‘Perform or provide’

DADT repeal gives progressive chaplains a chance to counter evangelical clergy in the military

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CATCH-ALL CHAPLAIN | Chaplain Chris Antal (Lt.) attended the meeting of the Forum on Military Chaplaincy at Cathedral of Hope in October. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com
When a soldier recently came to Chaplain Chris Antal, a lieutenant in the Army National Guard in New York and a Unitarian Universalist minister, and asked if he’d pray with her even though she was a pagan, he said he replied, “Of course I will, but you’ll have to show me how.”

Several weeks later, when he saw her again, she told him that the day she had come to visit him, she had hit rock bottom. He had, she told him, saved her life that day.

But Antal said he was only doing his job — helping any soldier who comes to him.

“I’ve earned the nickname, the Catch-all Chaplain,” he said, explaining that it means he takes everyone the other chaplains don’t want to deal with.

Carpenter.Dodd

Capt. Tom Carpenter (ret.) and Col. Paul Dodd (ret.)

Being there to help a soldier in need is what it’s all about for a military chaplain, said Col. Paul Dodd, a retired chaplain who now lives in Austin.

“The duty of a military chaplain is to perform or provide,” said Dodd, adding that he once sponsored an Islamic conference.

Dodd said that no chaplain can perform every service needed by every member of the military. But if a chaplain can’t perform the service requested, he or she must provide that soldier with a referral to someone else who can.

Antal said that chaplains who enlisted knew what they were getting into — to some extent. But none of them really expected the repeal of the military’s anti-gay “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And for many, that repeal was a game changer.

In October, a group of active and retired chaplains and military personnel and other people of faith, such as the Rev. Steve Sprinkle from Brite Divinity

School in Fort Worth, met at the Interfaith Peace Chapel at Cathedral of Hope to begin looking at ways of addressing the issues that arose for military chaplains around DADT repeal.

Dave Guy Gainer said The Forum on Military Chaplaincy is not exactly new. It formed in 2005 as a project of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and worked under the radar until DADT was repealed.

Sprinkle said people in the Pentagon, up through Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, knew about their work and considered their statements throughout the DADT repeal process.

And now, with repeal complete, the group met to “come out.” At their meeting in Dallas, forum members considered ways to become an independent organization helping to ensure newly out service members receive the pastoral care they need while serving in the military.

Susan Gore, principle of The Mentor Group and editor of the book Coming Out In Faith, moderated the Dallas conference. She said the group started with several retired military officers “who wanted to push back against the far-right skew.”

Sprinkle has been part of the forum for four years and said he was recruited to participate because of his work on hate crimes.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Sprinkle said, more and more members of the Chaplain Corps have come from just one school — Liberty

University, founded by far-right evangelical Jerry Falwell. Today, Sprinkle estimated, one-third of military chaplains come from Liberty University.

“They instituted a program that barely meets minimum requirements,” he said of the evangelical school. “It’s an online course.”

And, Sprinkle said, Liberty University’s goal is to take control of the Chaplain Corps and use the military as a pool for religious recruits.

“This is fertile ground to bring people to Jesus at taxpayer expense,” said Tom Carpenter, a retired Marine captain and one of the forum’s founders.

“I’ve heard stories of them holding the hand of someone who’s dying and trying to bring them to Jesus.”

And although such actions contradict military policy, no one in the corps has been disciplined or dismissed for it.

“They give chaplains a lot of leeway,” Carpenter said.

Gainer said the military is looking for well-rounded ministers who bring experience with them to the military.

According to the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School in Fort Jackson, S.C., candidates must be endorsed by their denomination or faith group and be “sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members and civilians who work for the Army.”

But Sprinkle said that Liberty University is transparent about its goals, and those goals do not line up.

“They’re not committed to pluralism or serving all the troops,” he said.

Gainer said that the greatest opposition to repealing DADT came from the Chaplain Corps because military chaplains answer to two groups — the military and their denomination. Those chaplains that didn’t adhere to a strict stance of maintaining the ban on gays and lesbians were threatened with losing their accreditation from their endorsing religious body — and with it their livelihood and their pensions.

But that contradicts the stated goals of the Chaplain Corps.

“Someone has to say, ‘Either you comply and serve all the troops all the time or get out,’” Sprinkle said.

Gore said that one of the goals of the newly public forum is to “rebalance the Chaplain Corps by bringing in more mainstream faiths.” She said that for many who come from more liberal traditions, questions of what’s a just war make it hard to serve in the military. Antal, for example, is one of just four Unitarian Universalists in the Chaplain Corps.

During its push for repeal of DADT, members
said, the forum had several successes working behind the scenes.

Despite the assumption of confidentiality between parishioner and clergy, that wasn’t always the case between gay soldier and chaplain. Dodd said that a number of discharges under DADT occurred after a soldier talked to a chaplain and the chaplain turned them in.

In fact, he wrote a white paper on the practice. After he submitted it, the military tightened up on chaplain confidentiality, Dodd said.

Carpenter, an attorney, wrote an amicus brief for the Log Cabin Republicans’ lawsuit against DADT. The court found in favor of declaring DADT unconstitutional, but Congress repealed the law before the decision could be enforced.

Carpenter said that the repeal allows gays and lesbians to serve with no protection. The legal decision, had it not been vacated upon repeal, would have allowed gays and lesbians to serve equally.

Now that DADT is gone, the forum is examining how to ensure LGB personnel receive the same services as other troops from chaplains.

Dodd said that right-wing chaplains charge that allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military will force them to act in ways that go against their beliefs. Some have said they would be required to perform same-sex weddings.

Dodd called that ridiculous. Chaplains are never asked to perform duties that go against their religious beliefs, he said.

“I turned down weddings,” he said. “An officer came to me who wasn’t divorced.”

He said the officer tried to pull strings and force the issue, but Dodd wasn’t going to discuss marrying someone who was still married to someone else.

“But we’re insisting chaplains have the authority, if it’s in keeping with their faith, to marry same-sex couples,” he said.

Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the repeal provides no family benefits. For some issues, Dodd and Carpenter suggested work-arounds.

Issuing ID cards would be extremely helpful, especially to same-sex couples with children, Carpenter said, noting that “That way either parent could get on base to get a child to the hospital.”

In another example, joint assignments can be offered at the discretion of a commanding officer, and married couples are often assigned together when they both qualify for positions that are available at the same base. Same-sex couples could be given the same priority.

As the forum looks ahead, rebalancing the Chaplain Corps with members from a more diverse background to reflect the membership of the military is a priority.

“And we need to take care of our trans brothers and sisters,” Carpenter said.

The repeal of DADT did not address any transgender issues and does not allow transgender men or women to serve in the military.

Gainer believes representatives of the forum need to sit down with far-right members of the Chaplain Corps and agree to disagree. He said that before the repeal of DADT, they talked to people at Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. While both groups testified against the repeal, they met with some success.

“The president of the VFW in Pflugerville said it was the right thing to do,” Gainer said.

That dialogue, he believed, would help chaplains perform or at least provide a useful referral, rather than doing more damage to a soldier seeking help.

Gore thought that the focus of discussion should be with the majority of chaplains “who want to do a good job and are part of the moveable middle.”

“We have to convince administrators and educators in divinity schools to encourage some of their best and brightest to serve,” Sprinkle said. “So many schools dropped what they were doing during the Vietnam era.”

Antal thinks that gays and lesbians will gain more acceptance as they tell their stories in non-confrontational settings and others see “their identity as professional service members is primary.”

While the work of the forum will concentrate on helping LGB military personnel, creating a more diverse Chaplain Corps may help a majority of service members. Recent polls show that a majority of troops find the chaplaincy irrelevant.

Sprinkle called the work of the forum a gift from the LGBT community to the nation.

“You wouldn’t think we’d be the ones opening the doors so that all troops will be served with dignity, integrity and respect,” he said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 4, 2011.

 

—  Kevin Thomas

Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach to retire – with full rank and pension

Some positive news today, via The Advocate:

Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, who fought his discharge from the Air Force under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, will be allowed to retire in October with his full rank and pension.

The South Bend Tribune reported on the news about the Notre Dame graduate and decorated 20-year veteran of combat flight.

“It was a great sense of relief. I didn’t expect it,” said the 41-year-old Fehrenbach to the newspaper.

According to the Tribune, “With no further explanation, the military in January sent Fehrenbach new orders: Effective Sept. 30, he will be retired from active duty at his current rank and with his pension. He’ll serve out the remaining months of his military duty at his current desk job at the base in Idaho.”

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—  David Taffet

Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenback: John McCain Was The Reason I Joined The Military

Joe. My. God.

—  admin

Breaking: Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach sues to block DADT discharge

This is big news, and something we can discuss in tonight’s PHB/Servicemembers United liveblog. (NYT):

On Wednesday, Colonel Fehrenbach’s lawyers filed papers in Idaho federal court requesting a temporary order blocking his discharge. The petition contends that a discharge would violate Colonel Fehrenbach’s rights, cause him irreparable harm and fail to meet standards established in a 2008 federal court ruling on don’t ask, don’t tell.

For advocates of abolishing the ban against gay men, lesbians and bisexuals serving openly, Colonel Fehrenbach’s case has become something of a line in the sand. Though President Obama has called for ending the ban and Congress has begun moving in that direction, gay service members continue to face investigations and discharge, albeit at a lower rate than in past years.

Lawyers for Colonel Fehrenbach assert that his case is among the most egregious applications of the policy in their experience. The Air Force investigation into his sexuality began with a complaint from a civilian that was eventually dismissed by the Idaho police and the local prosecutor as unfounded, according to court papers. Colonel Fehrenbach has never publicly said that he is gay.

However, during an interview with an Idaho law enforcement official, he acknowledged having consensual sex with his accuser. Colonel Fehrenbach’s lawyers say he did not realize Air Force investigators were observing that interview; his admission led the Air Force to open its “don’t ask” investigation.

Under new regulations issued by Defense Secretary Robert Gates this year, “don’t ask” investigations must be based on information from credible sources. Colonel Fehrenbach’s lawyers argue that the credibility of his accuser is clearly undermined by the dismissal of the sexual assault case.

His lawyers also assert that his case underscores the ways the ban hurts military readiness, the very thing it is supposed to protect. They say that Colonel Fehrenbach’s performance reviews were consistently glowing, including his most recent one, which says he was a “proven leader” who “raised morale” in his unit, according to papers filed by his lawyers.

Joe Sudbay at Americablog has the legal filing.

You may recall that last year, at the LGBT cocktail reception on June 29, 2009, while so many of our “leaders” were enjoying their cocktails and reveling in their A-list status, Fehrenbach actually had a very important and substantive conversation with President Obama about his situation. According to Victor, who appeared that same night on Rachel Maddow’s show:
[Obama] looked me right in the eye and he said, “We’re going to get this done.” And then he continued to say, you know, everyone seems to be onboard. We’ve got about 75 percent of the public that supports this. He said, but we have a generational issue. And so, there is some convincing to do, that there is a generational gap it seems and some of the senior leadership.

Well over a year later, it hasn’t been done. And, Victor’s lawyers know that his discharge is imminent.

In March 2010, Fehrenbach received the Winchell Courage Award at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network Annual Dinner and he gave a moving speech about his experience to date. It is below the fold.

Fehrenbach:

First let me say that I am truly humbled, honored, and grateful for this recognition tonight.  

I am especially honored that it was presented by Pat and Wally Kutteles.  I don’t have words to describe what this means to me.  I only hope that I can do honor to Barry’s memory and live up to his legacy.  This fight is for him and the thousands of others who did not have a voice.  Thank you so much!  

Congressman Murphy, thank you – not only for your inspiring words tonight – but more importantly, for your military service and your leadership in Congress.  It’s so important that we have a combat veteran lead this fight, because YOU know first-hand that this is not only about equal rights, but also national security.  Thank you, sir.
Of all the awards  and decorations that I’ve received throughout my career, THIS has the most meaning to me, because it was the most hard-fought…NOT by me, but by the thousands of brave, honorable service members who have came before me, laying the groundwork and giving me the inspiration to speak out.  

No ONE person truly deserves this honor, because no ONE person has earned it alone.  No one has courage ALONE.

I want to thank pioneers like Colonel Margaret Cammermeyer, Commander Zoe Dunning, Sergeant Darren Manzella, and my hero, Major Margaret Witt, to name a few – for giving me HOPE.

I want to thank Aubrey Sarvis and the hundreds of SLDN volunteers who have served over the years, and especially now.  Some of us have been called “the voice,” but SLDN has always been “the heart and the soul” of this fight.  For years, you faced the tough challenges, did the hard work, got your hands dirty, trying to make life better for thousands of brave, patriotic Americans.  And you do all of this with no fanfare, and too often, very little thanks.  I have received thousands of messages from all over the world, thanking ME for speaking out.  But really, ALL of those messages were for YOU!  Without SLDN, I would have never had a voice and I would have never had the courage.  

I want to give another special thanks to Rachel Maddow.  Not only did she give me a voice, but she was perhaps the only person in the national media who kept this issue on the front burner-on ANY burner-for years.  She publicly pressed policy makers to keep their promises and she made sure this struggle was consistently in the public consciousness.  Rachel:  Thanks so much for your leadership, your voice, your dedication, and most of all, your friendship!

At the end of the day, I don’t think anything I have done was due to courage on MY part.  I simply did the right thing-did what my mama taught me, as they say-and I felt I had an obligation and duty to speak out.  People have courage, because of the love, strength, and faith of those around them.  No one has courage ALONE.  

Few people know this, but for a year, while I was going through this struggle very privately, only five of my closest friends knew what was going on in my life.  The day I was informed of my possible discharge, still in utter shock, I called Mike Almy.  He went through this pain 3 years earlier.  After a long, panicked conversation, he advised me to go to SLDN’s website and read everything I could, and then call them as soon as I could.  He told me that SLDN could help.  And so I have to thank Mike for, really, EVERYTHING since then.  The next week, I called my four other best friends-Mike, Jenny, Jimbo, and Nick-told them my story and asked for advice.  I told them I just wanted a quick, quiet, fair, honorable discharge….I wanted to make this ALL go away, get a job, and move on with life.  They all agreed.  After days of soul searching, I had a change of heart.  I thought that perhaps I could tell my story, and make a positive impact and help others.  When I mentioned this to my five close friends, they ALL admitted that’s what they wanted me to say from the first day.  From that point, every time a major issue or decision came up, I called them for their advice.  They helped me make the ultimate decision to go public last spring.  Just saying thank you to these five can never be enough.  This honor is for them-it is for THEIR courage.

My last, and most important, thanks goes to my family:  to my mom-the greatest, strongest person I’ve ever known, to my 7 brothers and sisters, and to my 17 nieces and nephews.  Without THEIR courage, strength, and love, none of this would have ever happened.  Because, you see-very few people know this as well-but every single one of them got a vote.

Last May, when I contacted Kevin and Emily at SLDN and told them I had made the decision to go public, they were excited and made all the arrangements in just a few short days.  I was scheduled to appear on The Rachel Maddow Show on Tuesday, but there was a catch:  it was Friday, and I hadn’t even COME OUT to my family yet, let alone told them I was getting thrown out of the military, let alone that I was going on national TV to talk about it.  

Now, I drop bombs for a living, but these were three really big bombs!  

So I told Kevin and Emily that I would tell my family over the weekend, and if any ONE person in my family had any ONE reason to say NO, the deal would be off.  I was not about to drag any member of my family through all of this.  One by one, they ALL agreed, not only SHOULD I do this, but I HAD to do this-it was a duty….an obligation.  
After this support structure was set up on Monday, I told my mom.  She simply said that we were ALL in this together, and that she loved me, was proud of me, and supported me.  This honor is for her and for them-it is for THEIR courage. No one has courage ALONE.  

To all of the amazing people I’ve acknowledge tonight, I owe a tremendous debt that cannot be measured, nor fully repaid.  I can only MAKE one simple promise:  to pay it forward-to help others the way you’ve helped me.  And I can KEEP another simple promise, in the words of my Commander-in-Chief:  ”WE WILL GET THIS DONE!”

     Thank you for this incredible honor.  God bless you, and God bless America!

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—  John Wright