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.
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To enlist as a chaplain, candidates must meet the same physical requirements as other soldiers do, have a master's degree in divinity or theological studies, be between the ages of 21 and 42, and be endorsed by a recognized denomination.Skip to next paragraph
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The shortage is particularly critical for Roman Catholics, given their numbers in the military, Dolinger says. But because the church itself faces a serious shortage of diocesan priests, bishops are often reluctant to release those who are interested in military service.
Chaplains, like many other soldiers, find their wartime experiences rugged but meaningful. "It truly was the best and worst of times – the most difficult thing I've ever done but, at the same time, the greatest thing I've ever done," says Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ralph Gore, who has 21 years in the Guard and Reserves.
Plucked out of his Reserve division to fill a vacancy in another unit going overseas, Chaplain Gore arrived in Baladin northern Iraq, in January 2004 in the first "stabilization and support" group. After two quiet months when they got involved in humanitarian work in an Iraqi village, the "Good Friday massacre" occurred, signaling the beginning of the insurgency.
"They cut loose on all the convoys going through Baghdad, killed contractors, and captured a soldier from our 172nd Corps Support Group, the one soldier still listed as missing," he says. Their base, LSA Anaconda, was dubbed "Mortaritaville," as it became "the most shelled facility in Iraq."
Gore was asked to conduct a devotional period to start the three "battle update briefings" held each week. He also offered Bible study sessions and lent an ear to those looking for a friend. "I spent a lot of time with soldiers in the evenings sitting out in the darkness, listening to the sounds of battle – and whatever they wanted to talk about," he says. "About half a dozen marriages went belly-up while the soldiers were there, and I'd talk them through it and try to give them hope for the future."
He found encouragement in their group's ability to keep up the humanitarian work in the village, where a school was reconstructed, a new water pump installed, and $10,000 in donated school supplies were given to students. The villagers were very appreciative, he says.
Though he's been back home for two years, Gore – who teaches theology at Erskine Theological Seminary in South Carolina – recently received an e-mail from a village elder (a University of Baghdad graduate who speaks English) checking to see how he was.
Jenkins was buoyed by his contact with Iraqi families as well as with US soldiers. "The Iraqis I've met and their determination not to give up until their country is secure and free have inspired me," he says. "It's difficult to see all the heartache they endure because of a concerted effort by a strong minority to create havoc."
Helping to sensitize commanders
While chaplains don't necessarily have contact with Iraqi religious leaders, they are called upon to understand the religions wherever they serve and to sensitize commanders to issues that may arise.
For example, "They see mobs of people carrying red, green, or black banners – what does that mean?" Dolinger says. "Also, to be aware during the hajj that all pilgrims pass through the town of Arar to Saudi Arabia, and we need to divert our traffic not to add to that, and maybe to provide more security."
The roller coaster of emotions that war can spur makes the chaplain's role just as crucial when troops return home. At demobilization centers, chaplains look for distressed soldiers and offer counseling.
"I just returned in June and had a lot of work – helping soldiers transition and helping families understand what soldiers have been through," says Douglas. The Army also offers a program called "Strong Bonds," which brings service members and spouses together for weekend retreats to work on any issues they find surfacing.
Deployment takes its toll on chaplains, too. To help them cope with job demands, the Army tries to hold quarterly gatherings in Iraq to share experiences.
Even so, many don't hesitate to urge others to take a job that Dolinger calls "the blessed misery." Two candidates from the seminary where Gore teaches recently enlisted, and two more are applying. His Reserve division "just went from 30 to 60 percent strength," he says.