Double Whammy: A Gay Atheist Sailor’s Dilemma

Sailors

In the current issue of Free Inquiry (October-November 2009), a 22-year-old U.S. Navy sailor writing under the name of N. Bonaparte describes his encounter with military chaplains and psychologists after his homosexual identity was revealed to his superiors. Bonaparte was an outstanding sailor, had received a Navy Achievement Medal and other awards, and aspired to serve in public office after a successful tour of duty with the Navy. When his homosexuality was discovered, Bonaparte went into a deep depression and was referred to a chaplain—a fundamentalist Christian with no credentials in counseling who tried to force his religious beliefs about homosexuality on Bonaparte.   

Bonaparte was not only gay but atheist, and so his sessions with the chaplain were doubly inappropriate and left him even more depressed than before, even suicidal. He was eventually referred to a military psychologist, who helped him get back on track and deal confidently with the charges against him. But, writes Bonaparte, the military routinely stigmatizes soldiers who seek psychological counseling and thereby imposes an extra burden on those who, quite understandably, become depressed over their treatment under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.    

Bonaparte questions the military’s practice of referring troubled servicepersons to chaplains first, regardless of the serviceperson’s religious background. Often, chaplains are neither trained nor licensed as counselors and are ideologically ill-suited to dealing with non-believers or homosexuals. Bonaparte writes, “I don’t think someone who breaks with the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association by refusing to recognize homosexuality as nonpathological is qualified to assess, counsel, or treat someone for anything other than religious or spiritual problems.” 

Bonaparte blames the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for creating a culture of secrecy, lies, and double lives, and he blames the pervasive “Christianization” of the military for filling the chaplaincy ranks with ministers from fundamentalist or evangelical traditions. 

“The policy of turning to chaplains first,” he concludes, “…fails desperately to meet the needs of members who are gay, nonreligious, or who may have serious mental health issues.” The predictable outcome of this misguided policy is that America’s armed forces regularly lose highly-trained personnel to suicides, psychological breakdowns, and premature withdrawals from duty.

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