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Selva Discusses How Chaplains Should Interact with Commanders

Military chaplains have a role at every level of the armed services, and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged them to become versed in all the missions they can perform.

Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva spoke to the 2019 Joint Staff Religious Affairs Symposium at the Pentagon library today. The chaplains came from all over the military to discuss strategic religious advisement and global integration.

Chaplains are a value to commanders at many levels and to personnel of all ranks, Selva said. He cited the actions of the “Four Chaplains” who were aboard the SS Dorchester when the vessel was torpedoed in February 1943. The four Army chaplains gave their life preservers to others when it became apparent that there weren’t enough to go around. They were last seen praying together as the ship sank.

“They provided a degree of comfort that day that nobody else could, because of their faith, because of their belief, because of their willingness to give their lives to save others,” the vice chairman said.

Profound Effects on Operations

Religion can have profound effects on operations. Selva spoke of the first time he learned about the Shia/Sunni differences and what being a Salafist meant in Islam. These can have a profound effect on how commanders approach people of the area and what is acceptable moving out, he said. “The ability of chaplains to bring to their commanders the kind of advice that lets us know the environment that we are in, that lets us know what the religious fracture lines are around us [is valuable],” the general told the military chaplains.

As a commander, Selva said, he made sure his chaplains had access to him. “They were either going to provide spiritual support, mental health support, or they were going to slap me upside the head and tell me I was doing something wrong,” he said. “All three of those were OK.”

In advising commanders, chaplains can fill three roles: spiritual advice to a faithful worshipper, personal advice to a commander or advice about the environment and forces at work on a population. “For most of you, the first is very comfortable,” Selva said. “The second, particularly given the role of the commander, may be a bit less comfortable, and the third one for some of you is totally foreign territory.”

Chaplains need to understand religions, their tenets, their customs, the belief systems and how they affect decisions the people of the area make, he said. “It’s not about cultural sensitivity, it’s about actual sensitivity to the faith of the people with whom commanders are going to interact,” he said.