Faith in the Military and Hope for Veterans

A Conversation with Lt. General Robert L. Caslen Jr. (Ret.)

In this episode you will get to know a decorated U.S. Army veteran, but more importantly, a faithful follower of Jesus who has a contagious confidence in the truth of God's Word.
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“When you find the Lord, you find hope. You find genuine hope.”

General Caslen tells us the story of how God led him into 43 years of military service. He shares with us a few ways to maintain a habit of spending daily time in God’s Word, discusses the importance of personal character, and gives personal testimony for where veterans can find hope.

Guest Bio

Lt. General Robert L. Caslen Jr. (Ret.) is the former superintendent of the United States Military Academy West Point, and a decorated veteran, with seven combat deployments and several significant military operations on his resume. You may read General Caslen’s full and outstanding bio, listing his accomplishments on his website General Caslen first came to our attention because of the personal testimonies of soldiers who spoke about him with joy and affection, remembering his example of faith, character, and leadership during their time at West Point.

Book Recommendations
Every episode we ask our guest to tell us about a few books that have changed their lives. Check out General Caslen’s recommendations and consider adding them to your bookshelf!

His Needs, Her Needs

by Willard F. Harley, Jr.

This book transformed General Caslen’s understanding of men and women, which equipped him to love his wife well.

The Bible

English Standard Version

When first asked for a book recommendation, General Caslen replied, “The Bible! Just take any book out of the Bible and read it.”

Eden: General Caslen, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. I’m excited to learn about what the Lord has taught you and about some of your experiences. But I like to start interviews by getting to know you a little bit, helping our audience get to know you. So I’d love to start off with learning a few things that bring you joy.

LTG (R) Caslen: My grandchildren! There’s five of them. Unfortunately, they don’t live near us. You know, because we’re military, a military family, the kids left the house when we were stationed someplace. So I got two kids in Texas and one in Georgia. We don’t see them that often, but whenever we get a chance to see the grandchildren, it’s a joy. My wife has a very special relationship with my granddaughters. I have one granddaughter who’s ten years old, and she’ll FaceTime my wife, Shelly, every day.

Eden: Oh, that’s so special. I’m sure that brings so much joy to your wife’s heart as well. Well, is there a part of God’s Word that is especially precious to you? And why has that part of God’s Word become precious to you?

LTG (R) Caslen: Well, I have seven deployments, you know, combat-type deployments. And, you know, there’s always the anxiety of a combat deployment. Are you going to get through it? Are you going to be able to get your soldiers through it? You know, there’s some of the challenges.

But I remember in Operation Desert Storm flying 165 miles behind enemy lines to go to a bridge over the Euphrates River to blow it up because that was the exfiltration route of the Iraqi forces that were in Kuwait. So I was kind of nervous. And I was the XO, so I was the one that chose the seats of who’s going to sit where. So I grabbed the chaplain. I put him right next to me. So the chaplain was wonderful, you know, so he goes, “Hey sir, we got to pray first before we take off because we’re getting ready to get in the helicopter.”

So he gets Joshua chapter one, verse nine: “Have I not commanded thee? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (KJV).

I slept on the pickup zone where the helicopters were the night before we were going to be inserted. And I woke up that morning, had my quick quiet time. We’re going to combat. We’re going to we’re going to launch. So I had a quick quiet time, grabbed my Bible, which I had in my pocket, opened it up, and I turned to Isaiah 26:3. “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (ESV).

You know, so you have all this anxiety of, Are we going to make it? Are we going to not make it? And this is a verse that says, if you have perfect trust, you’ll have perfect peace. It’s kind of one of these “if-thens.” If there was trust, then there would be peace in your life—if you trust God.

God was reaching down and saying, “Trust me, Caslen, just trust me. And then with that trust, regardless of the outcome, you’ll have perfect peace. You’ll have the peace that’s necessary to accomplish what you have to accomplish.”

It’s a great verse. And one other verse has really been hitting me very carefully, right smack in the chest here lately. Someone has sent it to me. It’s from Proverbs 24:16, “Though the righteous falls seven times, they rise again” (NIV).

So I’m not sure I’m qualified to say I’m righteous. I’m righteous in the Lord because he’s my Savior. But I’m one of those ones that has fallen seven times, you know.

To me that verse is phenomenal. As much of a sinner as we are, we have the ability to rise again through our trust and faith in God. So it’s a great verse. When you’ve been falling and you’ve been kicked in the face and kicked in the teeth, that’s not a lot of fun. But here’s this promise saying you’re going to rise again. So just hang in there.

Eden: Yes. That reminds me of in Romans where Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11 ESV).

It’s so true: We’ve got the Spirit of the Lord inside of us, and he’s the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. So we have the power through him to get back up when we fall. And that’s a huge, huge encouragement.

Thank you for sharing those verses. I would love to hear more of your story. So could you share with us briefly how you became interested in serving in the Army and maybe a little bit of your experience there?

LTG (R) Caslen: Okay, so if you go back in history, I graduated from high school in 1971, and the Vietnam War was going on. I was living in Vermont. My dad was a ski lodge owner, and he was a chief chef as well.

I was in high school. The high school was about 18-20 miles away. So we got on the bus early in the morning, and I played sports, so I got on the late bus coming back. And one of the sports I played was football. I was also the student body president, and we had a guest in the ski lodge who was a West Point graduate, a Vietnam veteran. Based on the fact that I was demonstrating some leadership potential, being the student body president, he said, “Hey, you ought to be interested in West Point.”

I had no earthly idea what West Point was. I said, “Okay, well I appreciate it very much. And shortly after I hear the football office saying, “We’re interested in you coming to West Point.” I got a letter from West Point. From then I go, “Oh, really? You know, that’s a coincidence.” So between the letter from the football office trying to see if I was interested in coming to West Point and then trying to recruit me, and this other guest who was a West Point graduate who thought I had some potential…I looked into it.

And the good news was it was a free education. You know, my mom and dad don’t have to pay for my tuition because, it’s paid for by the by the government, which is a good deal, although you pay back five years of your life.

When I talked to my high school teachers, mind you, the Vietnam War was going on. All my high school teachers found a way not to go to Vietnam. So when I told them I was interested in West Point, they immediately tried to talk me out of it. The more I checked into it, though, the more I said, “There’s a lot of opportunities here.” I was not all that great academically, so I was kind of nervous about going to West Point since it was such a high academic, demanding university or college. But I did have one instructor who was very encouraging, who encouraged me to go ahead and go anyway.

So I did, and I did my four years. It was it was tough. Played football. And I stayed on as a graduate assistant when I graduated for six months. I was Infantry, Airborne, Ranger Infantry. I went to Airborne School, Ranger School, Infantry School, and all that.

One of the secretaries in the football office who I didn’t know when I was playing, but I got to know when I was a graduate assistant, was a young lady who lived right there in the town next to West Point. And so I started dating her. Next thing you know, we had long-distance dating and we said, “Well, it’s too expensive for long-distance dating, so let’s just get married.” She was not too excited about staying in the Army for a career. So I said, “Honey.” You know, I got married two years after I graduated. I said, “I only got three more years left. And if you can just put up with it for three years, then we’ll get out.” And then 43 years later I got out of the army. I didn’t get out—they kicked me out.

So of my thousand West Point classmates, I was the very last one to stay in the army that long. And so I went from someone who was going to get out after five years to someone who stayed in as the very last one. But the reason I stayed in is that I fell in love with the soldiers. I fell in love with leading the soldiers, changing their lives, being there for them, having really tough, incredible, challenging missions and responsibilities, building teams where they rely on you and you rely on them. And they’ll lay their life on the line for you. They’ll do whatever they can so that you can be successful. They’ll never let you down.

The army was good. They just kept offering you one assignment, one carrot after another carrot, like graduate school. I had an assignment and went back to West Point. Since Shelly was from the town right next to there, she was excited about going back home and they were all great. And then, you know, then because of our foreign policy, we started getting involved in other types of activities, whether it was Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, Haiti, Central America, all kinds of different challenges. We went on those assignments.

I really enjoyed the real-world combat assignments because you not only had the trust and confidence of the troops you were leading, but you also had the trust and confidence of the American citizens. And you’re standing in the gap between them and the evil that’s out there that really wants to do harm to our nation. Anyway, so that’s kind of a little bit of some background there.

Eden: That’s wonderful. I love what you said about what compelled you to stay in the Army and leading young men and women. That’s really special. I think it’s an incredible opportunity that you’ve had to speak into the lives of many soldiers. I know my own brother was really influenced by your leadership at West Point and really appreciated the things that you taught him, whether about the Lord or about being a soldier. So thank you for sharing that.

Our website is devoted to helping people who didn’t grow up in church open the Bible and find hope there because we know that the Bible is where we hear about Jesus and what he has done for us to reconcile us to God. And so I’d love to hear about what role God’s Word has played in your life. You talked about opening it up right before a mission, and even opening it up with the chaplain in a helicopter. I would love to hear what role God’s Word has played in your life.

LTG (R) Caslen: Well, God’s Word is truth. God’s Word is very precious. And when you hide God’s Word in your heart, then there is—if God’s Word is in you, in your heart, then there is no room for anything else that’s ugly. I mean, God’s Word is true. It protects us. It keeps us away from stupid stuff. It’s just a great story of what was, what is, and what will be.

But the more you’re into God’s Word, the greater your faith, and the greater your faith, the more confident you are on what the future is, and what the present is.

When you hide God’s Word in your heart through memorizing verses and stuff like that—One thing I always did was I had a series of verses that I memorized, and then during my quiet time in the morning, not only would I read, but I would just review those verses that I memorize, just to keep them fresh. And so I had like a card with about 10 or 12 verses. And that’s my daily routine. I just pull it out and go through those real quick, you know, and I had 30 or 35 cards, you know, so those are special verses that you just keep in your heart, hide your heart.

The more I’m in God’s Word, the more confident I feel. I mean, not only just dealing with issues of faith, but just dealing with world issues as well. And when I’m less in God’s Word, that’s when I’m making stupid mistakes all the time. So I’m not saying God’s Word keeps you straight, but there’s something in there that is not only important for you, but kind of keeps you on the straight and narrow, not only in spiritual issues but also in worldly issues as well.

Eden: For sure. And I think about how we call the Bible “God’s Word” because we believe that God has spoken in it. And so when we spend time listening to him, who is our Lord, it’s like we have our marching orders for the day, and we’re more inclined to obey him and to act in ways that would honor him if we’ve been listening to him in the morning.

There are a lot of people that are struggling to spend regular time reading the Bible. And I know you mentioned the habit of memorizing Scripture each morning. Are there any other habits that have helped you be consistent in spending time in God’s Word?

LTG (R) Caslen: There’s a lot of things you can do. I mean, there was a period of time, a couple times, that I wanted to read the Bible from Genesis all the way down to Revelation. And you read about three chapters a day in the morning. So you just, when you wake up, this is after you brush your teeth, you know, and shave, then you sit down and have your quiet time and just go, start reading from, you can read different verses.

One thing I like is Table Talk. So I mean, Table Talk has got a whole bunch of great verses in there, great stories in there, great ministries, and things like that. So, you know, you can read something like that, you can read the Scripture. You can—your list of verses that are important to you that you’ve memorized—go back and refresh your memorization on them.

I don’t want to say rituals, but there are different things that you can do during your quiet time. But God’s Word is the center of it no matter what you’re doing, whether it is memorizing scripture or reading the Bible from cover to cover to reading someone’s ministry, like Table Talk that I showed you, all those type of things are really helpful.

But the issue is: Develop the habit of staying in God’s Word. Because when you develop the habit of staying in God’s Word, then you bring God’s Word into you. You bring God’s Word into your heart. And then, like I said before, when God’s Word is in your heart, then all the other trash that’s out there, there’s no room for that to get in there.

Eden: So you wrote a book called The Character Edge: Leading and Winning with Integrity. And we know Scripture places a high value on integrity. I think of Proverbs 10:9 that says, “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely” (ESV). And I would love to hear you share some of your heart behind this book that you wrote, and what you hope that people learn from that book.

LTG (R) Caslen: So I’m a co-author. Doctor Mike Matthews, who’s an instructor at West Point, it was his idea to do it. And after I retired, he sent me a note saying, “Hey, would you want to work on this book with me?” And I said, “By all means, I’d be happy to!”

One of the assignments I had, I was a division commander at 23,000 soldiers during Iraqi Freedom in northern Iraq. And as a division commander, I had the responsibility for senior leader misconduct. You know, senior leaders were all officers and non-commissioned officers of the rank of sergeant first class and above, E-7 and above.

And about halfway through our rotation, I said to my lawyer, I said, “Why am I writing all these letters of reprimand and these Article 15’s?” In the end, after a year, I had written 78 letters of reprimand—Article 15. In other words, the careers of those 78 people were over. They weren’t going to get promoted. You know, they get could another assignment, but they were going to have to leave the Army.

And all those issues were issues of character, character defects. And a lot of them had to do with General Order No. 1, which was, you know, the behavior that’s necessary inside the foreign operating bases. Of the 78, only two were outside the foreign operating base, like slapping a P.O.W. and a negligent discharge and stuff. And I realized that the most effective element, or the most important element of effective leadership is character. And the reason it’s so important is because it builds a trust relationship between you and those who you lead, and it builds a trust relationship between you and those who you’re subordinate to.

In the military, in the profession of arms and our profession, our client is the American people. And it’s so tremendously important that we in the military have a trust relationship with the American people. And when you have a character defect, you break that trust. And when you break that trust—Listen, I am one who has broken that trust. I know the bad, the ugly side of that, you know. It’s not very pleasant. But character is so tremendously important. But trust is really a function of not only character but competence. So you got to have your act together as well.

Stephen Covey wrote a great book called The Speed of Trust. The thesis is that organizations that have trust within their organization, between the workers, between the leadership and the workforce, between them and whom you serve, can operate with tremendous speeds. You don’t have the bureaucracies of double-checking and all that sort of thing. I mean, some of that’s important, obviously, but trust is the ingredient that holds you together. But I realize that trust, being a function of character and competence, they’re both tremendously important. But character conquers competence every time.

In other words, you can be number one in your class. But if you fail in character, you fail in leadership simply because you lost the trust of those whom you lead.

Eden: Amen to that. Well, I think integrity is something that is lost on our culture today. You know, we often think that our success is measured by what we get done and not how we get there. And yet it’s when we fail ourselves or when we see the failures of others, that we realize how important that character is, and that character really is of higher value than what we can accomplish. That sounds like an excellent book.

Who is the target audience for The Character Edge? Who did you write it for?

LTG (R) Caslen: Those who want to lead, not necessarily military leaders. You know, Mike Matthews is great. He wrote all the theory. He’s got a doctorate in this stuff. So he wrote all the theory. And my job was to write the stories. So there’s a couple stories in there that Mike has as well.

But right in the forward, right up front is an incredible story about, you know, I lost a battalion commander to a vehicle explosive device and then the battalion commander who took his place had a character defect right away. And that battalion had lost two leaders. We had to remove the battalion commander. So that battalion had lost two leaders in just within 30, 40 days. And they’re in the middle of combat! And the issue is not so much on the leader being removed and sent to another job and then leaving the military. The whole performance of the unit that he was the leader of just dropped dramatically. They became terrible. And, you know, I was very concerned. So, you know, it’s not only an issue of the person who has a character defect, it’s also the issue of those whom they lead. The morale, the competence, the effectiveness of the unit also takes a nosedive pretty quick.

Eden: I heard someone say recently that if you’re a leader and someone beneath you fails in the area of character, you have some responsibility over that because you’re the one in charge. Would you agree with that statement?

LTG (R) Caslen: Oh yeah, 100%. I mean, leaders accept responsibility. And, you know, I’ve always accepted responsibility, even to my demise. But that’s what we do. Leaders accept responsibility.

You know, when something good happens, you pass that goodness down. You don’t take credit. You pass the goodness down to those who really accomplished it. When something goes wrong in the organization, that’s the leader’s responsibility. Accept responsibility for it.

Eden: I wanted to turn our attention to talking about veterans in general.

So there has been in recent times just a rise in veteran suicides. And that’s something that really weighs heavily on our organization’s heart, knowing a lot of veterans and also knowing that there is hope that comes from the Lord and his Word. And we want veterans to find that hope.

I was wondering if you would be willing to share with our audience the reason for your hope and how your faith informs your experiences as a veteran.

LTG (R) Caslen: Well, yeah, this is a critical issue, Eden, that we’re losing so many veterans, and every day we lose a number of veterans. I don’t know all the statistics, but it’s just really heart-wrenching that we’re losing veterans to suicide.

I selected my medical care to be with the VA, Veterans Administration, even though I’m 69 years old now, eligible for Medicare and all that stuff. I still go to the VA. And every time I go to the VA,  there’s veterans there all the time. But I go there intentionally to make sure that I personally can see if the medical care for our veterans is really where it needs to be. And as an aside, I continue to go for my own medical care. So I’ve got trust and confidence in the VA medical care.

But I know a couple organizations that are really focused on veterans and suicide prevention and reaching out to veterans. And I got a couple of my soldiers that are now out of the Army, and they’re committed to reaching out to veterans and preventing suicide. And I know a number of them were suicidal themselves. One in particular, found the Lord while he was suicidal and God totally changed his life around, and now he’s 100% committed to ministering to veterans and bringing them to the Lord.

Why do you commit suicide? You lost hope. You lost confidence. You lost faith. You conclude there’s no other alternative for you than to just take your life.

When you find the Lord, you find hope. You find genuine hope. You find truth. Your faith is, you know, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17 ESV). So when you’re in the Word, then you have faith. And when you have faith, you have hope. Hope fills the vacuum of deprived feelings where there is no feeling anymore. And that’s why, I mean, one of the most effective suicide preventions for our veterans is to encourage them to come to the Lord, and that’s exactly what your ministry is. So I praise God for what you’re doing.

But, you know, but even still there are veterans, you reach out to veterans and even talk to them about the Lord, and they like not to go in that direction. That’s their choice, obviously. But that doesn’t mean we give up on them. You know, there is something out there that’s got to replace the depravity that they’re feeling.

Your ministry is so tremendously important. And you know, when you get to the other side of eternity, there are going to be people lined up to shake your hand and give you a hug, to say “Thank God that you ministered to me and I’m up here enjoying eternal life.” And I can picture that day when they’re all standing in a line, praising the Lord for what you’ve done in their life.

Eden: We pray for that! We definitely pray for that. And I’m really encouraged as I hear you speak about how the Lord is your rock and your hope, because I think it’s easy sometimes for me to think, Well, you know, Christianity works, so to speak, for someone with not that difficult of a life or someone who hasn’t suffered very much, or, you know, people think Christianity is a crutch for people, or the Bible has lots of cute things to say that go on coffee mugs, but does it really work? And it’s so wonderful to hear testimonies from people that have been in hard places and have had their faith seriously tested, and to hear testimonies of the truth of God’s Word and how powerful it is, because it’s from the voice of the one true God.

So it’s so encouraging to hear your testimony and your story and just your witness to the fact that God’s Word is true and it’s “living and active” as it says (Hebrews 4:12), and it is our source of hope. I so appreciate your encouragement there and your reminder to stake our confidence in God’s Word, so thank you for that.

And I love to end by leaving our listeners with a resource. So is there a book or another resource that has been really transformational in your walk with the Lord that you would recommend to someone else?

LTG (R) Caslen: Oh, the Bible. Let me start with the Bible. Just take a book of the Bible and read it. Or read the Bible itself that yeah, that’s a good way to start.

Or one book that really changed my life was His Needs, Her Needs. I mean, really it’s about a relationship between you and your spouse. And when you understand what the five most important needs of your wife are and then the five most important needs for a man…Of the five and the needs of the man and the five needs of the woman, there’s not a single one that overlaps. There’s five total different things. So it really, really helped me understand my wife and what motivates her.

Yeah, it was great. It was just really great. And we’re wired different too. Like one of the top five needs for a woman is conversation. You see it all the time. You know, a guy, I mean his need for talking is like 300 words. And he goes to work and the wife stays home with the kids, you know? And then by noon, he has reached 3,000 words. And when he comes home for dinner, the last thing he wants to do is to talk and carry on a conversation. And his wife, who’s got a need for 10,000 words a day and all she’s talked to is 1,000 words to little toddler kids all day, she’s got a deficit of 9,000 words and you’ve already maxed your talking a long time ago.

So I had to learn to sit down at the table with a cup of coffee after dinner and say, “Honey, how was your day?” And then sit there and listen, and not pretend to listen, but really genuinely listen.

Eden: That is so helpful. Well, thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for being willing to talk with us. I’m really grateful for the opportunity and to get to know you a little bit.

LTG (R) Caslen: Thanks, Eden.

Eden: Thank you so much for listening to our podcast today. If you enjoyed our conversation, I would encourage you to like or subscribe to our podcast so that you can hear the next conversation. And if something that you heard today spoke to your heart or got you thinking, I would encourage you to not let the day go by without talking to God about what’s on your mind. We believe that he loves you and that he’s pursuing you today and that love.

The Podcast is hosted by our editor, Eden. But it is the collective effort of both our team members and friends. We want to especially thank Austin, Jenny, Wynne, Juan, Owen, and Evelyn for their help with audio, video, editing, graphics, and publication.