Faith, The VA, and Where are We Now?
The Question: Faith, the VA, and Where are We Now?
In mid 2016, at the height of the Trump / Clinton 2016 elections, I was invited by my friend and colleague Lt. General “Jerry” Boykin to a Washington DC town hall meeting hosted by the Retired American Warriors PAC in order to ask then Candidate Donald Trump a question that was very important to me personally, as well as the entire veteran community. Representing 23,000,000 of our Nation’s veterans, I addressed Candidate Trump with this question regarding a Veterans Administration under a President Trump administration:
“Good morning Mr. Trump. As you mentioned, there is a tragic suicide epidemic among our veterans, among our military and their families. While the military and the VA are working on the problem, their efforts continue to fall short. There are several faith-based programs outside the DoD and the VA that are continuing to be successful in stopping suicide and divorce rates.
“Spiritual fitness works on these types of problems. The government is not taking advantage of these programs and services. So, my question for you is, when you become president, will you support and fund a more holistic approach to solve the problems and issues of veteran suicide, PTSD, TBI, and other related military mental and behavioral health issues, and will you take steps to restore the historic role of our Chaplains and the importance of spiritual fitness and spiritual resiliency programs?”
Why That Question?
Some might ask if given the opportunity to present a question to the future President of the United States, why would I ask that question? The easy answer is that I know faith-based programs work. My family is a 3-generation family of Marines; my father was an Infantry Marine and Vietnam Veteran who struggled his whole life with PTSD until his lonely death in 2016, my son who is an ANGLICO Marine deployed to Afghanistan, and I was a Force Recon Marine and DoD contractor who served 8 deployments to Afghanistan and returned home with a diagnosis of PTSD, faced a near divorce and overcame an overwhelming battle with suicide.
When nothing else worked for me, a renewal of my Christian faith did, and it also lit a fire in me to share the restoration, hope and new life purpose I found with other warriors who were struggling the same way. It was this desire to pay it forward, to share “the solution”, that led me to found the Mighty Oaks Foundation, where we have served tens of thousands of active duty, veterans and spouses with intensive faith-based peer-to-peer programs. I know faith programs work because I witness the failure of clinical programs at the VA on a daily basis.
Under President Bush’s administration, every VA Department had an office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives with successful faith programs that were offered as an alternative to clinical options. In 2008, President Obama’s administration took over and renamed the office “Faith and Community Alternative Programs” and funding, originally directed to the faith initiative, was diverted to community initiatives.
Religious offices were “rebranded” as community organizing offices, and many previously staffed positions for faith programs are understaffed or left unfilled such as the position of US Religious Liberty Ambassador that remained unstaffed for 7 of the 8 years President Obama was in office. These changes, amid thousands of veterans suffering from combat trauma issues, led to the treatment for PTSD shifting primarily to a clinical style of treatment. A system that has failed those who have given everything for us.
Over the past 15 years, the VA and DoD have stood up over 1,200 clinical programs to deal with an epidemic of combat trauma, PTSD and suicide in our veteran community. When these efforts began, the suicide rate was 16 a day, yet today it is over 20! After 15 years and billions of dollars, the situation is only worse and our military warriors and their families deserve a solution.
Why’d I ask that question? Because the VA has targeted the mind and body to fix a soul wound. Meanwhile, in the void, many faith-based VSOs (Veteran Service Organizations) are finding incredible success. I asked the question because it is important that we bring faith programs back as an option for our active military and veteran community. Not to replace clinical care, but to either work alongside or provide an alternative means of treatment that has proven success.
Candidate Trump’s answer was clear, “Yes, I would”. However, he continued… I think everyone who wasn’t there must understand. Love or hate Donald Trump… no one can contest, the President loves and adores the men and women of the United States Military. So, he continued on as to why it was such an important topic and in doing so tried to compliment the military saying,
“When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat and they see things that may be a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over and you’re strong and you can handle it,” he said. “But a lot of people can’t handle it.”
The media went into a frenzy and within hours, anti-Trump media outlets headlined stories such as “Trump Calls Veterans with PTSD Weak”.
I was pulled aside by General Boykin and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council who moderated the event, and they informed me of the news and headlines. I asked if I could provide a statement of response to the Associated Press (general statement for all media???). My response, “I asked the question, I was satisfied with his answer, and I think it’s sickening that anyone would twist Mr. Trump’s comments to me to pursue a political agenda.”
Everyone chimed in to attack Mr. Trump and his comments. Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, even President Obama joined in to take their shots at then Candidate Trump.
By the end of the day, my inbox was full of both hate mail and media requests from CNN, Fox and every other outlet you could imagine. I decided it would be in my best interest to pick one media outlet that I thought would be fair and allow me to shed truth on my question and Candidate Trump’s answer. I selected Fox News, The O’Reilly Factor with Bill O’Reilly and went on to set the record straight. I asked the question, I was satisfied with his answer… and Mr. Trump in no way insulted the strength of our military warriors.
Where Are We Now?
In the early morning hours after the 2016 election results, not expecting a reply, I sent General Mike Flynn a text message congratulating him, the President and the Trump Campaign team. To my shock, I received an immediate text back,
“Thank you, Chad. And thank you for your support. I will be contacting you in a few days for your help with our veterans.”
Even though I was honored, humbled and blown away at the reply, I did not expect that in a few days I would actually get a call from General Flynn to invite me on the as part of the new Administrations’ VA Transition Team to invest in rebuilding faith programming into the VA. I wrote a white paper and prepared for my first meeting in DC in February 2017, which is where I would see for the first time the uphill battle the Trump administration would face.
Our meeting to collaborate with General Flynn was interrupted by accusations that would later lead to General Flynn’s resignation. I submitted my work to the transition team, but would not be connected or involved moving forward.
Since that time, I have continued to see faith solutions be made available to our Warriors through my work at Mighty Oaks Foundation and as a veterans’ advocate impacting the lives of over 100,000 military service members. Most recently I testified before congress, and am scheduled to do so again next month, as well as a briefing to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.
In March of 2019, the President signed an Executive Order named the Veteran Wellness, Empowerment and Suicide Prevention Task Force which focused on funding all options to bring solutions to veteran care. On the surface this is good news for everyone involved, however what we are seeing is more funds available to double down on the clinical care that hasn’t worked.
Secretary Wilkie has a big job on his hands with many going to the VA for answers, hope, healing and a new life beyond military service. Meanwhile, outside the VA there are 43,000 VSOs, many faith-based and many with successful programs ready to serve the VA and ultimately these warriors.
Since founding Mighty Oaks Foundation in 2011, my team and I have served the active duty military through Resiliency Programs on military installations, as well as offering 1-week intensive faith-based trauma programs at our four ranches in Ca, Oh, Va & Tx active military, veterans and spouses. Each year we host 30 of these peer-to-peer “Legacy Programs” all at NO COST, to include travel, to active duty, veterans and spouses.
To date we have reached over 150,000 active duty with our Resiliency Programs and graduated 3,150 from our Legacy Program and have donate over 100,000 books that I have authored. The impact of our success at Mighty Oaks have documented evidential records of success through independent doctoral longitudinal studies out performing like clinical trials.
Those of us advocating for faith solutions for warriors are not suggesting to replace clinical treatments. We are saying that when a service member or veteran seeks help they should have options and choice, and the success of faith solutions make it a valid option for treatment. It isn’t an “either / or”, but can often be an “and” working together to bring the warrior to a holistic healing of mind, body and spirit.
Veteran PTS and the 22 a day suicide is a HUGE problem, but there is a solution through programs like the Mighty Oaks Foundation. Rest assured that I and others will not concede in this mission, and ask for America’s support and prayer in upcoming visits to congress, the VA and hopefully full circle back to President Trump. America needs our warriors who have served to be back in the fight for this nation, but for many of them they need us first.
Chad M. Robichaux, BCPC, MBA is a Force Recon Marine and Afghanistan Veteran. He is also the author of “An Unfair Advantage”, and Founder and President of the Mighty Oaks Foundation.
All photos provided by Chad Robichaux. Featured photo: Chad as a Recon Marine in the Middle East.