AFRC Chaplain Corps uses scientific research to increase resiliency among Reserve Citizen Airmen

Courtesy Graphic

Courtesy Graphic

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- In December 2016, Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Dondi Costin, the Air Force’s chief of chaplains, launched a new campaign to encourage Airmen and their families to explore faith, not just as a religious option, but also as a health and resilience tool.

The campaign, Faith Works, is based on a body of research demonstrating the positive effects religion and spirituality can have on improving health in every domain: physical, mental, social and spiritual. Working hand in hand with the Air Force’s mission to increase resiliency and health among the force, Faith Works offers a new perspective on an old technique, focusing on the tangible, earth-bound benefits associated with developing and practicing a strong faith, religion or spirituality.

To understand and bolster resiliency among Airmen, the Air Force developed the Comprehensive Airman Fitness framework, a model that recognizes four domains, or pillars, of individual personal health contributing to resiliency: physical, mental, social and spiritual. Although the foundations for each individual’s pillars must be constructed internally, there are organizations in the Air Force to help Airmen strengthen each pillar; the chaplain corps and Faith Works do just that for the spiritual pillar. In fact, it might just strengthen the other pillars, too.

Faith Works is inspired predominately by the works of Dr. Tyler VanderWeele of the Harvard School of Public Health and Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health. Through their research, they have identified physical evidence linking the practice of faith and religion to individual resiliency.

One example from VanderWeele’s research shows that Americans who attend religious services at least once a week have a 20 percent to 30 percent reduced mortality rate over a 15-year period. In terms of mental health, regular church-goers also demonstrate more optimism and lower rates of depression.

“As professionals in the chaplain corps, we have always known millions of anecdotes about how faith works,” said Senior Master Sgt. Adam Swift, superintendent of the Chaplain Candidate Intensive Internship at Air Force Reserve Command. “Now we have the solid evidence to back up those stories.”

Faith Works is not a program or an evangelical mission. Rather, it is a campaign providing chaplains, commanders and individual members a set of tools to discuss and research faith-based issues and to frame solutions to general life issues in a faith-based context.

Costin points out that Faith Works “gives commanders more of what they want for their Airmen (healthier relationships, coping skills, resilience, etc.) and less of what they don’t want (sexual assault, domestic violence, suicide, etc.).”

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) James Danford, one of the chaplains here, explained that discussing faith-centric issues via scientifically supported evidence removes much of the stigma surrounding discussions about religion. This allows the chaplain corps to engage with Airmen who may be more skeptical of religion and helps leaders and decision-makers understand the importance of the chaplaincy, especially in matters of resiliency.

The campaign also provides commanders a tool-set with which to engage their Airmen. By focusing on the research, commanders can address the positive aspects of religion without forcing a particular religion or viewpoint. In Danford’s opinion, spiritually strong Airmen, in turn, tend to be strong assets to their units and commanders.

Within AFRC, chaplains have been using Faith Works to launch discussions with Reserve Citizen Airmen during drill weekends. Not only have they been able to engage with individuals, but many have also been able to take time at unit training assemblies to talk about various issues from a faith-based perspective. And it appears to be working.

Since June, the AFRC chaplain’s office had recorded 298 counseling cases in its traditional Reserve units alone. Ninety-two percent of these cases were self-referrals, and many of them were helped with only one counseling session. These high numbers reflect an increasing comfort Reserve Citizen Airmen have with religion and its potential to assist them in their everyday struggles.

Reservists who would like further information on Faith Works should contact their servicing chaplain’s office. The #FaithWorksUSAF handle can also be searched and used on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.