“It was simply informing our troops, ‘You’re in a different culture. They have a different set of values than you do.’”
That’s how Air Force Lt. Col. Jon Trainer, 51, describes the presentation at the center of recent controversy surrounding him being awarded a Bronze Star.
Trainer has been the subject of news reports and scrutiny this week after a local media story indicated he was awarded the Bronze Star Medalbecause of the presentation. But Trainer says that presentation was only part of a larger portfolio of work — and beyond that, it was an important presentation.
“I don’t view this as a politically correct — and I am a conservative evangelical chaplain,” he said.
The chaplain, who most recently served on a voluntary deployment to Afghanistan, encountered a plethora of criticism when it was alleged that his creation of the PowerPoint about properly treating and disposing of Islamic religious materials played a major role in his selection for the military honor.
TheBlaze interviewed Trainer on Wednesday to speak further about this document and the criticism he has received. The faith leader, who completed his last deployment in June 2012, explained that the media reports surrounding his Bronze Star Medal have not been entirely accurate. Rather than being predication upon a PowerPoint presentation, the military’s fifth most prestigious award was given to him as a result of his overall service oversees, he told TheBlaze.
“The relationships that I built over the long haul in my ministry in Afghanistan, the messages [I delivered], the counseling [and] the way I am living my life far outweighs the PowerPoint presentation I put together over a two day period in a seven-month deployment,” he said when asked about the reason for the award.
During his time in Afghanistan, Trainer said that he was in a command staff position in Kabul. Along with three other chaplains, he was a part of a central team responsible for overseeing every military faith leader who was part of the chaplaincy across all military branches in Afghanistan. His role was centered upon training and pastoring military members.
“I did 90% of the counseling so I had a very significant role as pastor and then you have things like the Koran burning that occurred that required extra effort on my part,” Trainer explained. “My award is based on my level of responsibility and then how well I performed on the duties assigned.”
EXPLAINING THE CONTROVERSIAL DOCUMENT
Trainer described the purpose of the PowerPoint presentation, which was used to train American military personnel in better understanding Islamic texts and the cultural elements at play in the region. The faith leader told TheBlaze that he drafted the document in the wake of violent riots following soldiers’ apparent inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran early last year.
The document, called “Proper Handling and Disposal of Islamic Religious Material,” was a tool that he crafted in an effort to protect both soldiers and the mission they were sent to fulfill.
“We were simply trying to help soldiers identify Islamic religious material and then know how to approach it and…dispose of it,” he explained. “Our bottom line was — if you encounter any kind of material that you think could be religious material, we [wanted] Afghan mullahs to deal with that material…so that our actions [couldn't] be misinterpreted as being disrespectful of their holy scriptures.”
Some would dismiss this as bowing to Islamic extremism, however there are a number of important elements to consider. U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, for that matter, are forced to cope with the sometimes-murderous ramifications of cultural clashes that unfold in the religion. The creation of this document was, in Trainer’s view, an effort that would prevent soldiers from falling prey to extremist attacks and reactions.
“You get a high school graduate engaged in operations in Afghanistan and if he comes across something while clearing out a house — he knows how to approach that,” Trainer said of the program’s intention. “It was simply informing our troops, ‘You’re in a different culture. They have a different set of values than you do.’”
The training included about 20 slides. Gen. John R. Allen ordered that it be distributed after its creation to every person in the U.S. military theater in Afghanistan within a 72-hour period. The document also became a part of pre-deployment training for soldiers preparing to head into battle and it was used as part of the newcomers briefing once they arrived in Afghanistan.
“I don’t view this as accommodating Islam,” he said. “I think it’s simply smart cultural behavior.”
The chaplain went on to note that he wrote his Master’s thesis paper on “undermining radical Islam by using the instruments of power.” Thus, Trainer explained the importance of engaging with Muslims’ minds to affect change. In the end, he felt the training enhanced the mission and helped to protect it.
“It’s just a tool that may prevent a soldier from making a mistake that he or she doesn’t have to make,” he added.
ADDRESSING CONTROVERSY OVER THE BRONZE STAR
Trainer also addressed critics who have wondered why he, as a non-combat member of the Air Force, received the Bronze Star. He explained that there are different designations for the award — and he highlighted that the chaplain who served in the same role before him also received the honor.
There’s a Bronze Star for valor and, as he explained, “That’s for engaging in contact with the enemy and heroic performance.” Then, there’s a meritorious Bronze Star, another version of the award that is given to those who show valiant service, but who aren’t necessarily on the front lines. It was this latter honor that he was given.
The Air Force web site describes the award, in detail:
The Bronze Star is awarded to personnel in any branch of the military service who distinguished themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not involving participation in aerial flight, in connection with military operations against an armed enemy.
The award recognizes acts of heroism performed in ground combat if they are of lesser degree than that required for the Silver Star. It also recognizes single acts of merit and meritorious service if the achievement or service is of a lesser degree than that deemed worthy of the Legion of Merit; but such service must have been accomplished with distinction.
And another government explanation adds, “Executive Order 11046 authorizes the secretary of the military department to grant the award for either heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not involving aerial flight, in connection with operations against any opposing armed force, or while serving with friendly forces engaged in an armed conflict.”
Considering these elements and Trainer’s overall service, he qualified — as did the faith leader preceding him — for the award.
Trainer, who has been off the battlefield and preaching in the U.S. since last summer, isn’t sure if the training is still being used, as he’s been out of deployment for quite a while. But there’s one thing he is sure about: He’d like to voluntarily redeploy once again in the near future, as he says he enjoys serving the country he loves.
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