Chaplain Burnout


CHAPLAIN STEVEN RINDAHL: The month of May, we sustained our largest volume of casualties. We were conducting memorial ceremonies every few days, and by the time that month was over, I was pretty well worn out.

LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: Chaplain Steven Rindahl served 15 months in Iraq. Now he’s the chaplain at the Fort Jackson hospital in South Carolina, which is also the headquarters of the Army’s Chaplain school. There are 2900 full and part-time chaplains, and many have served at least one tour of duty in a combat zone, and, like Chaplain Rindahl, been haunted by the experience.

CHAPLAIN RINDAHL: We have 17 of our soldiers killed and one of our contracted interpreters, and I did not keep count of how many traumatic amputations and other wounds that caused our people to be evacuated from theater.

post01-chaplainburnoutSEVERSON: It was his fellow chaplains who took him aside and told him that he was suffering from what has become known as “compassion fatigue.”

CHAPLAIN RINDAHL: I realized that what they were saying was true because I would hear footsteps outside in the gravel, the crunching noise, and I would just be terrified that somebody was coming to tell me about another casualty.

CHAPLAIN MIKE DUGAL: Across the board we have recognized that we do have chaplains that have experienced combat trauma.

SEVERSON: Colonel Mike Dugal is the Chaplain Director for the Center for Spiritual Leadership at Ft. Jackson. The center opened in 2008 partly in response to the realization that, like soldiers, chaplains also suffer the trauma of combat stress.

CHAPLAIN DUGAL: We do have chaplains that are going through the same psychological and traumatic events that our soldiers are going through. It is hard to be empathetic and to show compassion to our soldiers and to see the brokenness, to see the carnage and that not to affect you.

SEVERSON: According to the army, since the beginning of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s chaplains have served a total of more than 20,000 months in combat zones, some have gone on as many as eight tours of duty. One survey revealed that 20 percent of these chaplains had suffered compassion fatigue or some sort of PTSD.

post02-chaplainburnoutLike the soldiers, these chaplains are often in the heat of battle where death is very real and the casualties are friends. Lieutenant Colonel Graeme Bicknell is not a chaplain, but he is an army expert on compassion fatigue.

LT. COL GRAEME BICKNELL: It can be nightmares. It can be lack of desire to eat, sort of feeling sad, sadness, avoiding certain behaviors because it reminds you of what happened.

SEVERSON: He says it’s understandable that chaplains would experience compassion fatigue.

LT. COL BICKNELL: The more empathic a person is, the more they’re able to relate to somebody or be in their shoes. The more vulnerable they are to compassion fatigue. And I think that with chaplains, that empathic relationship is incredibly important to be able to benefit the soldier.

CHAPLAIN JOHN READ: I guess I first learned in a profound way how trauma can damage the soul when I was clinically trained at Brook Army Medical Center.

SEVERSON: Chaplain John Read is the army’s Director of the Soldier and Family Ministries.

post03-chaplainburnoutCHAPLAIN READ: You see the gun shot wounds, the stabbings, the burn patients, all the volatility of the kinds of things you see in a war zone. I mean I recognized there, as a clinically trained chaplain working in a hospital setting how that would affect me in terms of questions of life, death, grief, loss. The things that profoundly become kind of moral, ethical, spiritual aspects of our lives.

SEVERSON: He tells of seeing the body parts of 38 little Iraqi kids blown up by a terrorist bomb right after learning he had just become a grandfather. And of the soldier who died in his arms.

CHAPLAIN READ: He had just become a naturalized citizen two months before his death, killed in a rocket attack. I held him in my arms as he died and gave him, recited a prayer from his specific faith that he was from, and the peaceful look on his face as he thanked me and died, I will just never forget. But there isn’t a day that I don’t wish that he could somehow be with his wife and kids.

SEVERSON: One thing that often comes through is the deep, abiding respect and fatherly love these chaplains have for their soldiers.

post06-chaplainburnoutCHAPLAIN DUGAL: It is natural for chaplains to weep with those who weep because a lot of these kids, most of these kids are the age of my youngest son and I’m a father to them. There are times that when I reflect about the cost that our military has paid since 911, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to be with them. Because it is an honor.

SEVERSON: And it is not only the soldiers chaplains weep for — it’s the soldier’s families.

CHAPLAIN READ: The chaplains that go out and do many notifications, supporting the casualty notification process and the death notifications. It’s a heavy load to bear. And so at some point in time, invariably they have to re-engage themselves in a meaningful way to move in and through and beyond that.

SEVERSON: That’s where the chaplain’s school and the Center for Spiritual Leadership come into play. They get training here, discussion groups, reading lists, counseling.

There’s a chaplain museum tracing back to the Revolutionary war. It was George Washington who first dictated that each regiment should have it’s own chaplain.

CHAPLAIN DUGAL: When pain and suffering is very real, soldiers know that they can turn to the chaplain.

post05-chaplainburnoutSEVERSON: Chaplain Greg Cheney served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He says there was a time when what he experienced in combat challenged his faith.

CHAPLAIN GREG CHENEY: Definitely, I mean when you go through that kind of extreme circumstances, there were times when I would, you know, question God and ask God what’s going on. Yeah, it’s one of those experiences where everything doesn’t make sense when it’s happening.

SEVERSON: Ultimately, he says, his faith actually grew from his combat experience.

CHAPLAIN CHENEY: Even when I was going through that, I felt an amazing sense of calm in those situations as I ministered to those soldiers, and I know that that could not have been anything from myself, it was only God, you know, Jesus Christ working through me to touch these soldier’s lives.

CHAPLAIN DUGAL: I would definitely say that my faith has developed and not to the point of questioning the existence of God, but having to deal with the reality of pain and suffering and realize that there are no just simple answers.

CHAPLAIN RINDAHL: If you think about what Christ did for humanity. He left a place of ultimate privilege in order to take on a hardship and ultimately sacrifice himself for people who didn’t know him. And soldiers take upon themselves the obligation to leave the most privileged county in the world and be willing to sacrifice personal comfort and, although not intending to sacrifice their own life, at least be willing to.

SEVERSON: There’s a phrase that’s become quite common among veterans, and among chaplains, of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It’s called “the new normal.” It means that their lives are never going to be quite the same as before.

CHAPLAIN READ: Sunday school teachers I had had as a kid growing up who kind of always celebrated my journey, said you’re not the same. And I would say, reflectively, how am I different? Well, you’ve seen things that none of us will ever see. We can see that in your eyes.

SEVERSON: For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in Crystal City, Virginia.

  • Tabiri Chukunta

    Thank you for this important informnation on Compassion Fatigue. How may I obtain CD or video of the program?

  • Mike Manuel

    There are those that serve.
    There are those that serve those that serve.
    I am one that is served. I am grateful for both.
    Thank you.

  • Chaplain Paul Slater, BCC (Retired)

    First, how honored we are as a nation by our Military Chaplains, your sense of calling and willingness to serve God and our sons and daughters who serve in the military. I thank God for you.

    I am also reminded of the term many of us learned in our chaplaincy training, being a “wounded healer”. You certainly represent that concept as you minister out of your own experiences and pain.

    Finally, how grateful I am that our leaders recognize compassion fatigue and its impact on the human soul. Thank you for providing healing to the healer.

  • Julia Simpkins

    Trent, Lucky:
    You guys did an outstanding job with this piece, capturing everything we at the Chaplain School think was important to this story. Thank you very much for visiting us and for telling our story. I look forward to working with you again.


  • The Rev Susan Sprowls

    While I appreciated this piece, I was a bit distressed at the implication that military chaplains are comprised entirely of (anglo) men. I’m well acquainted with a remarkable woman who served with distinction as an Army chaplain. I know there are others.

  • Davjohn

    Chaplains are overworked, undermanned, on call 24/7/365, working through sorrow, grief, shock, sudden tragedy day in and day out without a break, then when they set to do their jobs, as religious leaders, the government steps in and tells them how to pray, when to pray, for whom they can pray, to whom they can pray, and in what manner they can pray all in opposition and violation not only to their calling, but to the supreme law of the land, the first amendment.
    It’s no wonder they are burnt out. It’s only by the Grace of an Almighty and Righteous God that they are able to do their jobs on a daily basis without snapping inside and ending up in a rubber cube.

    Oh, and Susan, this is not about men vs. women, “anglo” vs. anyone else. [Sexist remark removed by admin] and get over it. If you’re a Chaplain, act like it. – p.s. 1 Cor 14:34-36; 1 Tim 2:11-14; 1 Cor 11:3, 8-10

  • Larry Kessler

    The bond between combat soldiers is stronger than that between man and wife. The strength of that bond is mirrored int the bond between Chaplains and those they minister to in the battlefield. Although a faith can be made even stronger by encountered trials and trauma, those same same traumas can destroy the body and the mind even while faith grows. Trauma and PTSD is not a mental or spiritual crisis; It is a physiological response to an overwhelming situation. Compassionate fatigue is a poetic expression that softens the sharp-edged danger of continuing to live with PTSD. It almost implies that it is a noble burden that one carries in order to help others. It is not. The help and comfort these Chaplains give is what helps others; not the traumas they carry. Their trauma need to be treated as traumas. They should seek out a somatic-based treatment such as Somatic Experiencing, which will allow them to continue to do what they do and remain healthy and whole at the same time.

  • CH (MAJ) Kelly O’Lear

    My faith grew during my time in Iraq & Afghanistan but not because of any feeling I had but because I am confident in the reality of what Christ has done for me and for the world. I was strengthened as I went forward in a ministry of word and sacrament that I do have an answer for death, suffering and pain. It wasn’t that I could engender a feeling of hope because of me personally, but I brought hope in the word spoken and the sacrament given.

  • CH(MAJ) Scott Fluegel

    Thanks for this article. I am one of those tired Chaplains. There are still times that I can cry over the lost of my Soldiers, and even members of the Unit Ministry Team. I am retiring soon, but the memories of my Soldiers will never leave me.

  • CH (LTC) Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad

    Congratulations to my Chaplain Colleagues for a job well done. The information on Compassion Fatique was well presented, and timely. I hope many Chaplains get to view the video or read the transcript. Many thanks to the Religion & Ethics for capturing the essence of the Army Chaplaincy in a combat zone.

  • Sue Garritano

    Thank you for a very thoughtful and sensitive treatment of the experience of compassion fatigue. As a hospice chaplain, I see many important parallels to our work with hospice patients, families, and staff. “The new normal” also captures the experience of those facing terminal illness, or those caring for them at the threshold of death. May those of us “working in the trenches” be more diligent in the emotional and spiritual care of ourselves and our colleagues as we serve others. May we connect with compassion, without being consumed by the care.

  • CH(LtCol) Robert Whitley, Civil Air Patrol

    WOW. Thank you for your service. I am now Chaplain Emeritus for the Southwest Region of the Civil Air Patrol. I never had to encounter what you have went through. My son, Chris, is now serving in Afstanagan (National Guard) for a year. Please keep him in your prayers.

    Chaplain Whitley

  • Mike Hoyt CH(COL), USA-Ret

    Good article. I offer my thanks to those who had a part in presenting this material to the public. May I also emphasize the Chaplain is a non-combatant. While the Chaplain certainly remains the closest and most reliable counseling and burden sharing resource to the service member, the Chaplain never knows the personal burden of killing in combat. They also do not exercise the daily pressures of command authority. These two distinctives carry an indelible kick to the soul that Chaplains seek to console but cannot fully commiserate. Those who bear this burden alone are uniquely worthy of every degree of patience, respect, dignity, and earnest gratitude our nation can muster. Chaplains are priviledged to share in the same deprivations and exhausting missions. They indeed become one with their units. Many bear the physical wounds of enemy fire and all share the mutual anxiety of working in proximity of the enemy. Nothing is easy in war and noone gets a pass. I salute the members of the Chaplain Corps, no one else matches their function, role, and mission. A special recognition is also due to Chaplain (Colonel) Mike Dugal. No one in the Army Chaplaincy is more keenly on point and personally provisioned for the role of soul care than this fine scholar and man of faith. He is a national treasure as the Director of the Center for Spiritual Leadership.