Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Christian Science Monitor's In-depth Military Chaplain Series a Worthy Read

A really informative 6-part Christian Science Monitor series is soon coming to a close, and well worth a read. For those who grew up in the era of M*A*S*H, who can forget the soothing salve of the unit's beloved Father Mulcahy?

These important caregivers are much-need, but unfortunately severely-strained (each deployed chaplain has a client base of about 1,000 troops to minister to). These professional souls do some of the most exigent work providing comfort and support in and out of the field to our warriors. Wonderful to see this work appreciated and recorded by CSM:

They carry no guns, yet US military chaplains are considered a force multiplier in the war theater. Today, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military expects chaplains to meet the spiritual needs of troops. But it also recognizes their importance in everything from counseling the young soldier crying in his bunk over a Dear John letter to being a leveling moral presence among troops trained to fight and kill. Reporter Lee Lawrence spent three months with dozens of military chaplains in Iraq and Afghanistan. She profiles six of them in a weekly series.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

From Part I:

[Navy Chaplain Michael] Baker found himself navigating far more difficult waters. Word came that a 20-year-old lance corporal had committed suicide. He shot himself with his M-16 rifle while on duty at one of Habbaniyah's guard posts. Baker got there right away. While the doctor tended to the victim, the chaplain focused on the other young marine on guard, who was ricocheting from shock to grief to what Baker terms the "would'ves, should'ves, could'ves."

When Baker went to the guards' barracks that evening, he found three of the young man's closest friends reeling from another shock. As Baker recounts the event his delivery is clipped, his eyes stern: A senior noncommissioned officer had visited the guard detachment and told them they could get through this and needed to realize that their deceased comrade was right then burning in hell. "[They] basically had this bombshell dropped on them," says Baker, whom the marines collared, wanting to know whether their buddy was truly in hell.

The chaplain was "flabbergasted" at the NCO imposing his religious views. Like all military chaplains, he must negotiate a volatile no man's land between church and state by serving as clergy in a secular institution. As such he is the military's "subject matter expert on religion," an authority he needs to exercise without imposing his own religious views on others.

The case here was clear: The marines approached him for his opinion. And he gave it to them in the hope that it would mitigate their hurt.

"From my understanding, God did not make any of us on earth the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner," he told them. "And if I am correct, I should be the only theologian attached to this Marine unit.... Ultimately, God is your friend's judge," declared Baker, who rebelled against the fire and brimstone approach of his childhood church and chose the Methodists' God of grace.

While chaplains are not to proselytize, they are however charged with imposing their "prophetic voice" and calling to task those, regardless of rank, who act immorally, unethically, or otherwise destructively. Chaplains pragmatically pick their battles. Though Baker believed the battle in the guards' quarters that day was important, he stated flatly afterward, "I am waiting to cool down a bit. I am still sort of simmering."

Far more pressing, was the question: What kind of memorial, if any, should mark the young man's passing? "The Marines are very code-of-honor driven," said Baker, "and for somebody to take his life, it's outside the code."

The ramifications become apparent in the days following the suicide. Two marines in "battle rattle" – helmet, antiballistic sunglasses, bulletproof vest – manning a checkpoint at one of the entrances to nearby Fallujah know about the suicide and express the kind of ambiguous emotions Baker hears from many in the ranks.

"He deserves credit for signing up and coming out," says the taller of the two, his hands resting on the M-16 slung across his chest. "But it's tough being here – it's easier to pull the trigger."

They don't think their dead comrade should be awarded the honor of a marine killed in action. But asked if the unit should refuse any memorial at all, their heads snap up. "He deserves something," the tall one says adamantly. His mate nods in agreement.

Back at Habbaniyah, outside the small guard booth at the main gate, Lance Cpl. Brandon Jones voices another view. Behind him stretches the same brown landscape that his dead buddy, until recently, scoured for eight-hour shifts. Corporal Jones was the closest to the marine who died, but he hadn't picked up that anything was amiss. The suicide, Jones says, didn't alter the fact that his buddy was always the first to step up for a task and to do it double-time. Told that the memorial ceremony might be altered, Jones looks pained. "He was a good marine," Jones argues. "Once a marine, always a marine."

From Part II:

[Forward Operating Base] Salerno is on "light discipline." At night, soldiers open and shut doors quickly and, outside, use red flashlights, undetectable by Taliban in the surrounding hills. It's at this time – when stars by the hundreds pop out of the pitch-black sky – that the phone room is at its busiest. Soldiers line the long narrow space, chairs pulled up to open carrels, heads tilted forward in attempts at privacy.

Here, anger often spits out through clenched teeth. The person in the next carrel may not hear but, at the other end, the words come through clear and hurtful.

[Capt. Shareen] Fischer recalls a paratrooper who sought her out because "he'd been talking really rough to his loved one ... degrading her. He started to see her self-esteem go down," and the relationship grew increasingly tense.

Fischer says she reminded him that "this is a critical time: She's taking care of the children and trying to keep everything stable back in the rear. You need to encourage her and praise her." As the soldier changed his tune, the tension eased and the relationship improved.

Because the Army assigns chaplains to a unit rather than a base, Fischer spent two years with the battalion before deployment. "That comes in handy," she laughs, "because I'm building relationships with the paratrooper, the spouse, the children, the dog – everybody!"

But, in deployment, she only gets one side of every story. "So I'm only going to deal with that one side. 'What can you do? What changes can you make? Let's not focus on your spouse. Let's focus on you,' " she tells soldiers.

In the mess hall, in bunkers during a rocket attack, hanging out by the pool table, soldiers gripe about extended tours, and some deride decisions made in Washington. But it isn't despondency over the war or its prosecution that propels them to knock on a chaplain's door at 2 in the morning. It's the Dear John letter. It's news of infidelity. It's a wiped-out bank account because a girlfriend went on a spending spree to cheer herself up – "mall therapy" with the serviceman's checkbook.

The military has recognized this and, says Dennis Orthner, a professor at the University of North Carolina who researches military families, the Army in particular has "ramped up family support services, largely led by chaplains." Divorce among Army personnel – with the exception of female enlisted soldiers – has dropped since 2004, and he believes it's due in part to the Army's investment in families and "an enlightened chaplain corps."

The crucial area for couples, in his view, is communication. "Couple communication is what drives the relationship quality," says Professor Orthner.

This is where Oprah and military meet. A RAND Corporation report this year said the effect of marriage on performance and retention of service members "may have significant implications for national security." The key isn't whether service members are married, but whether their marriages are healthy.

Be sure to read the entire compelling series.

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