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Troubled soldiers turn to chaplains for help

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 8, 2006


Army Spc. Travis Dulaney, who served in combat in Iraq, is wound as tight as a trip wire.

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Visibly pained, the Mississippi native says he is unable to tell his family what happened to him - and what he did - in his year of fighting. Those memories, he says, are his wagon to pull. So far, the weight has been too great. That is partly why Specialist Dulaney has been assigned to the Eisenhower Army Medical Center's Delta Company here at Fort Gordon until he is fit to return to duty.

Walking with him on his journey back from the battlefront of Iraq are the chaplains, a corps of officers who quietly watch over US Army troops from the front lines to the barracks back home. For Dulaney and perhaps thousands of American troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, chaplains are a source of strength in days of vulnerability.

"[The chaplains] can tell when the time bomb is ticking inside - and they know how to defuse it," says Dulaney, who fought with the 155th Brigade Combat Team. "They help you understand what has happened."

Soldiers say chaplains are trustworthy confidants who help them grapple with dark moral dilemmas in war's aftermath. Now the Army's 1,400 chaplains are carving out an expanded role, working to keep soldiers mentally healthy and military families together amid the extraordinary strains of war. The top brass is aiming to recruit nearly 600 more chaplains to serve in the next five years. Like soldiers, they are assigned units and deploy with them. In battle zones, chaplains are on the scene to counsel soldiers when they return from patrol.

"[Commanders] just see the soldier and maybe the family, but chaplains have this ability to take a more holistic approach to the organization and the soldier," says Morton Ender, a sociologist at the US Military Academy at West Point in New York. "Chaplains have the big picture."

As the Army increasingly relies on redeploying the same troops, the effect on soldiers is giving cause for alarm. About 92 percent of all veterans who served in Iraq have encountered small-arms fire, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Many have been in situations where, as Dulaney says, they've seen and done things that "nobody should have to see or do."

Their relationships with friends and family are suffering as a result, according to the Army. Divorce rates are high among war veterans. Base towns, too, are reporting an increase in bar fights. The "thousand-yard stare," once seen among many Vietnam vets, has resurfaced.

Through the chaplaincy, the military is trying to do more to help soldiers shore up their relationships and improve their health so they can return to the battle front. The Bush administration this year allotted $7 million toward Strong Bonds, a new chaplaincy program. The added investment is a "huge deal," says Chaplain Ran Dolinger, noting that the Army's total annual budget for the chaplaincy is about $14 million.

Strong Bonds aims to teach military couples how to communicate without fighting. Chaplains can send feuding couples on retreats to reconnect at places like Myrtle Beach, S.C. On Fort Bragg, N.C., Chaplain Bradley West teaches a class he calls "How (Not) to Marry a Jerk" to single soldiers to help them make good decisions about potential partners.