In his first-ever media interview, the military chaplain who was punished for making references to the Bible during a suicide-prevention seminar last month says he was simply doing his job.
“What I had tried to communicate with my audience is that depression can be conquered, depression can be overcome, and there are a myriad of ways of dealing with depression,” the chaplain, Capt. Joe Lawhorn, told The Daily Signal in a Skype interview.
“In this particular case,” Lawhorn explained, “I had struggled myself personally with the issue at hand I was teaching.”
“It was my faith that helped me to persevere and remain resilient in the face of depression,” says Capt. Joe Lawhorn
Lawhorn conducted the mandatory training session on depression and suicide prevention Nov. 20 at the University of North Georgia.
During the class, he explained how he followed the example of Israel’s King David to overcome his own depression while an Army Ranger. He also distributed a handout to soldiers that included references to the Bible and provided referrals for local counseling that included secular and non-secular options.
After the session, a member of the audience complained to an atheist group called the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.
A week later, on Thanksgiving, Lawhorn received a “letter of concern” from Col. David Fivecoat, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade at Fort Benning, Ga.
Fivecoat’s letter alleges that Lawhorn “advocated for … Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions” and, therefore, violated Army regulations.
In his interview with The Daily Signal, Lawhorn pushed back on the Army’s “administrative action” filed against him, citing the motto in the creed of the Chaplain Corps: “Bring God to soldiers and soldiers to God.”
Lawhorn says his role in the military is to bring a sense of “encouragement and hope” to soldiers from a religious or spiritual perspective. So when he received an official complaint for doing just that, Lawhorn was surprised.
“When I spoke about faith in particular, and in particular my Christian faith, it was clear that I was speaking from [a] first-person account,” he says, adding:
In my particular situation, it was my faith that helped me to persevere and remain resilient in the face of depression. And I was very clear to my audience that that was one way to handle depression and thoughts of suicide, but it certainly was not the only way.
As for the handout given at the mandatory briefing, Lawhorn says it was “completely optional.”
“I made it clear from the beginning of the class that … any handout or any resource I provided soldiers who might need help was completely optional,” he says. “It was up to them whether to take it or leave it.”
The Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal group specializing in religious liberty, helped Lawhorn file an official response last Tuesday to the Army rebutting the allegations.
Last Friday, Fivecoat responded that Lawhorn’s argument “did not disprove nor dissuade me that your actions made it impossible for those in attendance to receive the necessary resource information without also receiving biblical information.”
“This really isn’t about me,” says Lawhorn. “This is about chaplains exercising their rights as chaplains to perform in the capacity in which the Army—in this case in the individual chaplain’s endorser—has endorsed them to do in God and country.”
Read the Army’s full letter here: