Written by Guest Writer
Chaplain (MAJ) Lisa A. Northway
Edited by Audra Edwards
The Dark Road of Going It Alone
As an active duty Family Life Chaplain in the United States Army, the phrase I hear most often from military spouses in distress is: “I don’t want to get my husband in trouble, but I know we can’t go on like we are now.” Not surprisingly, the spouse’s situation often coincides with a desperate isolation and lack of spiritual and holistic wellbeing. The cultural shame of various addictions combined with the shock of discovery that one’s service member is unable or unwilling to keep integrity and trust in their marriage drives many of our military spouses into further seclusion and disengagement from their community.
At times, this “unwellness” in military marriages can be stark and obvious. In one particular situation I encountered, the service member had put a tracker on the family car for safety concerns. The spouse checked the tracker app after repeated evenings where her service member stated he was working late. The spouse eventually and easily deduced that her husband had multiple hotel meetups with women he did not know well or at all. In another instance, a military spouse I was counseling contacted me, stating she could not keep her appointment with me because her husband had taken her military ID from her before he went to work that day. With her permission, we had his First Sergeant bring him to the gate and escorted both the service member and the spouse to get her a new ID card.
Sometimes, lack of fidelity or trust in military marriages and disorderly conduct or addiction problems escalate to very real and dangerous situations for the family and even fellow service members. At that point, a commander or leader might call on someone like me in order to co-create a sustainable plan to get the service member back on track and the family surrounded by a healthy community and support system.
Finding Spiritual Wellbeing
As a Family Life Chaplain, (with a spouse’s or service member’s permission), I will often observe that military couple’s interests and needs and then match them with a marriage mentor and/or encourage them to get involved in spiritual organizations and communities such as Protestant or Catholic Women of the Chapel (PWOC/CWOC), Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS), or a men’s faith group. By helping military couples begin to build positive community around themselves, I typically see service members and spouses go from barely surviving to eventually thriving in a generally short amount of time. The secret to this success is to help military families look after their own wellbeing by finding spiritual “battle buddies.”
In the ancient wisdom of my own faith tradition, there are two verses which speak to the spiritual battle buddy concept. Ecclesiastes, chapter four, verses 9-10 (NLT) reads: “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.”
One of the ways the United States Army supports military community wellness is through a new model called Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F). Each branch of the military has a similar model, but H2F consists of five domains or pillars of wellness:
- Mental Readiness: the ability to meet the mental demands of combat or duty position
- Sleep Readiness: the ability to implement the requisite sleep principles and behaviors to support optimal brain function.
- Nutritional Readiness: the ability to recognize, select, and consume the requisite food and drink to meet the physical and non-physical demands of any duty or combat
- Spiritual Readiness: the development of personal qualities needed to sustain a person in times of stress, hardship, and tragedy
- Physical Readiness: the ability to meet the physical demands of any duty or combat and accomplish the mission
The Spiritual Readiness domain can be found in the Army Field Manual, FM 7-22, Chapter 10 and offers this extended definition:
“Spiritual readiness develops the personal qualities a person needs in times of stress, hardship, and tragedy … from religious, philosophical, or human values … It applies to both religious and non-religious persons and concepts.”
FM 7-22 Oct 2020 Change 1 Section 10-1
As one of those five pillars of holistic wellness, Spiritual Readiness is considered just as important as physical fitness or combat training for our military members of any faith or spiritual lifestyle and contributes equally to their effectiveness in defending our nation. Finding social networks that will support that spiritual wellbeing and hold us accountable helps make sure that pillar won’t crumble."One of the most rewarding pieces of feedback I’ve received from a military spouse or couple is: 'Chaplain, thank you for supporting me and connecting me to my military community; I don’t think I’d still be here without your… Click To Tweet
Wing Woman for Life
While conducting my Chaplain Candidate training at the Presidio of Monterey, California in 2004, the female chaplain of my faith denomination mentored me on the power of intentionally addressing our overall wellness by connecting with peers in a healthy, non-judgmental environment. She encouraged me – especially when on assignment apart from my husband – to make a habit of connecting with military spouses who are spiritually thriving. Nearly 20 years later, I not only adhere to that wisdom of finding spiritual battle buddies, but I regularly point the way to others seeking spiritually safe places to gather with others.
After I first arrived in Alaska in the summer of 2019 to serve with an Air Force-led chaplaincy, I soon discovered I was the only active-duty woman military chaplain in the state. I also had a lot to learn regarding how the Air Force wanted things done. The feeling of isolation was very real.
Before the end of that summer, however, an Air Force chaplain sister joined the team. Her partnership quickly proved invaluable to me professionally, as she understood the importance of what I call military adulting, (asking for what you need and some things that you want, so you don’t have regrets for not doing so later), and kept me accountable in practicing this military adulting in the workplace. We also co-hosted a Sunday evening chapel service together and facilitated several groundbreaking wellness and “soul care” events for women in the military community. I understood the value of my wing woman, (as I affectionately called her), and I understood that we were helping others gain those spiritual support systems and find community of their own.
Over the course of my three years in Alaska, our dynamic professional partnership led to an enduring friendship. When my dog unexpectedly died, my chaplain sister dropped everything to meet me at the animal hospital, staying with me until I was emotionally coherent enough to drive home. On one of my darkest professional days, when my mission and authority had been relentlessly attacked, she provided me with a safe spiritual and relational space and challenged me not to lump all the things together when it seemed everything was going wrong.
While my friend and I are now geographically separated, we still find ways to keep our connection strong. Last year, she discovered I was in the area and drove three hours just to share a meal. We both welcome the opportunity to serve together again but take heart that the foundation of our friendship is stronger than the miles are far.
Be the Spiritual Battle Buddy You Would Want!
I encourage you to be the one who makes the difference for another military community sister. One of the most rewarding pieces of feedback I’ve received from a military spouse or couple is: “Chaplain, thank you for supporting me and connecting me to my military community; I don’t think I’d still be here without your intervention!”
Whether or not you ever need a Family Life Chaplain or are convinced that you, too, could benefit from a spiritual battle buddy, I wholeheartedly encourage you to be the friend you would want on both your worst and your best days! Military spouses who are actively cultivating their own spiritual wellness are some of the fiercest combat multipliers in the military community! Trying to journey through the trials of military life without a spiritual battle buddy can leave us quickly seeing the shortcomings of even the best of resiliency plans. May you find along your journey, therefore, a friend without whom you would never want to have to do life, leadership, and service. Be the bridge builder for someone needing healthy community while allowing others to do that for you in your time of need.
- Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: Building Resilience in a Challenging Institutional Context by Rhonda Cornum Headquarters, Department of the Army, Michael D. Matthews, United States Military Academy at West Point, and Martin E. P. Seligman. January 2011. Accessed on March 15, 2022.
- U.S. Army H2F Holistic Health and Fitness Soldier Readiness System Handbook by Center for Army Lessons Learned. June 2023. Accessed on August 24, 2023.
Family Life Chaplains have the same or similar degree as our military psychologists and behavioral health professionals, but they are the only caregivers who can provide 100% confidentiality as well as relationship and family counseling. In addition, service members or spouses do not need to be religiously-affiliated to make use of the support of any chaplain. For more information on Family Life Chaplains and how their support might help your military family, visit the website of your nearest military installation or check out the resources found on Military OneSource or Army.mil.
Chaplain Lisa Northway has been a member of the U.S. Army Chaplaincy for over 35 years, serving in all three COMPOs. She served as a Chaplain Assistant (71M), Chaplain Candidate, and a Chaplain since 2005. She has been a Family Life Chaplain since 2016. Lisa is currently serving as the Garrison Chaplain for Fort Sill, Oklahoma. You can contact her at: email@example.com.
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