Monday, March 12, 2007

Meditating in the field: Chaplains bring higher power to combat

By Spc. Chris McCann
2nd BCT, 10th Mtn. Div. (LI) Public Affairs

CAMP STRIKER, Iraq — It has been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. The stress and life-and-death situations of combat can make the most hardened Soldier look toward a higher power.
In order to provide that counsel and communion, that hope and holiness, there are chaplains.
Chaplain (Maj.) Lonnie Locke, a native of Dothan, Ala., and chaplain for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), oversees his brigade’s six chaplains.
“A chaplain’s main purpose is to be a representative between Soldiers and the commander,” said Locke. “The religious program is the commander’s, we just run it.”
“We have a responsibility to see that each Soldier has his constitutional right to worship as he sees fit,” Locke said. “We’re ultimately here to uphold every Soldier’s privilege of worship.”
Aiding each chaplain in his duties is a chaplain’s assistant, an enlisted Soldier trained in the myriad necessities of the administrative part of the chaplain’s work.
“I think chaplain’s assistants do not receive enough credit for what they do,” said Chaplain (Capt.) Jeffery Bryan of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd BCT. “Mine is excellent. Although I don’t carry a weapon, I don’t feel any need to, because he does such a great job.”
Locke agrees that chaplain’s assistants play a critical role in unit ministry.
“Chaplain’s assistants have special skills as enlisted Soldiers,” Locke said. “They have the training and are able to see people’s problems and do ‘triage’ for us. They support us not only by being our protectors, but also providing technical help.”
“We set up services for the chaplain,” said Sgt. Michael Frickie, a native of Cache, Okla., and assistant to Chaplain (Capt.) Danny Wilson. They serve the 1st Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd BCT. “During the week we screen people who come in for counseling, do paperwork, whatever the chaplain needs done. And off the forward operating bases, we’re bodyguards, since the chaplain is a noncombatant.”
The assistants, besides training on common tasks and Soldier skills, coordinate with units for training, environmental leave and deployment briefings, prayer breakfasts, and retreats.
Staff Sgt. Randall Hansen, a native of Alpine, Utah, and assistant to Locke, explained that the chaplain’s assistant position also carries some heavy burdens.
“We’re trained to recognize the symptoms of combat stress and suicide,” he said. “And we know basic intervention. We’re also the funds clerks. The chaplain’s assistant gathers offerings and deposits them into sub-accounts for each denomination. We keep accountability of each group’s funds.”
Many assistants are drawn to the military occupational specialty because they are religious, but the only requirement is that they demonstrate a “higher moral character” than other Soldiers.
“I’m the most irreligious guy you’ll meet, especially compared with my comrades who go to church every week,” Frickie said. “But I like being around the different people. I’ve learned a lot about different faiths since I’ve been in the Army.”
Perhaps the toughest aspect of being a chaplain’s assistant is that the chaplain and his assistant are seldom of the same religious affiliation.
“You have to be flexible enough to work with any chaplain and his religious preference,” said Hansen. “It may not be the same.”
The job also comes with rewards, he added.
“Out in the field, we’re able to move around and visit Soldiers to provide them with some small spiritual enhancement,” Hansen said. “They’re in the trenches and their spirits can get low. Any spirit we can bring them, enhances them.”
The chaplains are perhaps most visible while conducting religious services, but that’s not their primary workload, Locke said.
“Seventy to seventy-five percent of our work is done in counseling, depending on where we’re at,” said Locke. “Back in the rear, most of it is about relationships and marriage counseling. Here it’s about death and dying, coping with grief …making sense of ‘why God allowed my friend to die.’ Depending on where we’re at, the type of counseling changes.”
“Chaplains and their assistants help Soldiers by befriending them in battle and comforting them if they’re hurt,” Bryan said. “And we help bring closure by conducting memorial ceremonies.”
Providing care for Soldiers in such trying circumstances can be trying in itself, Locke said, and it can be draining. That is where downtime comes in.
“We have to do self-care,” said Locke. “I like reading, prayer, exercising. And talking to other chaplains…it’s good to have a battle buddy to vent and talk to. Sometimes, just having alone time. It’s how I recharge.”
Bryan has had his share of tough experiences, he said.
“One Soldier said, ‘Sir, I am terrified of being killed by an (improvised explosive device), but when I’m with you, I’m not afraid.’ A few months later, he was killed in an IED explosion, and the fact that he was this close to me was life-changing for me. But the worst part is dealing with casualties,” said Bryan. “I have been with Soldiers who have (been injured.) I have shoved them into air medical evacuation helicopters, and I have memorialized many of them.”
But he isn’t going to give it up.
“I’m wired for counseling,” he said. “It’s part of my job that I really enjoy. And it’s amazing how people’s problems fall into two or three different categories. On the spiritual side, people get frustrated with their lives, and they’re seeking something in the physical world that can only come through a strong spiritual relationship with God. They need to redirect their attention from filling that void with other stuff and realize that God is the only one who can fill that.
“On the other side, we do a lot of counseling about relationships and deployments. Many people don’t know how to communicate well. They need to prepare their relationships for long periods of separation. They deploy and leave their spouses behind with little support.”
Spirituality, as well as communication, is critical in combat, said Locke.
“In order to be ready as a Soldier for combat, you must be preparing mentally and spiritually to (deal with death.) That’s part of the mix – the reality of life and death is very obvious in combat and religion speaks about what there is after life.”
“Most Americans are religious,” said Bryan. “Soldiers are no exception, and war causes many participants to consider life and death. Not only does freedom of religion help Soldiers deal with the issues of war, it helps support the very freedom of religion they fight for.”
Trying to provide hope, though, can sometimes be frustrating, said Locke. Making sure that all Soldiers are taken care can be difficult.
“My frustration as the brigade chaplain – it’s my responsibility to see all denominations cared for. It’s more and more difficult see how few Catholic priests, for example, are in the military. It’s very difficult to supply what the Soldiers need. We need Catholic priests, rabbis – the ‘minority’ faith groups are in dire need of chaplains.”
In many cases, Soldiers can fill in as lay leaders for worship services. In others, religious doctrine forbids full services without the presence of ordained clergy.
“Catholics allow lay leaders to do the Liturgy of the Word, but not the full Mass,” Locke explained, citing an example. “It’s a matter of recruiting and getting priests and rabbis in, and the Army chaplaincy doing a good job of dispersing chaplains where they need to be to minister to faith groups in different places.”
Despite the frustrations, said Locke, he loves his job. Enlisted for four years in an aviation job, he planned to become a warrant officer and pilot before his life changed course.
“I met a chaplain in Germany who really made me think,” he said. “I felt God calling me – but was the Army preparation for a mission, or was it my mission?”
Looking back, he says, now he knows.
“This is my mission. God intends for me to do what I do. And it’s the best job in the Army.”

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