As part of the federal government, the U.S. military must tread carefully, both discursively and practically, in its use of religiously charged language and materials. One of its official mandates is to demonstrate strict neutrality, like any other appendage of the government. What does this neutrality look and sound like? To find out, we gathered images and sounds at various 2015 Memorial Day services. We also interviewed Carla Cherry, a chaplain at Columbus’s VA Hospital. The interview was conducted in Chaplain Cherry’s office at the VA Hospital on June 3rd 2015. In the interview, which lasted for about an hour, she shared several important insights about her experiences working with veterans and returning soldiers.
Chaplain Cherry began by discussing her appointment as the chaplain at the VA hospital in 2010. As a “fellow veteran,” her service in the navy (she retired in 2009) has assisted her tremendously in dealing with veterans and returning soldiers. She described veterans as “a unique group” and related that many veterans and returning soldiers find it hard to talk openly about their experiences in the military. Therefore, she is careful not to pressure patients to talk about their religious experiences if they are not willing. According to her, the military is expected both to “serve the spiritual needs” of all those under its wing and to create an environment in which no one feels offended or excluded.
Military chaplains such as Carla Cherry play key roles in helping patients cope with post-war traumatic experiences by coordinating with other religious communities and institutions around Columbus. A shocking statistic she shared with us was that “every 65 minutes a veteran commits suicide.” She expressed her commitment to doing everything she could to reduce that number and make transitions easier for former soldiers.