army-chaplain-corps
Photo source: Army Chaplains Corps

Chaplain (Capt.) Joseph Lawhorn is a chaplain with the 5th Ranger Training Battalion.  He is currently under fire for comments that he made during a mandatory suicide prevention training session he gave.  A solider who attended the training complained that Lawhorn advocated for Christianity and used the Bible during the session.

Lawhorn is endorsed as a Chaplain by the Grace Churches International.  He earned the Ranger tab in 1999.  Prior to that he served for three years as an enlisted cook. Lawhorn deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 and has served as the chaplain for 5th Ranger Training Battalion since December 2012.

He received a letter of concern from Col. David Fivecoat who is the commander of the Airborne and Ranger Brigade, the parent unit of the 5th Ranger Training Battalion.  Fivecoat in his letter cites the complaint stemming from the session given on November 20 in Dahlonega, GA.

“During this training, you were perceived to advocate Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions,” Fivecoat wrote in his 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.”

Fivecoat also stated in his letter: “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.”

Fivecoat said the letter is administrative and he intends for it to be placed in Lawhorn’s local personnel file for no more than three years or until he leaves the command.

Lawhorn is one of the few Army Ranger-qualified chaplains currently serving in the Army. During the session, he shared his personal struggles with depression while he was a Ranger and how he learned to conquer by following the example of the Israel’s warrior king, David. At no time did he say his was the only way or even the preferred way of dealing with depression, and at no time did he deny the validity of any other method.  Lawhorn made that clear during the session and provided the attendees with a list of other resources.

“It is outrageous that an Army chaplain would have his career threatened because he cared so much about his soldiers that he opened up to them about his personal struggles, and what worked for him,” said Mike Berry, Liberty Institute Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs.

“That is the very definition of looking out for your soldiers. And to be punished for it on Thanksgiving Day adds insult to injury. At a time when military suicides are increasing, one would assume the last thing the Army should do is punish a soldier who is trying to prevent them,” Berry added.

Berry sent a response letter to Fivecoat on behalf of Chaplain Lawhorn.

Berry wrote in the letter that during the presentation Lawhorn solicited questions, comments and concerns, ” But to his surprise, Chaplain Lawhorn later learned that one of the soldiers in attendance took offense at his presentation. 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 (MAAF), who apparently then alerted a media outlet, the Huffington Post.”

“No chaplain should be threatened for doing exactly what a chaplain is supposed to do,” said Chaplain (COL) Ron Crews, USA Retired, executive director of Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty who also sent Col. Fivecoat a letter. “Chaplain Lawhorn’s presentation was perfectly legal and protected by the Right of Conscience Clause passed by Congress in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.”

“Chaplains bare their souls for their soldiers to help them with crises they may be going through. That’s what chaplains do,” Crews added. “Chaplain Lawhorn should be commended not condemned.”

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