Army Capt. Craig Johnson actually volunteered for his third deployment to Iraq. He didn't particularly want to go. He'd seen enough of war, but he just didn't want the soldiers in his unit to be there without him.
He's their chaplain.
"We go because the need is so great," he said. "The need has never been greater than right now."
Chaplain Johnson found himself with a huge assignment this last deployment: sole minister to several hundred soldiers. "I had over 1,500," he explained, "Fifteen hundred soldiers to take care of in Iraq."
There were no other chaplains available to take on part of that load, because the military is grappling with a shortage of chaplains right now.
"Part of the reason for the shortage is it's a very, very dangerous environment that we're asking people to go to," said Chaplain David Kenehan.
Up until just recently, he was the deputy commandant of the Army's Chaplain School at Fort Jackson, where chaplains are trained to minister to soldiers at war. It is a very specialized skill, and training for it is a time-consuming process. A person must have a graduate divinity degree and serve in a civilian church before even starting Army training. Shortcuts in the training are not an option, even with the pressing need to get chaplains onto the battlefield.
"To be a good chaplain, you need a lot of real solid training. It's not just a matter of conducting a religious service," said Kenehan.
And there are many religious services each chaplain must be familiar with: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist among them. In addition, there is the work outside the services such as counseling. "There's a lot of counseling. You have to have a very bright, well-educated, generous, self-sacrificing individual to get out there and do all that."
And those considering the chaplaincy must be in good physical shape, as well. Chaplain candidates train with soldiers and live with soldiers. Capt. Matt Kreider has been a chaplain for six years. "Army chaplaincy is dirty," he said, with a wry smile. He is gratified by the tough work he and his fellow chaplains do. "It's laying down with the soldiers, it's walking with the soldiers, it's being where they are when they hurt ? at the moment when they're hurting. Not waiting for them to come and get cleaned up and then ministering to them. It's going to the point of need," said Kreider.
Garland Mason is an Army chaplain attending Ft. Jackson's chaplain school as part of his continuing education. There is always more to learn, he believes. Soldiers at war, he said, need a chaplain who is absolutely ready and equipped to help. "They can ask, is there any hope in the midst of this?"
Chaplain Mason wants to stay prepared to answer those tough questions. "Is there any hope here? Or peace that can be found when peace is hard to come by? Is there? Well, the chaplain ? God willing, myself, as I minister myself ? says yes there is. There is hope to be had in the midst of pain. There is light to be had in the midst of darkness. There is peace to be had in the midst of chaos," said Mason.
Chaplains readily concede that the job description isn't exactly attractive to a lot of people: the pay isn't great, the conditions are grueling, the demands are the kind that leave a body and soul drained at the end of a day. And, in war, a day can be 48 hours long. Or more.