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Military chaplains: An Army captain keeps tough soldiers in touch with their softer side

The divide between home front and front line is bridged by a chaplain's good ear and ever-present video camera.

By Lee LawrenceCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 6, 2007

Salerno and Bagram, Afghanistan

At Forward Operating Base Salerno, weekly briefings of the support battalion are down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts affairs. Inside air-conditioned metal shipping containers, surrounded by aerial photographs marked "SECRET," soldiers report on risk assessments, mission accomplishments, and the operational needs of the 500 soldiers here who keep the war machine running.

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Capt. Shareen Fischer – clad in tan and green fatigues, hair pulled tight in a no-nonsense bun – clutches her Power Point remote as she admonishes the leaders of the men and women of Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie companies to be prepared.

For Mother's Day.

The troops, Captain Fischer says, "can start thinking right now what they are going to say either to their mom or to the mother of their children." Because she will be coming around with her camera to tape the next video she sends back home to families.

Her tone may be mil-speak, but her message is Hallmark. And nobody so much as blinks. The woman, after all, is their chaplain. Her soldiers work out the logistics of supporting small bases scattered across southern Afghanistan, getting fuel, food, and equipment to them – and Chaplain Fischer supports the support troops.

For Fischer this means hours of listening, counseling, and using her camera to bridge lives that are worlds apart – a healing, nurturing presence in the midst of a war in which the casualties can be relationships with partners and families back home.

While her work might seem soft in a world of weapons and tactics, there is hard evidence that it contributes to the overall strength of the military.

• • •

Salerno is on "light discipline." At night, soldiers open and shut doors quickly and, outside, use red flashlights, undetectable by Taliban in the surrounding hills. It's at this time – when stars by the hundreds pop out of the pitch-black sky – that the phone room is at its busiest. Soldiers line the long narrow space, chairs pulled up to open carrels, heads tilted forward in attempts at privacy.

Here, anger often spits out through clenched teeth. The person in the next carrel may not hear but, at the other end, the words come through clear and hurtful.

Fischer recalls a paratrooper who sought her out because "he'd been talking really rough to his loved one ... degrading her. He started to see her self-esteem go down," and the relationship grew increasingly tense.

Fischer says she reminded him that "this is a critical time: She's taking care of the children and trying to keep everything stable back in the rear. You need to encourage her and praise her." As the soldier changed his tune, the tension eased and the relationship improved.

Because the Army assigns chaplains to a unit rather than a base, Fischer spent two years with the battalion before deployment. "That comes in handy," she laughs, "because I'm building relationships with the paratrooper, the spouse, the children, the dog – everybody!"

But, in deployment, she only gets one side of every story. "So I'm only going to deal with that one side. 'What can you do? What changes can you make? Let's not focus on your spouse. Let's focus on you,' " she tells soldiers.

• • •

In the mess hall, in bunkers during a rocket attack, hanging out by the pool table, soldiers gripe about extended tours, and some deride decisions made in Washington. But it isn't despondency over the war or its prosecution that propels them to knock on a chaplain's door at 2 in the morning. It's the Dear John letter. It's news of infidelity. It's a wiped-out bank account because a girlfriend went on a spending spree to cheer herself up – "mall therapy" with the serviceman's checkbook.

The military has recognized this and, says Dennis Orthner, a professor at the University of North Carolina who researches military families, the Army in particular has "ramped up family support services, largely led by chaplains." Divorce among Army personnel – with the exception of female enlisted soldiers – has dropped since 2004, and he believes it's due in part to the Army's investment in families and "an enlightened chaplain corps."

The crucial area for couples, in his view, is communication. "Couple communication is what drives the relationship quality," says Professor Orthner.

This is where Oprah and military meet. A RAND Corporation report this year said the effect of marriage on performance and retention of service members "may have significant implications for national security." The key isn't whether service members are married, but whether their marriages are healthy.