The Army is under fire for attempting to promote and assess the emotional and psychological resilience of soldiers who experience repeated traumas and extended deployments. Their goal is to deal with sky-rocketing rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. They have run into trouble in trying to assess and describe the "spiritual" aspects of emotional resilience.
The tool, called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, is a 100 question survey completed by soldiers. There are versions for family members and Department of Defense civilian employees. The tool looks at five areas of strength: physical, emotional, social, family and spiritual. It is the last area that has created controversy.
Although the Army claims that the "spiritual" area does not focus on religiosity or membership in a faith-community, some people claim that the very idea of "spiritual" is offensive. The web-site for the CSF says that the spiritual area focuses on "Strengthening a set of beliefs, principles or values that sustain a person beyond family, institutional, and societal sources of strength." But at least one soldier claims that he scored low on the tool not because he lacks resilience but because he could not agree with the way the "spiritual" questions were worded. He thinks they were written with a religious bias.
Truthout.org writes in opposition to the program:
CSF is comprised of the Soldier Fitness Tracker and Global Assessment Tool, which measures soldiers' "resilience" in five core areas: emotional, physical, family, social and spiritual. Soldiers fill out an online survey made up of more than 100 questions, and if the results fall into a red area, they are required to participate in remedial courses in a classroom or online setting to strengthen their resilience in the disciplines in which they received low scores. The test is administered every two years. More than 800,000 Army soldiers have taken it thus far.
But for the thousands of "Foxhole Atheists" like 27-year-old Sgt. Justin Griffith, the spiritual component of the test contains questions written predominantly for soldiers who believe in God or another deity, meaning nonbelievers are guaranteed to score poorly and will be forced to participate in exercises that use religious imagery to "train" soldiers up to a satisfactory level of spirituality.
Griffith, who is based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, took the test last month and scored well on the emotional, family and social components. But after completing the spiritual portion of the exam, which required him to respond to statements such as, "I am a spiritual person, my life has lasting meaning, I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all humanity and all the world, " he was found to be spiritually unfit because he responded by choosing the "not like me at all" box.
His test results advised him, "spiritual fitness" is an area "of possible difficulty for you."
As a former healthcare chaplain who trained emergency services and healthcare workers in critical incident stress management, the question I can say that the story is not a new one. Spiritual assessment for both spiritual care and psychological care have been hot-topics for a long time. Ask any professional healthcare or military chaplain, and you will hear stories of chaplains who work with people of varieties of belief or of no belief and assisting them as they make meaning out of a difficult or traumatic situation.
It is does not help that truthout folks have connected the test with the psychologist who was involved in developing the controversial torture regimes that have stained this country's reputation.
From my own experience, the real questions are these: (1) can one train psychological resilience in advance of traumatic exposures (the answer is "yes and no") and (2) what is the role of spirituality in the prevention of and the recovery from PTSD?
The answer to the second question rests on what one means by "spiritual." The psychologists and physicians who designed this tool, I think, mean something quite different than what a theologian, or even what an average person, may say.
What is most important in coping with trauma is not spirituality, per se, but the ability to make sustainable meaning out of the traumatic event. This is especially important when the threats are on-going and repeated, which is what service-members are experiencing in today's extended deployments. I can't see the test because seeing the tool requires a user-name and password, but I can see both sides of this question very clearly.
In terms of the current state of knowledge about traumatic stress, PTSD, and recovery, there is no reason why an atheist cannot be "spiritually resilient." But what is meant by "spiritual" in this instance is very different that what the preacher in the pulpit may mean.
Tell us what you think.