Friday, June 12, 2009

Chaplains: Then and Now

During my first enlistment, the chaplains I met were mostly from mainline Protestant denominations including the kind of Baptists who go to seminaries as well as Catholic priests. A chaplain in the 1970s was, in my experience, a well-educated mid-30s and older guy who was well-read, but not scholarly, not very fit, and liked the company of soldiers.

One of our chaplains is exactly that, mainline denomination, pastor of a large church in a small town back home, struggles to stay fit and watch his weight, is affable and friendly. His sermons tend to exhortation and have no hard edges. He went to a denominational seminary, but did no post-graduate academic work.

But every other chaplain I have met so far would have been too strange for the 1970s Army. If the culture was all in a swirl outside the gates, the 1970s chaplains were the recruited in the 60s and were not campus radicals.

Before we left, the chaplain for our battalion was a short, intense Greek Orthodox priest who looked vaguely familiar when I met him. When he introduced, I got one of the biggest surprises of my first months back in the Army. Fifteen years ago, our Greek Orthodox chaplain was the assistant chaplain of Franklin and Marshall College. In matters of politics he on the Left, but he was called to serve with soldiers after 9/11 and had already been on one deployment. In fact he left our unit to go with the Stryker Brigade just a few months before we deployed.

The chaplain at the most recent contemporary Protestant service I attended raised his hands to praise the Lord while the rock band played up front. He preached on sin and called people who wanted to commit their lives to The Lord to come up to the front of the Church. In the 1970s the Evangelical pastors had to be rather circumspect about altar calls. This intense career chaplain, who looks like he could serve on the line with his armor troops, conducts his service just as I assume he would back home.

Another chaplain who I see in the DFAC and out on the bus stops is also an Evangelical. He is a guy who can identify with soldiers. One time I was sitting with him in the chow hall he was talking about how much he is looking forward to the next Dan Brown movie. He loved the DaVinci Code movie. He also liked the Matrix movies. He watches a lot of movies. He plays video games. Again, hard to imagine him serving in the 70s Army.

I have attended the Catholic service at 5pm the last two Sundays just to hear the homily by one of the Catholic priests. This chaplain loves New York. He was educated at Columbia, taught philosophy at Fordham, and after his beloved New York was attacked, decided to serve. He was deployed before and just volunteered to extend his current deployment for another year. He is a big, cheerful guy who looks more at home in camouflage than priestly vestments. (By the way, I have been to three different services with the priest wearing vestments. It still looks weird to me seeing those long white, or purple, red robes worn with combat boots.) While this chaplain preaches at the main base on Sunday, he is not on base during the week. He flies out to smaller bases in the surrounding area to do pastoral counseling at the forward bases.

In addition, there are Gospel services with lay ministers who preach. That is one thing that is exactly the same as the 1970s. When I was stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany, in the 1970s, the most lively service was the Sunday night Gospel service. It's the same here. Back then the minister was an sergeant first class from our tank battalion. Here he is a retired first sergeant who came back as a civilian contractor. The choir leader is a staff sergeant. She is on active duty.

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