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.
More Than Conducting a Service
"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?"
Prepared for the Tough Questions
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.
But they believe many are called to the chaplaincy, and that it is not just a job, but a vocation. Chaplain Mason experienced firsthand the essential nature of the chaplaincy.
"My brother was killed in Iraq, " he explained. "The chaplains played a vital role in ministering to my Mom and Dad, to me. I don't know what my family would have done if a chaplain had not been there at that moment -- when the knock on the door comes."
A Moment Changes Everything
He looked away, recalling the fear the family felt, the emptiness, the sense of being lost ? and needing help to get them through it. "That moment changes everything," Mason said. It changed him, as well. He wants to give to his fellow soldiers what the chaplains gave to his family, and now considers the chaplaincy his calling. "I lay down my priorities, my prerogatives, my gifts, and I give myself away to other people, because my savior has given himself away for people like me," said Mason.
Jerry Ingalls, a Capt. in the U.S. Army Reserves, entered the Chaplain School to begin the process of moving from warrior to chaplain. He always was sensitive to the struggles and suffering of fellow soldiers, even before considering the shift to chaplain. And fellow soldiers knew it, he said. "One night, I was on radio guard, about 2:00 a.m., and a staff sergeant came to me."
The sergeant needed to talk over something that was worrying him. Had there been a chaplain nearby, Ingalls would have called upon the chaplain to help the sergeant. Yet none were close enough. Ingalls didn't know what he could do. But the sergeant was undeterred. He needed the counsel of someone who could speak to a soldier's soul. "I remember his words. He said, 'Sir, you're not a chaplain but you're the closest thing we've got. Can we talk?'"
"And I heard his story and he wept, and we prayed and it was not long after that that I knew that was what God wanted me to do. Not only to be with them in their hour of need, but to remind them that not only am I here, God is here with them, too."
Lots of Vacant Spots to Be Filled
For Army Reserve Capt. Katie Knapp, it was her own need as a soldier-- in a camp just outside of Baghdad -- that prompted her to enter chaplain school. She saw the effects of the chaplain shortage that was already a problem when she was in Iraq. "I felt I was very technically proficient in my tasks, but I was spiritually empty. I was allowed one hour a week to go to worship services, and sometimes I had to fight for that hour a week. I made up my mind when I was over there, I said, if I could ever find a way to make it easier for people to practice their religion, that I wanted to be able to do that," said Knapp.
Simply having enough chaplains would make that practice much easier. There are several hundred vacant chaplain positions in the military. The reasons for the shortage are many: seminary graduates these days tend to be in their 30s or older, the thought of Army boot camp can be a deterrent at that age and the prospect of serving in war has kept many away. A number of religious denominations are struggling with their own shortages. The Catholic church, in particular, has had difficulty finding enough priests to serve in American churches. That has made many bishops reluctant to allow a priest to leave his parish to become a chaplain.
Chaplain Kenehan is a Catholic priest, and it bothers him that the greatest shortage in the military chaplaincy is of Catholic priests. "The Army is 25% Catholic," he pointed out. "Yet only 8% of the chaplains are Catholic priests." He has pressed Catholic leadership in the U.S. to address the shortage, and help recruit priests to serve in the military. It is a matter of compassion, he believes, and of principle.
"Every soldier has the opportunity to exercise his or her First Amendment freedoms, freedom of religion. That's why the chaplaincy exists, you know, to provide for folks who would not be able to live and practice their religious faith without having military chaplains on hand," said Kenehan.
Chaplain Kreider worries about the shortage, as well. Officially, the military has made sure every soldier is assigned a chaplain. But that chaplain may be miles away, and may be responsible for a thousand or more soldiers. "All of the needs are not being tended to," Kreider said. "We cannot do what we have to do with the few numbers that we have."
Chaplains Bring Sense of What Is Right
Still, Kreider explained, he has no wish to leave the chaplaincy. "I do worry about burnout. I worry about my own limits, emotional limits, spiritual limits," he said. Most of the chaplains he knows are doing continuing rotations into Iraq, with no end in sight yet. He has witnessed so much -- death, anguish, fear, chaos-- and questions that he struggles to answer. Still he is determined to press on. "We bring to the fight a sense of what is right, the ethics of war. Morality." It is a role he sees as crucial for the soldiers he serves. "Because they struggle with that. And we walk with them through that. It's not easy, but it's ok," said Kreider.
Kreider added that, despite the fact there aren't enough chaplains to carry the load, he does believe he has backup. "I believe in a God who has unlimited resources. And he's never failed."
Kreider and the others make it clear that these days they are all praying diligently for more to join them and answer the call.
http://www.usachcs.army.mil (U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School)
http://www.usachcs.army.mil/museum/nav1/mainpage.html (U.S. Army Chaplain Museum (has info on history of chaplaincy, etc.)