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The Soldier's Spirit

The Spiritually Fit Soldier

Science mandates the need to support the spiritual core throughout the life of the soldier for fitness, resilience and recovery.

Statement of Problem:

A twenty-year bifurcation of spirituality from overall fitness, training and culture in the US Military has weakened and made vulnerable the soldier. The cost is degraded outward performance and mitigated inner reserves to solve problems, as well as personal suffering, including suicide.

Cause of Problem:

The history of the US Army soldier always included support for a deep spiritual core. However, starting in the 1980s, in the positive attempt to be more inclusive of diverse religious backgrounds and cultures (and broader cultural wave of receding religious observance), religion and with it support for a spiritual connection, was disintegrated and significantly removed from daily life of the soldier. Effectively, the training and daily experience of the average soldier became silent on religion and a higher calling, abnegating support of the spiritual core, such that the "baby was thrown out with the bathwater." De facto removal of access and unintended barriers in the behavioral mental health design, diminished necessary religious and spiritual support.

Today we see the unintended consequence of this pivot in culture and attenuation of spiritual support. The US Military (along with the broader US culture) faces elevated risk in the form of suicide, addiction and mental illness and degraded performance across the life span of the soldier, with particular challenges faced by the 18-25 year old soldier, the primary focus of this memo.

Performance Risk & Personal Suffering
  • Ten-fold the rate of death by suicide as death by combat.
  • Elevated rates of substance addictions and disruptive behavioral addictions (gambling, pornography, internet gaming).
  • Elevated rate of mental health problems to include depression, anxiety, defiance, and risk taking, as well as character pathology of sociopathy, anti-social and narcissism that leads to impaired team bonding and decision-making on the field.
  • Unresolved PTSD, leading to distancing from team members, disunification of family and long-term dislocation from society.
Fitness Markers
  • Less engaged teamwork and decreased relational morality, to include loyalty, avoidance of harm, forgiveness and bonding.
  • Weakened character strengths and virtues.
  • Impaired performance strengths: persistence, tenacity, grit and determination for a higher purpose.
  • Lack of clarity and originality in information synthesis, innovation and grounded thinking and decision making.
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(Credit: Unsplash)
Solution to the Problem

In the most recent two decades, a significant new body of published peer-reviewed science shows that spirituality is essential to resilience, recovery, mental health and thriving. Fitness, to include the cultivation of positive character strengths, teamwork, relational morality and decision making are enhanced through a support of spirituality. Recovery from mental illness and resilience in the face of trauma hinge on spirituality. Long-term development is shaped by support of personal spirituality, or what might called the spiritual core, from which all other lines of social and moral development emanate. Drawing from this body of science, a "blueprint" is presented herein for the Spiritually Fit Soldier.

The US Army has the innovative vision, ability and resources in its existing Army Chaplaincy to implement - by elegant design with exceptional depth of relevant experience - a broad and pervasive system of support of the spiritual core of the soldier. Through offering spiritual intervention at critical junctures in natural development, the Army Chaplain can help to realize for the larger Army the Spiritual Fit Soldier: a soldier as fit spirituality, as in mind and body.

Spiritually Fit Solider: Scientific Blueprint

A summative review of the foundational findings across the science of spirituality, development, mental health and thriving identifies a "blueprint" of opportunity for spiritual intervention by the Army Chaplaincy.

Innate Spirituality

Spirituality is different from Religion. Science shows that spirituality is a natural capacity in every human being, religious and non-religious. Spirituality is part of the human composition, just as we are physical and social beings, so too we are spiritual beings. We come equipped to connect with G-d, our Higher Power of the sacred presence in the Universe, whatever our tradition might be (and if we grow up outside of a religious tradition).

How do we know this? We know this by looking at twin-studies, that show our spiritual capacity is one-third innate and two-thirds environmentally shaped, or "socialized" (Kendler et al, 1997, 1999).

Spirituality and Religion are Different. Spirituality is the innate human capacity that is shaped by religion, culture, family and community. Religion is the embrace of this natural spiritual capacity by faith tradition and those who live within a faith tradition. In the same twin-studies, religion is identified as being taught, shown and shared; religion is transmitted through generations; religion is shared through clergy and parents, faith community and cultural socialization. Religious "messengers" matter greatly in the two-thirds socialization of spirituality. Science shows the impact of loving good religious teachers (often grandparents and parents, clergy and religious school teachers) and bad religious teachers (abusers and terrorists), who imprint the formation of natural spirituality (Mahoney, Pargament et al 2003; Granqvist and Kirkpatrick, 2013).

Who is Spiritual? Every soldier arrives to the Army with innate spirituality, a spiritual core, cultivated or not cultivated to a varying degree. A strong spiritual core or a weak spiritual core, a well-developed or less exercised core, can be present on Day One in the Army, yet spirituality is always right there, a capacity with every soldier. Spirituality is part of our basic human make-up. As in all traits, or forms of human capacity, such as IQ or temperament there is found: 1) genetic variance in the strength and form of expression of spiritual capacity, and 2) diversity of strength and expression based upon the two-thirds environmental impact.

Innate Spirituality and Biological Correlates

Spirituality is Hard-Wired, at the many levels of our genes, our brain and unfolds in time-locked developmental phases (just like physical development). Yet if this wiring is left willy-nilly, it can sometimes degrade. MRI Studies, Single Gene Studies and Long-Term Developmental Studies show that there are biological correlates of spirituality, by way of analogy the "docking station" of spiritual awareness and experience. Specifically, research indicates that specific genes, associated with the production of serotonin and dopamine and their transmitters (Perroud, 2009; Anderson et al, 2019), correlate with spirituality, genes that every soldier has, to varying degrees. Science shows that regions and circuits in the brain that are built into every soldier’s brain to sustain spirituality (Miller et al, 2014; Newberg et al, 2016; Miller et al, 2019) - but in any given soldier these circuits may or may not need some practice. Over the course of the human life, there are hard-wired maturational chapters of spirituality that drive us to feel an think differently, and make decisions differently.

Adult Development
Course of Spirituality in 18-25 year olds

Starting with puberty a "biological clock" triggers a process of intensified spiritual hunger, questioning and related opportunity for formation. With or without prior awareness and with or without spiritual or religious support, the opportunity is presented and some type of development unfolds. The outcome of this developmental window can be a strengthened spiritual core, a missed opportunity, or worse, a mis-directed spiritual hunger perhaps met by bad teachers, which moves into nihilism, amorality, extremism or terrorism.

This is not merely a private matter, as the fitness, moral compass, and capability of the soldier depends upon R/S support at the right time of these inevitable developmental surges.

What does this look like? With puberty, there builds a burning motivation, a hunger for spiritual quest. The late adolescent in particular wants to know the truth about "who am I" and the ultimate meaning in the world, the nature of good and evil, to figure out the ultimate consequence in our lives. Whether or not the late adolescent is prepared, there is a surprising new awareness of transcendence, illumination and a sacred connection, as well as their opposites. Nagging big questions of the head are met with an intense search of the heart. Adolescents want their lives to have ultimate purpose, want to contribute, start to see a oneness or unity to life, and tend naturally to perceive a theistic world, whether or not raised within a theistic tradition.

Spiritual Individuation here becomes hard work, at times drawing us inward in an all consuming quest, and can at times be in the form a "half empty" glass of spirituality. This condition in adolescents and emerging adults often show up to mental health providers as developmental depression, unrecognized and sometimes medicated, but has clear roots in natural spiritual formation (Miller et al, 2012, Miller 2013).

The normative process of spiritual individuation in later adolescence is much intensified by confrontation with loss, trauma and life-or-death encounters, accelerating both risk for a downward spiraling depression and opportunity for spiritual growth, as in Post Traumatic Growth (Tsai et al, 2015).

Building the Spiritual Core
Intervention by the US Army Chaplaincy

The above memo identifies the nature and developmental pathways of innate spirituality, its association with thriving and morality, and its foundational role in resilience and recovery from mental illness. This body of relatively recent published science, now to include many hundreds of peer reviewed articles, offers a "blueprint" for intervention to support the Spiritually Fit Soldier by the US Army Chaplaincy.

In brief, the most effective way to support the spiritual core is to intervene during scientifically identified moments of opportunity: 1) adolescent and emerging adult formation, as well as at mid-life, 2) in times of loss, reorientation and trauma, 3) around professional advancement, augmented responsibility and mid-life development.

The US Army Chaplains, who already have the professional and personal expertise on how to deliver spiritual intervention, as well as cultural understanding of the Army soldier, now stand as our most treasured national resource.

Memo Prepared by Lisa Miller, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology & Education, Columbia University