Camp Lejeune 210

What does a military chaplain do?

August 13th, 2011 at 7:00 am

Chaplains are the people who are there to answer the call of duty to those who serve us.

Chaplains are active duty members of the military. They are given a rank based on their years of service and are able to advance by promotion. They must be endorsed by a church or other faith-based organization, such as Texas Baptists, throughout their service as a chaplain.

Chaplains provide for the military member’s “freedom of religion,” by being stationed wherever there are troops. They address moral and ethical issues for commanders as well as indicating morale levels.

As a wing commander for the Air Force, Col. Barre Seguin shared his appreciation for their role.

“Years ago, they would talk about the four ways to make it through a storm, the essentials of human wellness – physical, emotional, spiritual and social,” Seguin said. “These are needs of our airman and their families. If we aren’t providing for them, we are going to suffer in terms of mission accomplishment. Not that it’s only about mission accomplishment, it involves caring for the people too.”

Chaplains have different ways of supporting the troops. They manage an actual chapel and perform weekly services there for the men and women of the military as well as develop and facilitate classes that best fit the population of the base.

The majority of chaplain’s duties are not just administrative though. They must deal with deeper issues in ministry.  They are called to quite literally go to battle with their men and women.

“The most important thing is that at a time of war, we deploy with our warriors and support them,” said Col. Conrado Navarro of the Air Force.

This is, of course, a notable difference between civilian pastors and military chaplains.

“I can imagine that not very many pastors have to put on a helmet to preach… many chaplains do die on duty,” said Brett Dula, a retired Air Force general.

Chaplains are not restricted to the chapel in their duties, and they often visit others at various locations.

“The good chaplains will go out where the people are working. And not just in peacetime… even the more dangerous areas,” said Bill Peterson, a retired Air Force colonel.

Sometimes this means the chaplain walks around the base to visit servicemen when they are on night duty. Other times, this can mean driving around delivering hot chocolate if it’s cold outside. This can even look like a chaplain visiting men who are on call to action and therefore risking the chance that he will have to go along.

The duties of a chaplain differ from that of the traditional civilian pastor in many other ways, including who they report to.

“Jesus said you cannot serve two masters, but I often joke that when He said that He wasn’t talking about military chaplains,” said Brad Riza, retired Air Force colonel and chaplain as well as the Texas Baptists associate director for chaplaincy relations. “They have to answer to two institutions, the organization or church that sponsors them and the U.S. military.”

While chaplains are in place to ensure every military member’s constitutional right to free exercise of religion, it is often a balancing act. Though chaplains are allowed to carry the denominational name of their sponsor, they are often required to perform duties with a variety of people present and in such a way that will not offend anyone’s religious beliefs.

Not only do chaplains work with varying religious beliefs, but their congregation is comprised of different ages and varying stages of life.

“Navigating the diversity and demands of religious practices and the government’s willingness to embrace is definitely a challenge,” Gen. Dula said.

Chaplains also serve a very mobile congregation and are indeed subject to transfers themselves.

“Your congregations are never static; you never know really how long you have with a group of service members,” Riza said. “The most I could expect to have with pilots in school was two years, some guys only one… Most church-going people have no idea the pace and demands placed on these men as chaplains.”

Many of those demands come with the nature of working with the military. Chaplain David Mansberger, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, told a story to First Baptist Church of Santa Fe about a squad of Army soldiers in Iraq who were on a mission to capture a well-known terrorist leader.

“The terrorist leader was the man of the house… so they kicked in the door and went in,” he said. “There were a lot of women there, a lot of children there. They located the man they identified as the terrorist leader but suddenly the women rushed the soldiers. The soldiers didn’t want to hurt them and so they didn’t pull their guns or anything.”

He continued, detailing how the women overpowered one of the soldiers. In the chaos of the following moments spent trying to rescue their comrade, a shot was fired and hit the suspected terrorist, killing him.

“They took the body outside to the commander, who had just pulled up in a humvee,” Mansberger said. “The first thing he said to them was ‘this is the wrong house.’”

The soldiers were then put into a very difficult position emotionally.

“What do you do? You are the chaplain. Do you condemn the soldiers that came through with orders to do this?” Mansberger asked. “…You’ve got to help them deal with the guilt and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and help them feel whole again. You’ve got to connect them back to life – only chaplains can do that. Only through God’s forgiveness can that happen.”

But this service often comes at a cost. The duties of a chaplain do hit home, and they must often deal with PTSD as well as marital and family difficulties at the same time themselves.

Another element of a chaplain’s job is often to contact the families of fallen heroes.

“Now days, chaplains are able to connect with families of the fallen faster than ever via Skype, and within two days sometimes, leaving them sharing information with the closest people to these servicemen only days after they have died. This leaves very little time for chaplains to process and grieve,” Riza shared. “But they have such a resiliency, these young chaplains.”

Sponsors often check in on the chaplains by visiting them within a certain time of them returning from a deployment, Riza mentioned, sharing that the Texas Baptists Chaplaincy Relations department plays a big role in this.

“We have made a pledge to visit our chaplains once every other year and within 100 days of their returning from ‘down range*’,” Riza said. “We check in to see that they are doing ok and what their needs are.”

Many chaplains are nervous about the budget cuts they have been given in recent years and fear the quality of their work may suffer.

“My sincere hope and prayer is that we don’t look for quick and easy ways to cut budget through the chaplaincy,” Col. Seguin said. “We have these re-assimilation and counseling type of retreats for couples and families of men returning from down range, and it definitely helps them readjust. I would hate to see these programs have to be altered; they have been very effective, but budgeting may be a challenge.”

Many chaplains also expressed a shortage of help in this area, especially among Catholic priests. Texas Baptists currently endorses 660 chaplains, about 250 of which minister to our military.

To learn more about Texas Baptists military chaplaincy efforts or how to serve as a chaplain, visit the chaplaincy website.


*”Down range” is a term referring to a location where military personnel are stationed near a combat zone.

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