Thirty-five years ago 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-five years later, old enough now to be “old school,” the Four Chaplains still embody for me the values of the military chaplaincy. Chaplains exist to care for Soldiers. Chaplains exist to ensure that the First Amendment rights of Soldiers 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 chaplains have also a higher calling, reflected in the motto, Pro Deo et Patria, for God and Country. Chaplains ever point beyond political expediency and military exigency to a universal transcendence before Whom we must all stand in judgment.
And though chaplains have differing beliefs about the nature of the Divine, and how to worship Him, chaplains 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. Chaplains collaborate with colleagues of other faiths, while refusing to compromise their own faith. If a chaplain cannot perform a service that a service member needs, they 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, the US military has Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu chaplains as well (and it may not be long before the US follows the lead of some other countries and has Humanist chaplains, too).
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 Religious 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. And I developed lasting friendships with Soldiers who were Atheist, but who appreciated my demonstrated care for all.
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. Chaplains can’t be forced to do anything in conflict with their faith.
But to focus on what chaplains can or cannot do misses the point. It isn’t about us. It’s about Soldiers. Chaplains dare not fight over the color and shape of life jackets when the lives of Soldiers and Sailors and Airmen and Marines and Coasties are at risk. They struggle, as never before. They bear visible and invisible wounds of nearly twenty years of war. They look to chaplains for life, for hope, for grace, for mercy, for inspiration, for compassion. If they find chaplains are not there for them, if chaplains are enamored like Narcissus with their own reflection, then those chaplains have truly missed the boat.
Times have changed. Today’s youngest slick-sleeved service members were born after 9-11. But some 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 count of Soldiers and veterans I have known who have died by suicide. I ministered after three Soldiers died in two separate HMMWV rollovers. I lost two Soldiers in one platoon to motorcycle accidents weeks apart. And I did a funeral for a murdered Marine.
I never did a casualty notification for a combat death. I have done two for Soldiers who died by suicide. I have counseled victims of sexual assault and victims of commanders who mishandled reports of assault. I have listened to Soldiers who wonder whether the “Global War on Terror” was worth it. The anger of September 11 has given way to the weariness of day after day after day of deployment, twenty years of Groundhog Day.
Veterans and service members are surrounded by deep waters. They look to chaplains for help. 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 [those] who shall have borne the battle and for [the] widow and [the] orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”