Troubled soldiers turn to chaplains for help

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

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.

Already, new chaplaincy programs have been effective, playing at least a small role in cutting in half the divorce rate among Army officers between 2004 and 2005, Army officials say.

Moreover, the Army is giving chaplains increasing flexibility to use funds to send soldiers who are coping with the loss of comrades to Washington for war memorial tours for example, as members of Fort Gordon's Delta Company recently did.

"We bring to the table ... a spiritual aspect to the healing process," says Chaplain Klon Kitchen of Fort Jackson, S.C.

Spc. John Shelton returned from Iraq with a front tooth missing and a blown-out knee from a road-side bomb. He admits his tour of duty and his injury put stress on his marriage. Now, a chaplain spends time on the phone with Shelton and his wife, dealing with "marital stuff."

"It's a two-sided story when you come back like this," says Shelton. "Your family views you differently and the Army views you differently. That's one reason why I use the chaplains a lot."

Others in the military also say chaplains are needed now. Evangelical pastors, in particular, are on the rise, while the number of Roman Catholic chaplains has dropped to fewer than 100, according to the Army. (Most chaplains are Christian, but there are about 30 Jewish clergy and 15 Muslim clergy.)

But stiff requirements keep many away: Candidates are required to have a master's degree in theology and two years of experience in a civilian church. They also must pass the Army fitness test, which includes doing 40 pushups and running two miles in 16 minutes, 36 seconds. First-year chaplains earn an annual salary of $45,969.67.

Once on the job, chaplains help soldiers cope with their actions in battle, guided by the "just cause" theory that violence, even killing, can be the morally responsible thing to do in wartime.

As counselors to soldiers, they, themselves also confront post-battle stress. Fort Gordon Chaplain Steve Munson fights back tears as he talks about visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Va., with a group of Iraq war vets. For weeks after returning to the US from duty in Balad, Iraq - a town troops call "Mortarsville" - Chaplain Dolinger experienced "overpass effect," or the subconscious habit of gazing up at bridges in search of grenade-droppers or snipers.

While counseling the first wave of troops returning from Iraq in the fall of 2003, Chaplain West says he had to work hard "not to lose hope."

Meanwhile, critics say that many troops, hesitate to take part in programs such as Strong Bonds, whether it's for faith reasons or out of fear of reprisal from officers that single out soldiers who show what they perceive as weakness.

"Most guys in Vietnam never saw a chaplain, and I think that may still be true today," says Larry Tritle, a Vietnam war veteran and a military affairs professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "The reason was that chaplains were seen as part of the establishment."

But at Fort Gordon, chaplains minister to members of Delta Company. There, active-duty soldiers on "medical hold" from the war are assigned one mission: Get well enough to return to the Army and their families.

Of Delta Company's Dulaney and Shelton, Chaplain Munson says: "They are amazing guys, and if you saw them when they came in, you might not believe how far they've come."

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