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US Army looking for a few good chaplains

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have strained the 3,000-member Chaplain Corps, which now has 450 vacancies.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer / April 12, 2007



American troops in Iraq haven't always had the equipment they've needed. Might many have to go to war now without the spiritual support they've traditionally had?

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The US Army is working hard to keep that from happening, but it confronts a severe shortage in its Chaplain Corps, particularly among the Army Reserve and Army National Guard. As the Pentagon announced last Friday that Guard brigades would soon be recalled early for another tour of duty, the chaplain shortfall in the National Guard stood at 40 percent.

A five-year plan to boost chaplain recruitment in the Army is making headway. "It's getting better, but it's definitely bad," says Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ran Dolinger, spokesman for the Army Chief of Chaplains Office. "Not long ago we were 581 chaplains short, and now we're 452." Currently, the Army has some 2,600 chaplains.

The Army says it's committed to not deploying any unit without a chaplain, and so far they've managed to send one with each battalion of 600 to 700 soldiers.

"But we've had to put senior chaplains into junior slots and to count on the goodwill of many who have volunteered to go back more rapidly than would normally be expected," Chaplain Dolinger says.

Chaplains have offered spiritual sustenance to American soldiers in battle ever since the Revolutionary War, before the nation was established. In recent decades they've worked in an increasingly pluralistic environment, becoming a resource for commanders on various faiths, as well as responding to soldiers' personal needs.

That means not only providing religious services, but also encouraging people in their spiritual development, whatever their faith, and supporting those battling stress.

"Most people I have contact with, if they had any background at all that is religious, they seem to be reconnecting with it over here," says Army Reserve Chaplain (Col.) Joel Jenkins, who serves in the Baghdad-based Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq.

The command is responsible for training all branches of the Iraqi military and the civilian police. Stationed at Phoenix base in Baghdad, he travels the country from the Kurdish north, to Anbar Province in the west, and to the Persian Gulf in the south to visit troops that don't have regular contact with a chaplain. He recently received an e-mail "thank you" from a young marine he helped.

"He was having a recurring dream that he was going to die," Chaplain Jenkins recalls in a phone interview from Baghdad. "We talked about his fears, and, after some sessions, he reconnected with the faith he had had as a child. One day he came in and said he no longer had the fear and could do his job, which was a dangerous, personal-security detail for high-ranking officials. That makes it worthwhile being here."

Jenkins entered the chaplaincy while he was pastor at a North Carolina church. Some of his congregation who were in a National Guard battalion urged him to volunteer, as their unit lacked a chaplain. His church supported the step, so he joined up. Later, he went to the Reserves.

But signing up Guard and Reserve chaplains can be challenging, since serving requires pastors to be away one weekend a month. An overseas deployment could mean leaving for a year or more.

That has created tensions in some churches, Dolinger says. Pastors' jobs are not legally protected, as are those of other soldiers (the government can't tell churches what to do). So some chaplains have had to resign, while others have left churches to go on full-time active duty.

Given the growing demands, the Army's National Guard Bureau (NGB) has created a team of chaplain recruiters stationed regionally around the US. (See www.1800goguard.com/clergy.)

"For qualified individuals, there is now a $10,000 sign-on bonus," says Chaplain (Capt.) Paul Douglas of NGB's recruiting office. Seminary students who become chaplain candidates can get reimbursed up to $4,500 per year for their education expenses, if they agree to a mandatory service obligation. A student-loan repayment program pays up to $20,000 to those with existing debt when they enlist.

"We're doing the best we can to get qualified individuals and retain them," adds Chaplain Douglas, who returned last year from 16 months in Iraq, serving an infantry brigade in Baghdad and later south of the capital.

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