Testimony of Kristen Leslie, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Yale Divinity School, to the House Committee on Armed Services' Subcommittee on Military Personnel
Thelma Drake, Virginia, Acting Chair
June 28, 2005, Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC
Madame Chairman, Dr. Snyder, members of the Committee and other members present, thank you for your invitation to be here today. I have to say I'm accustomed to teaching graduate students, not talking this way. This is a new experience for me. My students are going to get a kick out of me having to learn.
I am a United Methodist clergywoman and I am a professor of pastoral care and counseling at Yale Divinity School, which means I work with students who are training to become religious professionals on how to be with people in the midst of suffering, how they can understand how to bear witness in the midst of suffering, how to alleviate suffering. So my relationship with the Air Force Academy has been in relation to my work as a pastoral counselor, as a pastoral theologian. It started when, about two and a half years ago, I was invited to come work with the chaplains on how to better serve cadets who had been survivors of sexualized violence.
So I've been to the Academy a number of times previous to last summer, when I took six of my graduate students to be in the midst of basic cadet training. Our mission there was to help the chaplains assess and improve cadet-centered care. That is, in light of the culture and climate changes that have come out of the sexualized violence and assault matter at the Academy we were asked to help the chaplains think about what the agenda for change meant for them. And so in preparation for that the students and I boned up on the agenda for change and lived for a week in the midst of basic cadet training. At 4:45 in the morning, when loud bugles and a very load cadre were screaming we too were awake. For a week we shadowed the chaplains, who were enormously hospitable to us civilians in an environment that was very new to us.
We observed worship services, a variety of them, we accompanied chaplains who were working with the basics and the cadre during pastoral visits, we ourselves sat with some of the chaplains and participated in the caring for the cadets. We were able to observe the basic cadet training courses; we went to the cadet chapel service. We went to the global engagement service, and we offered pastoral care in general. So we had a week both to help the chaplains assess and improve the work that they had done but also for us to examine what it means to do ministry in a very different context for us, a context that relies on pluralism, many faiths sitting side by side. The chaplains there were very hospitable to us in teaching us how they do it and were open to our conversations with them.
At the end of our time we spent about two hours with the chaplains, the active duty and the reservist chaplains. In an out-briefing, which then we wrote that up, which became then known as the “after action” report or the Yale memorandum, which many of you have seen now. That memorandum was a reflection of that two-hour briefing, that out-briefing that we had with the chaplains. In that conversation with the chaplains we talked about things that we saw done very well. We saw the chaplains engaging with the basics and the cadre in very caring ways. We saw the chaplains having a very good presence in a variety of activities that were being done in the midst of basic cadet training. For those chaplains who were familiar with the agenda for change, and there were many who were not, we were able to watch them as they corrected some of the upper-class cadets, or cadre, who were training. So in our two-hour conversation we were able to reflect back with the chaplains some good things that we saw. At the same time we saw some things that concerned us, and some of those got reflected in that Yale memorandum. From the point of view of the chaplains, we saw some very sectarian prayers and offerings of pastoral care in a pluralistic context, which baffled my students because we had been told that in light of good order and discipline and unit cohesion we didn't understand how very sectarian prayers, how exhorting basics to return to their tents to tell other basics that in fact if they didn't profess the same kind of religious tradition that in fact they would go to hell.
We were struck that a number of the reservist chaplains actually were not very skilled in pastoral care. We saw the cadets themselves with the heathen flight that many of you have read about where those cadets, the basics choosing not to go to worship services, were put together in a heathen flight and marched back to their tents. On the basic cadet training courses we saw some well-intentioned cadets trying to give courage to other cadets but in very uni-dimensional ways: “Jesus will be with you, Jesus will save you.” In a context where we understood the importance of unit cohesion and good order and discipline, in our minds that worked against that. When we talked with the chaplains about that afterwards in this out-briefing, no one contested that in fact what we saw was there. What we did hear, though from some folks, was that's the way we do it here. This is the way it's done, we just preach Jesus. That was problematic. Our understanding was that that was problematic in that environment.
As I think about the interpretation of some of those examples it leads me to a couple of things. It was clear in my mind that in that environment there was not a clarity with some of the leadership, both chaplains and other leaders, the difference between good pastoral or spiritual care and evangelism. Particularly with the task force report that has just come out now [with] the apparent exoneration of some of the chaplains' actions, it says that there is not a clear understanding between what is good spiritual or pastoral care and how that bumps up against, as we're saying, religious freedom. Secondly, what we saw was not consistent with good order and discipline, in fact, more likely as these basics and as the cadre are working to become leaders in the nation's Air Force, we didn't see how this was helping them to negotiate the variety of religious expressions that certainly are out in the Air Force and if in fact we're training leaders you have to train leaders how to work in a pluralistic environment. We weren't seeing that, that wasn't being modeled. We were left with the impression that in that environment these 18-22 year olds were left trying to negotiate how to be in the environment with different religious traditions sitting side-by-side because we were seeing examples where the leadership was not giving good guidance.
It's very clear based on the Supreme Court's decisions yesterday and other discussions that have gone on in this building that leadership in the country is not clear about the role of religious freedom and the role of creating a unified fighting force. It's not clear at all. That's something that becomes very important, that I know that you're working on, clearly. What's happening at the Air Force Academy is that's being left up to the cadets to negotiate, and I think that's inappropriate. Because of that, then, it is my hope that there will be, and others hope that there will be, some outside oversight to begin to get a clarity on what that means to negotiate that. That's a hard topic, and it's an emotionally filled topic, one that the cadets should not be left to try to negotiate by themselves.
Thank you very much.