Chaplains are there for members and their families in ways truly unique from other people in their lives. They are mentors, advisors, and spiritual counselors to the Coast Guard workforce. They also play a critical role in suicide prevention.
To highlight the invaluable role the Chaplains play, Chaplain Jim Dewey of Sector Detroit sat down with MyCG as a representative of the 44 Coast Guard chaplains assigned to the Coast Guard. This interview sheds light on the work chaplains do and gives insight for those who may be curious about chaplains and what they offer in ways of assistance. Even better, they assist everyone within the Coast Guard family—active duty members, reservists, civilians, and families are all included.
MyCG: How would you describe the role of chaplain to someone who is completely new to the Coast Guard, or who has never heard of a chaplain before?
Chaplain Dewey: This is actually something I talk about all the time, as I am part of the check-in process for newly reporting members at Sector Detroit and Air Station Detroit. There is a preconceived notion that we [chaplains] talk about religion all day or carry a bible around all the time. This just isn’t true. What I tell people is that while I was called by God to this position, really what a chaplain is, is a safe person to talk to outside of their command. Everything you say to a chaplain is 100% confidential—so no one in your command will find out.
MyCG: What are some issues you can come to your chaplain about?
Chaplain Dewey: I talk with most people about day-to-day things, but I can also talk to them about professional problems or personal problems. The most prolific thing I talk about, that I’ve found in my tenure as a chaplain at the Coast Guard, is the transition to military life. It’s hard. You’ve made this decision and I like to check-in with people to see how that transition is going, offering them mentorship throughout this process and other challenges they may face in the military.
MyCG: Can family members come to you too?
Chaplain Dewey: Yes – I am also available to talk with family members, spouses or their children, about whatever they need to talk about. As a chaplain, I am also a confidential resource for them. Nothing we talk about will go to their spouse, for example, or their spouse’s command unless they give me permission.
MyCG: How seriously is confidentiality taken?
Chaplain Dewey: I think I can say all of us chaplains take the confidentiality aspect of our role extremely seriously. As much as I may want a person to take my advice or listen to me, I can’t make them do that. Ultimately the issue belongs to that person. We’re with them on their journey of healing, or dealing with whatever their issue is. It’s not up to me to make them do anything they’re not ready for. That’s why we try to meet people where their at.
MyCG: That’s really amazing to hear and I’m so glad you take this aspect of your role seriously. It reassures me that our workforce has an opportunity to be brutally honest when they need to. Could you talk about what a meeting with your chaplain looks like, logistically speaking? I imagine COVID has changed some things.
Chaplain Dewey: Well every command is a little different. The most important thing for me is to develop trust. I am the one person they may be able to talk to, so I do my very best to ensure I am a safe space for them. I take the time to build relationships and then I find that people feel more comfortable texting or calling. I’ve had people call me in the middle of the night, or in the middle of a meeting, and I always answer. What I do is considered pastoral counseling, not therapy.
MyCG: So folks shouldn’t be afraid to lay down on a couch and fill out a bunch of forms?
Chaplain Dewey: Exactly – no one is laying down on a couch unless they want to. Really what I am providing is a safe space. I do try to ask probing questions when needed, but ultimately it is a conversation. My number one thing is that people feel comfortable talking to me – that my office or a conversation with me on the phone is a judgement-free zone.
Of course people come in with their preconceived notions but we’re both really there to talk about whatever they’re interested in talking about. Obviously with COVID my in-person meetings have slowed down, but I always have an open-door policy. I also make it a point to give out as many business cards as possible so individuals can call or text me, which happens quite a bit.
MyCG: The term chaplain obviously has a religious connotation. What would you say to folks who may not be religious themselves? Is the chaplain still a good resource for them?
Chaplain Dewey: Absolutely – yes! I am conscious of who I am and how I look at things. I was obviously called by God to this ministry. However, I always meet people where they are on their faith journey, even if that means not talking about faith at all.
If you want to talk about faith – great. If not, that’s okay too. So even though I am a religious person, I am really there to talk to people about their problems and provide them with the listening ear they may not be getting elsewhere.
MyCG: As you know, September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. What specific suicide resources are available through the chaplains?
Chaplain Dewey: We as chaplains are trained in the [Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training] ASIST program and the SAFE talk program, both of which are specific trainings regarding suicide and suicidal ideation. I’ve seen a number of people who realize [they’re] getting to the point where thoughts of death are more prevalent.
If they allow me and give me their permission, I can help assist them and get them to additional resources, be it through the medical officer or CG SUPRT. I’ve walked people down to the medical officer myself and I am happy to do so. More often, I’m talking with individuals who need help dealing with stress. Many people find that once they talk to me about a problem, it doesn’t seem so insurmountable and talking with say a therapist may not be so hard. There are therapy/counseling resources either through CG SUPRT or medical that can give them additional outside support.
MyCG: Are you considered a mandated reporter, meaning if someone talks to you about an active suicide plan, do you have to call 911?
Chaplain Dewey: No, I am not. There is no boundary to my confidentiality. Whatever is said to me is truly 100% confidential. This can, at times, be a burden. But, I take my role as a confidential resource seriously. My keyword during such conversations is “safe for now” – what can we do together to keep you safe for now?
Of course, I never want anyone to hurt themselves or others. But I am not bound by laws that other people are, so I do not have to report these types of things. Most times I have found that once individuals hear that someone else cares, that someone else is here to help them and cares about their wellbeing, they are ready and able to accept the help they need.
MyCG: What would you say to someone who is on the fence about talking to their chaplain? Maybe they’re nervous. How would you encourage them to pick up the phone and call or text?
Chaplain Dewey: I’ve found that there are a few reasons people are nervous. One is they don’t know how. Well if that’s the case, then I suggest they go online and go to the locate your nearest chaplain website to find the number. Others are nervous their command will find out – well if that’s the case, then I would reassure the person that unless they tell their command or ask their command what the chaplain’s number is, then there is absolutely no way command finds out. Again myself and other chaplains take our vow of confidentiality seriously. Lastly, I would just say, if you’re on the fence about calling – call anyways and just see. We really are a resource and want to be utilized. So just call and see what happens.
MyCG: Thank you so much for your time today Chaplain Dewey and for your candor. Do you have any final thoughts you would want the workforce to know?
Chaplain Dewey: Our calling as chaplains is to care for our service members. “Called to serve” is our motto. And we truly mean it even if someone comes in my office or calls my cell and is the third person with that issue for the day, I treat them as if they’re the first, because in their mind they are the first and this is the most important struggle or challenge they have. It’s new to them, even when it isn’t new to me. So I would just remind people that we are a confidential resource, outside the chain-of-command, who wants to help them succeed and guide them in any way possible.
If you would like to speak to your local chaplain, please use this website to find that person now.