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 , Staff writer

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?

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.

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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.

'The best and worst of times'

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.

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.

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