Loyalty Test: The Case of Chaplain Robertson

by Ken Sehested

Originally printed in the 2 March 1994 issue of The Christian Century

      Lieutenant Colonel Garland Robertson is an Air Force chaplain at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas. He is endorsed by the Southern Baptist Convention's chaplaincy office. His military record includes a Distinguished Flying Cross for rescue of a reconnaissance team in Vietnam during the war there. He has commanded a nuclear missile site. A native Mississippian, he is self-effacing, almost shy.

      Despite these conventional contours, Chaplain Robertson is being booted out of the military (pending appeal). He has so threatened superiors that they have resorted to fabricating a psychological exam indicating a dysfunction personality. Stripped of all duties, he has been removed from the chapel offices and sequestered in a windowless, walk-in closet sized room adjacent to the base runway. He now spends his days writing book reviews for a chaplain's resource bureau against the background of B-1B bomber flights. Any day now a Dyess pilot will begin training on the new B2, and Robertson will hear the verdict on his dismissal appeal.

      Robertson, accused of "flouting" the very authority of the President himself,* has made the transition from obscurity to national attention (prompted by a December 21, 1993, feature in The New York Times). His catapult to infamy began with a January 5, 1991, letter to the editor printed in the Abilene Reporter-News. Responding to reporting of former Vice President Day Quayle's speech assuring U.S. troops mobilized to Saudi Arabia that "the American people are behind you," Robertson wrote that the assertion "must be clarified to indicate that the American people are not united in their decision to support a military offensive against the aggression of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait." It was, he thought, a modest attempt to raise the question of justifiable use of deadly force.

      The backdrop to Robertson's desire for public debate stems from several experiences. The first, from his stint as a pilot in Vietnam. After ROTC leadership during his collegiate career at Mississippi State University, Robertson volunteered in 1968 for service in Southeast Asia.

      "I assumed that our leaders were telling us the truth" about the need to support democracy and oppose tyranny in Vietnam, Robertson said in a recent interview. After a year in the area, he came to believe otherwise.

      Robertson resigned from active duty as a line officer in 1976 to pursue a theological degree. In six years he earned both a Master of Divinity and a doctorate in theology from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Wort, Texas. In 1982 he reactivated as an Air Force chaplain. After initial posting in Florida, Robertson assumed chaplaincy duties overseas.

      While in Germany, his patriotic innocence suffered a second setback in the midst of a course in international affairs and foreign policy. He began to see the connections between U.S. appeals to "vital national interests" and the existence of raw materials—like oil—in other parts of the world. Where U.S. intervention abroad had been justified in terms of protecting freedom, he now sensed other motivations.

      Most immediately, however, the urgency of moral questions regarding war in the Persian Gulf was prompted by direct pastoral duties. "Soldiers were asking me in private what I thought about the impending war," Robertson said. "They had troubled consciences. They wanted to know if [fighting this war] was right."

      Robertson was aware that leaders of many Christian bodies were publicly examining the morality of a potential war. A number were arguing—rightfully, he thought—that a U.S. military engagement with Iraq could not as yet be justified according to the traditional criteria of just war theory. So, out of a sense of pastoral duty, he wrote his fateful four-paragraph letter. Although he identified himself as a Dyess AFB chaplain, he omitted his rank, judging that such an omission would satisfy Air Force regulations regarding public statements.

      He knew the letter would raise objections, but the resulting furor caught him by surprise. As revealed in documents produced and testimony provided at his September 1993 Board of Inquiry disciplinary hearing, Air Force superiors engaged in a relentless campaign to intimidate Robertson in hopes of forcing him out of the service. The Air Force psychologist responsible for authoring two of the three evaluations of Robertson testified that the wing leadership "wanted his head."* When an initial psychological examination produced no evidence of mental dysfunction, a second was ordered, and then a third. The very psychologist who provided him a clean bill of health the first time reversed his decision with the third, concluding that Robertson exhibited a "personality disorder so severe as to interfere with the normal and customary completion of his duties."* What's more, this latter evaluation was made without an examination, breaching the most elementary rules of conduct for the profession.

      A civilian employee testified that her former boss, the senior chaplain at Dyess, had taken her aside after one Sunday morning service "to tell me he had to get Chaplain Robertson out of the service. Chaplain Elwell went on to tell me that this task must be accomplished by a certain date . . . so that he [Robertson] would not be entitled to full retirement benefits." It seemed evident, she said that he "had been told that part of his job was to remove Chaplain Robertson."*

      Robertson was soon removed from the chapel's preaching schedule rotation "until the completion of Desert Shield/Desert Storm"* (and, later in the year, removed permanently). The Dyess wing commander indicated he would manage Robertson "as an officer can not as a chaplain."* His orders to relocate to Germany in preparation for the arrival of expected casualties from the Persian Gulf were canceled. One by one his other pastoral duties were withdrawn: leadership of the base chapel choir, special educational classes, even Bible study and prayer services with those detained at the base stockade. Later, a full-scale inquiry by the Office of Special Investigations was instigated. Robertson was cleared of a mysterious charge of fraud.

      At one point an officer from the Chief of Chaplains office in Washington, D.C., paid a visit. "He indicated that compromise was essential for becoming a successful military chaplain," Robertson said. "I suggested that 'cooperation' was the more suitable word, but he quickly confirmed his intentional use of 'compromise.'

      "'If Jesus had been an Air Force chaplain,' he told me, 'he would have been court-martialed.' But he said that compromise is necessary in order to maintain a presence." His meaning was as certain as it was unacceptable, said Robertson. In a letter to Air Force Secretary Widnall, Robertson says, "If this senior command chaplain is correct—that compromise is necessary to survive in the Air Force as a chaplain—then reveal this restriction. The Air Force maintains that chaplains are free to proclaim and practice their witness without fear of reprisal. . . . It is important that we not deceive persons who look to chaplains for assistance in spiritual growth and faith development."

      Maybe the most painful part for Chaplain Robertson in this unfolding drama is the lack of support from fellow chaplains. A letter from the Chief of Chaplains office indicated that Robertson was on his own in this affair. Fellow chaplains at Dyess were supportive at first, but the support waned as pressure mounted. The senior chaplain even went to the trouble of rewriting the official statement of mission of Air Force chaplains, adding to the duty of "providing free exercise of religion" the qualifying statement ". . . consonant with 96th Wing Commander directives."* (The editing was later reversed.) Chaplains, in other words, were to function as morale officers in the service of command directives. (Incidentally, military chaplains accompanying troops deployed to Saudi Arabia were given the functional description of "morale officers" for that action, although this designation was later removed.)

      In a February 1993 letter to officials at the National Council of Churches, Robertson wrote: "No minister of a faith community can comfortably encourage anyone to follow the direction of the state as a way to be at peace with God. By functioning as a morale officer, the chaplain only succeeds in encouraging soldiers to accept the preferences of the state without question."

      Thus far, however, Robertson has maintained private support and official recognition of his certifying agency, along with the very public support of a Southern Baptist congregation in Abilene.

      "We are supporting Chaplain Robertson, and we have no intention of revoking his endorsement," said Rev. Lewis Burnett, director of military chaplaincy for the Southern Baptist Convention, in a telephone interview.

      According to Burnett, himself a former Army chaplain, the controversy regarding Robertson could have been resolved much earlier if both Robertson and the Chief of Chaplains office had handled the situation differently. "I don't necessarily agree with the way [Robertson] handled the situation, but I fully respect his sincerity and convictions." And, he continued, the Air Force's senior chaplaincy should have involved themselves sooner and more forcefully as mediators.

      "Garland is the kind of person who stands up for his convictions, and that sometimes hurts him," Burnett said in The New York Times article. However, he did express hope that the Secretary of the Air Force will overturn the Board of Inquiry's recommendation and that Robertson will be reinstated or at least discharged with full benefits.

      Members of Second Baptist Church in Abilene, however, have been more vocal. Shortly after Robertson's case became known last September, the pastor, Rev. Ron Linebarger—himself an Army veteran—called the church into a business meeting and voted "overwhelmingly" to use all available means to support Robertson. Though none of them have met Robertson, the decision of the congregation was announced in a news conference where Linebarger announced that the church wished to "applaud [Robertson] for taking a stand," and expressed the fear that the he was being "railroaded," according to a front page story in the Abilene Reporter-News (September 11, 1993).

      Actually, the precise case against Robertson is itself a source of contention. After his original letter to the editor, the Dyess base commander issued a formal reprimand, citing him with abrogation of Regulation 110-2, on "Political Activities of Members of the Air Force, a charge leading to court-martial proceedings under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (Article 92). One section of that regulation (5-g) notes Air Force members may "Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper expressing the member's personal views concerning public issues, if those views do not attempt to promote a partisan political cause."

      The issue of Robertson's letter to the editor was also highlighted in comments from the Chief of Chaplains office in Washington, D.C. According to Chaplain Lorraine Potter, the chief of plans and programs for the Air Force Chief of Chaplains quoted in The New York Times article, "The argument is not what he said but that he used his position to express political or controversial issues." In a follow-up phone call, Colonel Potter indicated she was under orders to make no further comment at present.

      However, according to the Air Force's own case against Robertson, heard by the Board of Inquiry (BOI) last September, the seditious letter to the editor was in fact declared "irrelevant."

      Three allegations ("Statement of Reasons") were brought to the BOI administrative hearing. The first, that Robertson was "disrespectful in words and actions towards his immediate superior. . . ." Second, that his "leadership skills were below standard." Third, that he was diagnosed as "having a personality disorder."

      After hearing extensive testimony, the BOI threw out two of the three allegations against Robertson—those of "disrespect" and personality disorder. The remaining charge of substandard leadership was sustained, along with the recommendation of an honorable discharge.

      The one allegation upheld by the BOI was substantiated by an annual evaluation, written in April 1991, noting that Robertson's "leadership style produced minimal results."* This marked a radical reversal, however, from his previous assessment, where he was characterized as "an outstanding pastoral chaplain, always eager to help others and consistently displays industriousness, conscientiousness and diligence in his ministry."* The same senior chaplain and base commander wrote and approved both reports.

      The allegation was further contradicted by the sworn statements of two parish council members of the Dyess AFB chapel community, one of whom testified that she felt "that [Robertson] was being censored. . . . [I]f our chapel is going to be the type of chapel where our chaplains are going to be told what they can and what they cannot say when they come before the flock, then we may as well disband the chaplaincy."*

      Responding to Robertson's appeal of an Officer Performance Report, the Air Force Judge Advocate wrote, in part, that "What the applicant characterizes as pastoral, fairly falls under the characterization of political activity."*

      Robertson responds that it is Air Force authorities, not he, who are engaging in political activity in their recommendation of dismissal. He wonders whether federal funds are being used to turn the chaplaincy "into an agency promoting a kind of civil religion. If the power of the state is unrestricted, then those of us who minister to members of the military forces are guilty of sacrificing the souls of our comrades on the altar of nationalism."

      Moreover—and more importantly, insists Robertson—the very integrity of the military chaplaincy is at stake in this case. His appointed legal advocate agreed. In a final summary statement, Air Force Captain Shaun Riley argues:

      "Discharging Chaplain Robertson would not only be a gross injustice to him and his family, but will also call the constitutional legitimacy of the military chaplaincy into question in subsequent actions. If the government discharges chaplains who refuse to compromise their religious beliefs, speech and teachings to appease military commanders, we will . . . have created a religious body, under federal salary, that exists soley to support government policy and objectives. Yes, this is government establishment of religion in its purest form."

      Robertson is convinced that if the military chaplaincy is to retain any semblance of its Gospel mandate—if its function is to be more than that of morale officers supporting command decisions and U.S. foreign policy directives—then it must be demilitarized. The religious agencies will certify their respective chaplains must "reclaim their pastoral offices" and must be free to speak to the points where religious convictions and command directives collide, said Robertson. This means chaplains must come under the direct employment of their sponsoring bodies and must serve without the privilege of rank.

      The Air Force Secretary's decision is due any day now. She can choose to reverse the Board of Inquiry's judgment of an honorable discharge without pension ($29,000 annually in Robertson's case). Her decision could be significant in answering Robertson's fundamental question:

      "Are we ministers of the state or of the church of Jesus Christ?"

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*Quotes so noted are taken from the transcript of testimony of the 16-17 September 1993 Air Force Regulation 36-2 Board of Inquiry, an administrative hearing presided over by three Air Force Colonels to collect evidence and rule on the Dyess Air Force base commander's recommendation of honorable discharge for Chaplain Garland Robertson. This article was based on a personal interview with Chaplain Robertson, January 17-18, 1994, at Dyess Air Force Base.

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org