Thirty years ago next month I raised my hand, took the oath of office, and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, Chaplain Candidate, in the US Army Reserve. That summer, as a student in the Chaplain Officer Basic Course at Fort Monmouth, NJ, I first heard the story of the four chaplains: George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington. Four men of different faiths, bound by love–love for God, love for their country, love for each other, and love for their soldiers.
Thirty years later, and I think I’m old enough now to be “old school,” the Four Chaplains still embody for me the values of the military chaplaincy. We exist to care for our soldiers. We exist to ensure that their First Amendment rights are protected.
In his famous speech at West Point in 1962, General Douglas MacArthur reflected on the motto of the United States Military Academy: Duty, Honor, Country. All soldiers—indeed, all service members–share those values. But we have also a higher calling as chaplains, reflected in our motto, Pro Deo et Patria, for God and Country. We ever point beyond political expediency and military exigency to a universal transcendence before Whom we must all stand in judgment.
And though we have differing beliefs about the nature of the Divine, and how we are to worship him, we share a reverence for this nation’s heritage of Freedom of Religion, and the right of each man and woman to worship him—or not—according to the dictates of the individual conscience. We collaborate with chaplains of other faiths, while refusing to compromise our own faith. If we cannot perform a service ourselves, we cheerfully arrange for a fellow member of the Unit Ministry Team to provide coverage.
Each year, this task becomes more complicated. In 1943, these four chaplains represented the full extent of the chaplaincy’s diversity: Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. Today, we have Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu chaplains as well.
During 2013 I was deployed to Camp Buehring, Kuwait, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. That’s where I lived this to the fullest. I supervised chaplains who were Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative, gay and straight. I coordinated with three Jewish chaplains and a Buddhist chaplain to provide services for my soldiers of those faiths. I supervised lay Distinctive Faith Group Leaders who were Jewish, Mormon, and Wiccan. I was senior pastor for a contemporary Protestant service and had two Seventh-day Adventist services for members of my own denomination.
One day I was in the DFAC and saw the priest and a rabbi having lunch. Joining them, I couldn’t help but say, “A minister, a priest, and a rabbi sat down in a DFAC.” But the rabbi quipped, “It wasn’t a joke until you showed up.”
Caring for soldiers is a fundamental hallmark of the chaplaincy. But in recent years there has been a shift. Some chaplains have shifted their focus from caring for soldiers to insisting on their own rights. Prayer has become a battleground. For my own part, I choose not to make prayer at mandatory events a point of division. I am content ending prayers as we are taught in Matthew 6:13 in the King James Version, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”
There is no crisis of faith in the military. Contrary to Fox News, military chaplains are not under siege. Both military regulations and Title X of the US Code protect chaplains’ religious liberty. We can’t be forced to do anything in conflict with our faith.
But to focus on what we can or cannot do misses the point. It isn’t about us. It’s about our soldiers. We dare not fight over the color and shape of our life jackets when we have soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines and Coasties whose lives are at risk. They struggle, as never before. They bear visible and invisible wounds of 14 years of war. They look to us for life, for hope, for grace, for mercy, for inspiration, for compassion. If we are not there for them, if we are enamored like Narcissus with our own reflection, then we have truly missed the boat.
Times have changed. Today’s youngest slick sleeved service members were preschoolers on 9-11. But our veterans have served six or seven or more deployments. They’ve suffered physical injuries, including amputations and TBI, and mental and spiritual injuries, including PTSD, moral injury, and depression. They’ve seen buddies die. They’ve seen marriages crumble.
I have never done a funeral or memorial service for a combat casualty. But I have lost three soldiers in four years to suicide. I have seen three soldiers die in two separate HMMWV rollovers. I have lost soldiers to motorcycle accidents. And I did a funeral for a murdered Marine.
I have never done a casualty notification for a combat death. I have done two for suicides. I have counseled victims of sexual assault and victims of commanders who mishandled reports of assault. I have listened to soldiers who look at the current situation in Iraq and wonder whether it was all worth it. The anger of September 11 has given way to the weariness of day after day after day of deployment, fourteen years of Groundhog Day.
Veterans and service members are surrounded by deep waters. And they look to us. We must stand together for them. Chaplains of different faiths, yes, but not us alone. We are not the only ones with life jackets. We link arms with physicians, and behavioral health providers, and members of a wide community that includes our fellow veterans and those who have never worn a uniform.
The example of the Four Chaplains is an example to us all. To put aside fear. To reject scapegoating. To show the nation, and the world, a different path. A path of understanding, and compassion, and self-sacrifice. And as I say that, I cannot help but think of those words of Lincoln, which still stand like a beacon to us today:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”