The spiritual needs of the American military community are met in part by chaplains from a variety of denominations. Base chapels have many of the same inner workings as a civilian church – choirs, ushers, lay readers, youth programs, Sunday School and steering committees made up of parishioners.
There are differences too. The base chapel may not have a chaplain from your particular denomination. Facilities may be limited and are almost certainly shared between the Protestant and Catholic parishes, so there might be compromises as to how many services and what liturgical style they represent. Likewise, chaplains may be limited in number, such as on very small bases where you might only have one Protestant and one Catholic chaplain serving the needs of the base populace.
My first exposure to Air Force chapels and chaplains came as a result of my dad’s Air Force service. Frankly, I don’t remember a lot of that. I was quite young. Dad then became an Air Force recruiter for 12 years, and we attended “normal” civilian churches.
After I graduated from high school, I entered the United States Air Force Academy and quickly became involved in a variety of Cadet Chapel activities. Besides singing in the Protestant Choir and the Cadet Chorale (which was part Protestant, part Catholic) and dropping an offering plate while serving as an usher during one summer service, I volunteered to help manage a coffee house-style retreat known as the Cheese Cellar, so-named as the Cadet Chapel reminded someone of a great big wedge of cheese.
On any given Saturday evening you might get a random collection of a Protestant cadet-in-charge (me), cadets of a variety of faiths wandering in and out and the duty chaplain that could be a Protestant pastor, a Catholic priest or “the” rabbi. Honestly, it didn’t matter what combination popped up – it worked the same.
Over the course of my own Air Force career, I attended base chapels for most of that time. I sang in choirs, directed choirs, ushered, taught Sunday School (fourth graders!), served as wandering minstrel taking my guitar from class to class, scheduled lay readers and read myself (sometimes learning I was “it” when the scheduled reader failed to stand up at that time in the service) and served on Protestant Parish Councils.
I also served as commander of a training unit based 40 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Our courses were fast-paced, and most involved crawling around in the “moon dust” of the Nevada desert. Our assigned unit chaplain was perfect for us.
He had been a mortar gunner while an enlisted soldier in the Army and after he left the Army he went to school, was ordained and then entered the chaplaincy. When we had a course on board, he would do his normal Sunday morning chapel tasks, then drive up-range sometime Sunday in the afternoon or evening (based on the class schedule) to conduct services for the students and any instructors who cared to attend.
During this same period the installation chaplain, who happened to be a Catholic priest and who I would constantly wheedle and beg to PLEASE leave our favorite chaplain out of the next round of “musical chaplains” (reassigning unit chaplains), would see a cluster of desert uniforms (my unit) at a function and come right over.
Finally I asked “Father, what’s up with the beeline for the desert uniforms at every function?” Father replied, with his faint Irish accent a bit more pronounced, “Well, William, it’s like Jesus and the tax collectors; I go where I’m needed most.”
When I deployed to Fort Bragg for the Haiti invasion that never happened, I ran into an Army chaplain, his rucksack stretched to the limit and ready to parachute in if necessary or be on one of the first aircraft to land after the drop.
I guess those vignettes summarize the military chaplain – go to the need. The better ones didn’t sit in their office waiting for business to come to them, although some time must be allotted for that eventuality. The best ones were out and about visiting their assigned units and the base populace at large, including visits made during the “hard hours” when most of the base is asleep but some folks like the security forces, fire department, aircraft maintenance, aircrews on night missions to name a few, are busy protecting you as you sleep.
What makes the military parishioner different? Some differences are easy to see. They are ready to deploy anywhere in the world at short notice and in the extreme case, to give their lives defending what they believe in and the people they serve with. They may leave someone behind, they may not. Having said that, they generally represent a cross-section of the population they protect. They may speak a different language of sorts, but they have the same needs.
Written by Bill Peterson. Describing himself as “second generation Air Force,” Bill was born into Air Fore life, attended the United States Air Force Academy, traveled the world, and retired after serving twenty-eight years on active duty as a security forces officer, doctrine mentor and homeland operations advisor. His last “job” was volunteering with a Congressional campaign. He designs and flies computer flight simulation aircraft and shares a house in Montgomery, Alabama with a pet ferret, Rachel, who happens to be deaf.