INDIVISIBLE–A Chaplain’s War

We received free tickets to see “Indivisible” yesterday afternoon. It’s about Chaplain Darren Turner, and his 2007 deployment to Iraq. He had just finished chaplain school and been assigned to Fort Stewart when his unit deployed for 15 months as part of the surge. Fifteen casualties, IED and rocket attacks–what a way for a brand new chaplain to start his ministry! He came back messed up, and that led his wife to kick him out of the house and for him to leave the Army for a job at Home Depot (a greenhouse in the movie). After a year apart, and lots of counseling, he and his wife got back together and he reentered the Army, where he has served since.

It’s a “Christian film,” and these evangelical filmmakers are slowly getting better in their story telling. There’s no simple “pray to Jesus and it’s all better” moment. Still, the storyline is condensed, and it does suggest everything gets neatly tied up–which it doesn’t in real life.

They needed a military advisor on the film — any Army vet will notice lots of silly stuff, particularly with regard to the uniforms, and those “mandarin collars” on the old ACU, and “Pillsbury Doughboy” berets. “Turner” pops from 1LT to CPT in one scene then back to 1LT. And his rack is made up of random ribbons pulled from a military surplus store (including a WW2 Occupation Medal!).

But the movie does this: it shows that war takes a toll. It shows it takes a toll on chaplains who are caring for Soldiers dealing with serious stuff. It shows the disconnect between families at home and deployed (the wife needs support after a crisis and feels her husband just doesn’t care–he doesn’t tell her about the ambush he just got out of). It shows that healing takes time.

Turner as depicted in the film reminded me of some young naive chaplains I’ve supervised. They struggle to adjust to the Army, struggle to connect their head theology with life, struggle to find their place. But most end up bonding with Soldiers over the course of a deployment.

Reporter Moni Basu wrote about Turner over the course of his deployment and afterwards. She’s collected her articles into a book, Chaplain Turner’s War, that I found more compelling than the movie. It’s a contemporaneous account, without agenda, by someone watching him do ministry, and seeing the impact of the war on him.

Still, if we military types can push aside the annoyances, the film can be a starting point for a discussion about war’s impact on us — especially on us chaplains. It’s a discussion we seriously need to have. The chaplain branches of each service are doing a lousy job caring for chaplains after war. The courses for supervisory chaplains give few tools for them as pastors of hurt pastors. A “Moral Injury” course at Fort Sam is not required (it should be). Endorsers aren’t doing much better. We need to be intentional in having these conversations with our chaplains. We have invited David Peters to talk to our military chaplains next month; he’s a former Army chaplain who is the author of Post-Traumatic God: How the Church Cares for People Who Have Been to Hell and Back.

We have been at war seventeen years. Some of my fellow chaplains have been to war seven, eight, or more times. Many have been wounded in body and soul. Families have been wounded. We have ministered after battlefield trauma, and in the aftermath of suicide after suicide–and are expected to always be cheerful and always have a message of hope. Like other veterans, we wear masks, so you see that … and not the pain we carry.