Web Content Display Web Content Display


The Army Lawyer


The Effects of Stress



  PDF Version
(Credit: istockphoto.com Luca ola)

Web Content Display Web Content Display

“I’m stressed, Chaplain.” And so the conversation begins. As an Army chaplain, I often hear this phrase, coming from those in line units to those who spend much of their time behind a desk.

Yet, stress is not always bad; it depends how it affects the individual. A certain event can affect one individual positively while that same event can have a negative effect on another. In his article “Resilience as a Dynamic Concept,” Michael Rutter lays out this simple concept.1 He says, “Exposure to stresses or adversities may either increase vulnerabilities through a sensitization effect or decrease vulnerabilities through a steeling effect.”2 In other words, stress can either weaken (increase vulnerabilities) or strengthen an individual (have a “steeling” effect).

As a legal professional, you face different stressors that can have either a debilitating effect or a steeling effect. One of the keys in developing resiliency is recognizing when stress or a stressor begins to take you down this negative path.

Opportunities abound for stress to have this eroding effect in and out of the courtroom. The emotional investment in a trial that ends in defeat, the pressure of too much work with too little time, and being beholden to multiple bosses with sometimes competing interests all play a part. It is common to experience significant vicarious trauma by direct or indirect exposure to graphic pictures, testimony, and other unsettling aspects of investigations and trials. It is normal for these experiences to bother people, and some things are hard to “un-see” or “un-hear.”

Other stressors may occur at the tactical level. A combat deployment may leave negative emotional residue from those involved with ground combat operations to those primarily involved with operations from the relative safety of a tactical operations center. For example, those involved in targeting are not exempt from emotional or mental trauma, especially when the operation goes awry or upon seeing graphic aerial footage of the aftermath of a strike, whether or not it went as planned. Residual guilt or grief associated with taking a life, no matter how justified, is common.

Then, there is day-to-day stress that cuts across all professions: long work days, relationship issues, financial problems, parenting concerns, and career direction, just to name a few. Sometimes it is the accumulation of smaller burdens that begin to weigh an individual down.

So what to do? Many resources and approaches to dealing with stress and trauma are available for Soldiers. A resource that almost every Army judge advocate and paralegal have at their disposal is their unit chaplain. An Army chaplain’s role is to “perform or provide and coordinate religious support to the Army.”3 If a chaplain is not able to perform the support needed, then they will “coordinate to provide for required ministrations which they cannot personally perform.”4 This might entail assisting with the coordination of a chaplain that is of the client’s faith, navigating behavioral health resources if the client needs or wants to explore this option, or searching for another approach to support the client’s needs. However, the chaplain cannot command or force a client to utilize another resource; the client is always in control of their choices.

Additionally, chaplains have confidentiality backed by military law and Army regulation. Military Rule of Evidence 503, Communications to Clergy, General Rule Of Privilege states, “A person has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent another from disclosing a confidential communication by the person to a clergyman or a clergyman’s assistant, if such communication is made either as a formal act of religion or as a matter of conscience.”5 Army Regulation 165-1, para. 4-4 additionally states,

A privileged communication is defined as any communication to a chaplain or chaplain assistant given as a formal act of religion or as a matter of conscience. It is communication that is made in confidence to a chaplain acting as a spiritual advisor or to a chaplain assistant aiding a spiritual advisor. Also, it is not intended to be disclosed to third persons other than those to whom disclosure furthers the purpose of the communication or to those reasonably necessary for the transmission of the communication.6

If an individual goes to a chaplain and establishes confidentiality (“chaplain, can we talk privately and confidentially”), that conversation remains confidential. The chaplain may not share the communication with a commander, a supervisor, or anyone else.7 Additionally, a chaplain does not have to keep a physical record of a counseling session. Sometimes a chaplain does keeps notes (which they must keep locked away), such as in the instance of multiple counseling sessions with the same client, but no rule requires note-keeping. Personally, I always ask permission before I write anything down in a counseling session, and if the client is not comfortable with that, I do not take notes.

A Lawyer’s Dilemma

Some people challenge the extent of confidentiality. A question sometimes asked is this: “What about going to a chaplain with a burden that involves classified, privileged, or sensitive information?” Lawyers are rightly concerned with following the rules of professional responsibility governing their conduct and not revealing information that could violate those rules. If lawyers would like to seek a chaplain’s guidance on stress or other issues that may entail referencing or directly speaking to the chaplain about privileged information, they can share what is bothering them without going into the details (such as specific names or events) that may potentially compromise their own professional obligations.

Course of Action

Get to know unit chaplains by stopping by their offices or asking them to do PT (yes, make them literally sweat!). When experiencing difficulty, ask a chaplain if they would be willing to consult, professional to professional, on some matters. Most chaplains have office hours, but many, if not most, can also meet when it best suits the client, even if that means outside the normal workday or at a location outside the chaplain’s office such as a coffee shop or chapel.

Lastly, the chaplain can be a resource for clients and their Families, as long as they are considered Department of Defense dependents. Judge advocates can direct their clients to their respective unit or instillation chaplain as a confidential outlet.


As judge advocates and paralegals face stress, they have two options: will stress steal some resiliency or will it have a “steeling” effect? If the stress of life is having a negative effect, speaking to an Army chaplain is one of the many resources a Soldier can turn to in those moments. TAL


Chaplain (MAJ) Sheets is the Command Chaplain at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, Charlottesville, Virginia.


1. Michael Rutter, Resilience as a Dynamic Concept, 24 Dev. & Psychopathology 335-44 (2012).

2. Id.

3. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Field Manual 1-05, Religious Support 1-5 (Jan. 2019).

4. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 165-1, Army Chaplain Corps Activities para. 3-2 (23 June 2015) [hereinafter AR 165-1].

5. Manual for Courts-Martial, United States, Mil. R. Evid. III-23 (2019).

6. AR 165-1, supra note 4, para. 4-4.

7. Id. para. 3-4.