As any Soldier can attest, initial-entry training is where service members become equipped to face the challenges ahead, but for many of the Advanced Initial Training students at A Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne), that equipping is spiritual as well as physical and mental.
Capt. Matthew Atkins, the battalion's chaplain, took 30 students for the weekend of Feb. 10-12 to Victory Ranch in Eastover, S.C., for what he called a Spiritual Disciplines Retreat.
Sgt. 1st Class Mario Franco and Sgt. Katrina Hendrickson, both of A Company, also attended, as did Maj. Vaioa Leau, the 1st SWTG(A) chaplain, and her assistant Sgt. Adrien Rauls. The weekend-long event, which consisted of rest, team-building, and spiritual teaching, was a first for the company.
The term retreat may carry a stigma among modern service members (most prefer the phrase break contact), so as a theme for the weekend, Brian Hutchens, director of Victory Ranch, cited this definition for the word: "a deliberate, planned withdrawal from the battle lines to rest, refit, reorganize, and retrain so that you can re-enter the battle refreshed and renewed, able to defeat the enemy."
"We at times need to withdraw to a safe place spiritually to rest in the Lord, get more spiritual training, and reorganize our efforts to be accomplishing the mission our Lord has given us," Hutchens said. He and Atkins used this and the theme of rest and renewal to fuel the weekend's teachings on personal spiritual disciplines.
Devotional services were interspersed with home-style meals and team-building activities. However, as with much of their training, the students were expected to take initiative to develop their own spiritual habits. Materials were provided containing plans for reading scripture, and the sessions emphasized setting aside time for private worship. "Prayerfully consider how to be intentional about spending time in the word," Atkins told the students.
"We do a great deal to prepare Soldiers tactically and technically, but precious little to prepare folks spiritually for the rigors of combat and life," Atkins said. "This retreat was born from that desire."
The event was open to Soldiers of all faiths, although the content and messages were Christian in nature.
"Chaplains are required to meet the needs of all our folks," Atkins said, "though the going principal in the delivery of need-based service is to perform or provide." In other words, what he cannot perform as a Christian chaplain, he facilitates for a Soldier. The event was funded by the congregation of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Chapel Protestant Congregation, on Fort Bragg, N.C.
"I hope that the impact is deep and long-lasting," Atkins said. "The best leaders I've met lead from a core set of values that transcend their circumstances and are not subject to the shifting sands of contemporary culture."
Until now, the Victory Ranch has hosted Advanced Initial Training students from Fort Jackson, S.C., which is located 17 miles from the camp, but Atkins hopes to plan more events like this for future AIT cycles at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
With the success of this retreat, Hutchens has invited Atkins to return for two more weekends this year, a first for any battalion visiting Victory Ranch.
The U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School runs Advanced Initial Training courses for Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Soldiers in the U.S. Army Reserve.