Spiritual Fitness Can ‘Lighten Load’ for Troops, Families
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 15, 2010 Spiritual fitness can help “lighten the load” for servicemembers and their families, whether they’re facing combat, dealing with health issues or just managing the day-to-day stressors of military life, the Army’s chief of chaplains said.
“I would imagine that soldiers carry some of that in their rucksack,” Army Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Douglas L. Carver said. “[Chaplains] are there in many cases to help them unload some feelings, some of the trauma they’re carrying around.
“That’s what I think spiritual practice does, lighten the load,” he added. “And who wouldn’t want to take a few rocks out of a rucksack?”
The Army’s top chaplain discussed the importance of spiritual fitness to servicemembers’ overall well-being and its potentially “life-changing” benefits in an American Forces Press Service interview.
The Army defines spiritual fitness as the development of the personal qualities needed to sustain a person in times of stress, hardship and tragedy. These qualities can come from religious, philosophical or human values, according to Army Regulation 600-63, and form the basis for character, disposition, decision making and integrity.
“It’s not just about conceptual understanding,” Carver explained. “It’s not just believing, but practicing what you believe, that will have the greatest effect on you as an individual.”
Reaching out to a transcendent power, regardless of religion, can help people process through and work on difficult issues, the chaplain said. “No matter what a person's faith, it's the fact that they've reached beyond themselves for strength in time of need,” he said.
Carver recalled when he was in Iraq at the beginning of the war. A soldier approached him and explained that he was a sniper, trained to kill the enemy. He was struggling with issues of guilt and forgiveness, the general said.
“I'm not sure you can find some answers to those things outside of a religious or spiritual perspective,” he said. “When you practice, regardless of what happens in a day’s mission, I know you’ll have the courage to handle it. It goes beyond training.”
Traditionally, the military has placed a greater emphasis on emotional and physical health, rather than spiritual fitness, when looking at servicemembers’ overall well-being. However, this past decade of war, and the resultant stress and strain on the force, has prompted new discussions about spiritual health and the integral part it plays in a person’s life, Carver said.
Physical, emotional and spiritual fitness “are equally important,” the general said. “And all must be taken holistically.”
This holistic approach is becoming increasingly evident in hospital settings, where professionals are adopting a collaborative approach to treating the physical and emotional wounds of war, Carver said. “It’s not just treating mental and physical health issues with medicine,” he said. “There’s a spiritual dimension.”
Experts have conducted extensive research on the correlation between spiritual fitness and mental and physical health, and have found religion to be a “powerful coping behavior” for people who are facing adversity, anxiety and stress, said Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health.
“Research documents that people who are more religious, more engaged in religious beliefs [and] activities, simply cope better,” he said. “They experience greater well-being as a result of those beliefs and practices, which seem to ground them, and give them stability and a resilience.”
Koenig said research has shown that people who are involved in religious practice are less likely to become overwhelmed, develop depression or anxiety or commit suicide, and even are physically healthier.
He cited a number of studies that examined the effects of spiritual practice on everything from alcohol abuse to suicide.
Of the 444 studies conducted worldwide on the effect of religious involvement on depression, 61 percent found that people who are more religious suffer less depression and recover faster, he said. Of the 278 studies on alcohol abuse, 240 reported less alcohol use, abuse and dependence among those scoring higher on religious involvement. And of the 185 studies conducted on drug abuse, 84 percent reported less drug abuse among those who are more religiously involved.
Finally, on suicide, 75 percent of 141 studies found less suicide and a more negative attitude toward suicide among those scoring higher on religious involvement, Koenig said.
“A spiritual world view gives people a reason for living, gives life meaning,” he said. “When you’re out there on the field, constantly on the alert, trying to figure out, ‘What’s my life all about?’ … meaning is very, very important. When people lose their sense of meaning, they lose their sense of grounding, of direction.”
The ability to ward off loneliness and depression, or self-destructive behavior such as drug or alcohol addiction, is a priceless benefit, Carver noted, particularly since studies have shown that one of the most common reasons soldiers take their own lives is isolation.
“You may have 300 friends on Facebook, but at 3 o’clock in the morning, who do you call to assist you as you’re dealing with a crisis in your life?” he said. “Alienation is a tough place to be at any time, but especially when dealing with military life at a time of war.”
Recognizing its potential value, the Army has begun to incorporate avenues to develop spiritual fitness in its soldier support programs and resources. Carver cited Comprehensive Soldier Fitness as an example. The program is designed to build resilience in soldiers and their families through online training modules and helping resources. It focuses on five dimensions of strength: physical, emotional, social, family and spiritual. Within the program, spiritual fitness is deemed on par with physical and emotional health.
In Iraq, chaplains and soldiers are being introduced to the Spiritual Fitness Initiative, which is designed to improve soldiers’ well-being through spirituality. After an orientation, chaplains arrange for small, voluntary group sessions in which servicemembers can air their experiences and concerns. The initiative emphasizes the importance of developing spiritual health with the belief that other aspects of health can then improve as a result.
The Chaplain Corps’ Center for Spiritual Leadership has a research proposal through the Army Studies Program that will allow experts to follow groups of deployed soldiers for a year to see how the initiative has impacted their spiritual life and well-being.
And, as an ongoing resource for spiritual health, more than 1,600 active-duty chaplains from all faith backgrounds conduct more than 1,000 worship gatherings of soldiers and their families on any given week across the Army, Carver said.
“We help people see there is a future,” he said, calling military chaplains “agents of hope.”
“That’s what spirituality does for you,” he said. “It gives context for your life. There is a future, and there is hope.”
The big-picture goal, the general said, is to sustain soldiers and their families for the long haul.
“If we’re going to do this for decades, what is it that will carry a soldier through the cycle of a long, or almost an unending conflict?” he said.
People often are drawn to spirituality when it’s time to face something significant, Carver noted, citing large chapel services at the beginning of the war and on and just after 9/11.
“It would be great if folks didn’t have to wait for a crisis to do that,” he said. “We’re just trying to help folks realize this is something you might want to keep in your life. Like exercise or taking vitamins, a balanced spiritual life is also good for you.
“It’s another way of looking at life,” he added. “It’s nonthreatening and voluntary, and can be life-changing. And it’s available to all.”