A Chaplain's Innovative Approach Cracks the Code of Silence

WASHINGTON (NNS) — After two years, Hospital Corpsman Chief Petty Officer Charlena MacLeod shares how she turned her sexual assault trauma to empowerment.

MacLeod’s journey to healing began at a sexual assault prevention and response (SAPR) event aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) in April 2016.

“As a senior female [enlisted], coming forward would encourage others to come forward,” said MacLeod.

She attended the SAPR event hosted by the ship’s religious ministry team, deployment resiliency counselor (DRC), psychologist, command climate specialists and legal advisors on the mess deck, the area where most social connections are made. She recalls feeling nervous seated a couple rows behind the commanding officer, executive officer and command master chief in the front row.

At the time, MacLeod was the command drug and alcohol prevention advisor familiar with supporting command diversity and special events. However, the ship’s SAPR event was not typical. It was a unique adaptation of Take Back the Night (TBTN), a violence against women program with a history tracing back to 1975.

The idea of the TBTN at sea came from Capt. Kim Donahue, the current Navy Chaplain and Manpower and Training director for the Navy Chaplain Corps.

Then, as the command chaplain of the George Washington, Donahue wanted something unlike anything she had done before to stimulate the hearts and minds of the crew of more than 6,000.

“The CO [Capt. Timothy Kuehhas] approached me with the need for something different to reach Sailors about SAPR,” said Donahue. “He was trusting and encouraging, and Take Back the Night while at sea was it,” added Donahue.

The event included dramatic readings in a choral reading style, dance movements, music to inspire the audience, and a story from a sexual assault survivor. That survivor was Chaplain Donahue.

George Washington’s deployment resilience counselors, sexual assault victim advocates, legal advisors, psychologist, and chaplains were on hand to support anyone who wanted to talk about their trauma, or ask for help for someone they knew was a survivor. Also members of the Coalition of Sailors Against Destructive Decisions, an all voluntary social group to support junior Sailors, and other Sailor organizations provided meaningful community participation. It was a total command collaboration.

Prior to hearing Donahue’s story, MacLeod doubted her faith. “Chaplain Donahue inspired me to report,” said MacLeod. “Her story was heart breaking and empowering… that somebody who’s as successful and caring as she is can continue gave me renewed strength and courage to say if she can, I can too.”

Chaplain Donahue’s openness to share was no coincidence. She was inspired by a U.S. Marine who shared his mother’s story of sexual assault at a TBTN in Beaufort, S.C. in 2014, while assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 31.

“I asked have I taken back my own night? I wanted to give the people that I served on the George Washington the same opportunity I was given to listen to my heart by breaking my silence about my own sexual assault,” said Donahue.

MacLeod did not report her assault on the day of the TBTN. “I did share my story with Chaplain Donahue after the event and my healing began. It was her [Chaplain Donahue]. I’m a stronger leader to my shipmates now,” added MacLeod.

Service members and their families have someone with whom they can share their deepest concerns through privileged confidential communications to chaplains. Whether you turn to a higher spiritual power, or reflect internally, talking to another person about what hurts can be a big step forward towards healing.

Chaplains are not reporting agents or legal advisors on sexual assault. Chaplains can receive privileged communication and have access to resources available to begin healing. Do not be afraid to talk to a chaplain.

The Department of Defense (DOD) SAPR office recognized Chaplain Donahue and Damon Pratt, deployment resiliency counselor aboard the George Washington, with the 2016 Sexual Assault Prevention Innovation Award.

The Chaplain Religious Enrichment Development Operation also host “Hope to Healing” retreats for sexual assault survivors. Visit

Donahue and MacLeod filed unrestricted reports in accordance with DOD policy, and both cases are closed. For more on the reporting process, visit the Navy SAPR program website at

#Talk2aChaplain, #NavyChaplains

DISCLAIMER: This article was originally published at the Defense Video Imagery Distribution System Hub ( The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

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