "Their role is not to provide religious instruction during non-religious mandatory training classes. Chaplains may appropriately share their personal experiences, but any religious information given by a Chaplain to a military formation should be limited to an orientation of what religious services and facilities are available and how to contact Chaplains of specific faiths."

Lawhorn was merely doing his job, said Mike Berry, Lawhorn's attorney.

"The training he conducted, that's something Army regulation designates chaplains do," Berry said. "The Army has decided, appropriately, I would add, that a key component of overall mental health and wellness is spiritual wellness. That's one of the reasons the Army has designated chaplains as what they refer to as gatekeepers. They're on the first line of defense when it comes to suicide prevention and depression."

Berry works for the Liberty Institute, which describes itself as "a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America."

To better relate to his fellow soldiers, Lawhorn shared his personal experience and struggle with depression, Berry said.

"He'd battled depression himself, and he knew where it could lead," Berry said. "He just felt that if there was anything he could do to prevent even one suicide, he opened himself up and made himself vulnerable and shared some of his personal struggles, and he paid the price for that."

At no time during his presentation did Lawhorn consider himself to be in a "preacher" role, Berry wrote in his response to Fivecoat.

Berry said he has submitted to Fivecoat 33 letters of support, both from soldiers who attended the training and those who know Lawhorn well.

"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,'" Berry said.

Lawhorn didn't know that the complaining soldier was upset or uncomfortable with his presentation, Berry said.

In his response to Fivecoat, Berry wrote: "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. Unfortunately, Chaplain Lawhorn was not given this opportunity - a professional courtesy - because the soldier in question alerted a civilian advocacy group, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, who apparently then alerted a media outlet, the Huffington Post."

In an article on its website, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers said the chaplain "used his official position to force his personal religious beliefs on a captive military audience."

The article also states: "Suicide is an epidemic in our military. When the military condones evangelism in mental health training, the epidemic will get worse, not better."

Lawhorn, whose endorsing church is Grace Churches International, is a senior captain who's eligible for promotion to major, Berry said. He earned the Ranger tab in 1999 and previously served for three years as an enlisted cook. Lawhorn, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, has served as the chaplain for 5th RTB since December 2012.

The goal is to have Fivecoat withdraw his letter of concern, Berry said.

"We want this punishment to be withdrawn and removed from Chaplain Lawhorn's file so there's no risk of this coming back to bite him later on or have any adverse effects on his thus far stellar career," he said. "Chaplain Lawhorn was blindsided by this."

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