Joint Base Charleston


Spiritual valor, religion and self-defeating behaviors

By Lt. Col. Michael Brown | 628th Air Base Wing chaplain | February 20, 2013

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Seventy years ago, February 1943, the U.S. Army Transport ship Dorchester was crowded to capacity carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen, and civilian workers as it moved across the icy waters from Newfoundland toward Greenland. The ship's captain knew the waters were dangerous. German U-boats had already sunk other ships in that area. On Feb. 3, at 12:55 a.m., three torpedoes were fired. The one that hit was deadly.

In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic's icy waters. Aboard the Dorchester, panic and chaos set in. The blast had killed scores of men and many more were seriously wounded. Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing. Through the pandemonium, according to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness.

Those chaplains were Lt. George Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander Goode, Jewish; Lt. John Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark Poling, Dutch Reformed. Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains spread out among the Soldiers. There, they tried to calm the frightened, tend to the wounded, and guide the disoriented toward safety. Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the four chaplains offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for those who would live. The chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. When they ran out, an astonishing sight was witnessed; the chaplains removed their own lifejackets and gave them to four frightened young men.

The altruistic action of the four chaplains constitutes one of the purest spiritual and ethical acts a person can make. When giving out their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line. As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains - arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers. Of the 902 men onboard, 672 died, leaving 230 survivors.

"Valor is a gift," Carl Sandburg once said. "Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes." Our current military culture seeks to promote spiritual health while, at the same time is very cautious to be politically correct about the topic of religion. It is a potential flashpoint that leaders must maneuver.

Per Department of Defense Directive 1300.17, "A basic principle of our nation is free exercise of religion. The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the Armed Forces to observe the tenets of their respective religions. It is DOD policy that requests for accommodation of religious practices should be approved by commanders when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline."

As military members who have taken an oath to uphold the constitution, we do not have the right to try to stop, take away, or inhibit the free religious expression of another military member, even if we disagree with it. Nor do we have the right to force it upon someone. The criteria listed in DODD 1300.17, are the only filters upon which to make a decision about accommodating religious expression. The key for everyone is respect, the kind of respect the four chaplains had for each other and the troops that needed their leadership and spiritual valor that night.

Studies have shown a positive association between "religiousness" and hope, optimism, less depression, less anxiety, less correlations to suicides, less alcohol abuse, and lower rates of divorce and separation. A variety of risky behaviors covering the gambit from seatbelt use to sexual promiscuity is less among those with a connection to religion. Therefore, it seems to me the most self-defeating behaviors are to force religion on another, squelch the expression of religion, or lack spiritual valor. By avoiding favoritism and using respect, religion has the potential to create better citizens and be a positive force in our military culture even for non-believers. So be respectful, but be courageous as well.

Staying Connected