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Taking faith to the 'new' front lines

In all the hot spots - yet rarely mentioned - military chaplains aresome of today's unsung heroes.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 4, 1999


They are there for the young recruits looking to the military as thier chance to make something of themselves. They are there for the soldier separated from loved ones to serve in Somalia, Haiti, or the mountains of Bosnia and confused as to who are the good guys or the bad guys.

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And military chaplains are there for the troops struggling with the aftermath of terrorist bombs in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Or for those coping with the suicide of a friend in the barracks at home. For those tormented by what they saw in the cleanup of the Lockerbie and Swissair disasters. For those preparing to fly risky missions over Yugoslavia or take up posts in volatile Kosovo.

They're in the middle of all the "hot spots," but you rarely hear them mentioned. Military chaplains - whatever their nationality - are some of the unsung heroes of today's armed forces.

And while they may not often hunker down on the front lines of war, they are pastoring under more complicated, demanding, and dangerous circumstances as the role of the military has changed and their nations participate in a host of peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, often in the wake of civil conflicts.

Some 40 countries, for instance, have supplied troops in Bosnia to restore stability and help refugees return home. From Dutch soldiers devastated by their inability to protect the people of Srebrenica to troops confused by the intense nationalist/sectarian differences, they turn to chaplains for solace and guidance.

"When the soldier in Bosnia can't come to conclusions," says Maj. Gen. Alfred Stipanits, Austria's chief of Protestant chaplains, the task is to help him understand that "God is the comrade right with you amid the uncertainty."

"In the worst of times, we discover there are prayers within us," says Capt. Arnold Resnicoff, command chaplain of the United States European Command. Whether or not soldiers are religious, whether "prayers have been deeply buried by pain, oppression, war, or fear," he says, "one of our jobs is to touch those prayers."

Working in multinational, multilingual, and multireligious environments - at home and abroad - chaplains are called on to practice new levels of cooperation and serve as models of religious tolerance.

And as the military's peacekeeping roles thrust it between former combatants clinging to the injustices of history, it must also concern itself with reconciliation. Chaplains are challenged to show that religion can be a force for peace as well as a factor in war.

Later this month, more than 90 top chaplains from 33 countries met outside Vienna to consider the challenges they face and the potential for greater cooperation. Discussion at the Military Chief of Chaplains Conference ranged from how to prepare lay people to help in pastoral care, to teaching ethics across faiths and to those with no faith, to the creation of a NATO Chaplains Council.

The role of chaplains at the strategic level of military planning is "the greatest area of growth" in their responsibilities, says Adm. Charles Abbot, deputy commander in chief of the US European Com-mand. "The way the world has evolved," he adds, it has become crucial "to better understand the religious and cultural histories of peoples involved in conflicts."

Chaplains for NATO

In the past, chaplains have had no role in NATO deliberations, but simply served with their nation's troops during exercises. The first NATO chaplain post was created on the SFOR (stabilization force) staff in Bosnia. Chaplain Col. Richard Johnson of the US Air Force advises the commander and staff and interfaces with local religious communities and chaplains of the various national forces. Some 50 military chaplains and lay helpers are at work in Bosnia, he says. He would like to do more to document what he calls "a great story of religious cooperation."

Now there is the prospect of the new NATO council. It was agreed in Vienna that a committee would develop a proposed charter for consideration by all 16 NATO countries (rising to 19 in October).