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Ten Years of War - UM military chaplains find support, stress Kathy L. Gilbert, Sep 30, 2011
UMNS FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF CHAPLAIN JERRY SIEG
United Methodist Chaplain Jerry Sieg conducted a baptism service in Kuwait for soldiers of the Third Infantry Division before the Iraq war began in early 2003.
By Kathy L. Gilbert United Methodist News Service
Thousands of U.S. Reserve and National Guard members found themselves called suddenly into active duty and deployed when the war on terror started 10 years ago.
Among them were United Methodist pastors called out of their pulpits in local churches to go with the troops as chaplains.
That turned out to be a blessing, said the Rev. Tom Carter, a retired Army chaplain, who served during the Vietnam conflict.
The American public—including the United Methodist Church—became more aware and supportive of service members, said Mr. Carter, director of the agency that endorses UM pastors as chaplains and pastoral counselors.
“That is radically different than Vietnam,” he said. “Although the wars are not extremely popular, the military personnel were not branded as the baby-killers.”
One example of that support from UM churches was a campaign started on Veterans Day in 2003 to send prepaid phone cards to veterans.
“That program grew out of the love of individuals within our United Methodist churches,” Mr. Carter said.
The United Methodist Endorsing Agency, part of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), collected the money, bought the cards and handed them out to UM chaplains to distribute to anyone who needed to call a loved one.
Online communication such as Facebook, Twitter and Skype make it easier for service members to connect with home so the phone card campaign ended in 2010, but not before more than 17 million free minutes were distributed.
The Rev. Dale C. White, a Navy captain who was deployed to Iraq for 13 months, said the United Methodist Church has been “very responsive” to the needs of service members, from the phone cards to developing liturgies for churches to send members into combat and then welcome them back home.
Capt. White was part of a meeting in 2007 between the GBHEM and the General Board of Church and Society. Active and retired military chaplains met with agency staff to form a task force to write those liturgies.
“United Methodist chaplains bring a unique balance of grace and faith to the military,” Capt. White said. “We have deep ecumenical and interfaith traditions, perfect for the pluralistic military environment. I truly believe we are extremely well suited for this chaplaincy setting and have tremendous influence on those we serve.”
However, service members, including chaplains, still must deal with the effects of long and repeated deployments in harm’s way thousands of miles from home.
Capt. White’s long deployment took “a tremendous toll” on his family. “Four years later I am still rebuilding the relationships with my daughter and son.”
The Rev. Dave Smith, Army colonel and chaplain now serving in Iraq, said there is more the church can do for returning veterans. Active service members have support agencies on their posts when they return, he said, while Reserve and Guard members often do not find the necessary agencies to help them.
“I believe the church is missing a chance,” Col. Smith said. “I think the church could be in mission to our returning veterans. I have addressed some ideas to my conference. The cabinet and bishop agreed to the importance, but the idea did not move further than an idea. In my opinion, we could do more.”
Col. Smith said there has been a lot of stress placed on service members and their families in the last 10 years. Still, he sees something good that has come from this experience.
“The Army has recognized the importance of developing resiliency in our soldiers and families through comprehensive soldier fitness. One of the five pillars of this program is spiritual fitness,” he said.
Chaplains develop spirituality through worship, Bible study, counseling, Strong Bonds training events, praying and visiting soldiers and their families, Col. Smith added.
Next great generation
The wars have been long and costly, said the Rev. Ashley Bell, assistant chief of chaplain service with the Department of Veteran Affairs in Nashville, Tenn.
“What’s been called ‘The Long War’ has been the longest and most costly in history,” she said, pointing out the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have lasted longer than World War I, World War II, the Civil War or the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
“It exceeds the inflation-adjusted cost of all wars, except World War II,” she said. “This war has the highest percent of amputees since the Civil War due to IEDs (improvised explosive devices).”
More than 7,000 U.S. and coalition forces have died since 2001.
“The men and women of this generation have volunteered. They serve in very difficult circumstances and austere situations,” Col. Smith said. “They do so because they love their country and they desire to serve. As a chaplain I am proud to call them brothers and sisters in arms as I witness their sacrifice each day while in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are true heroes.”
Capt. White also finds the young men and women serving today are strong and committed to their mission to serve.
“They are committed, sacrificial, love their country, and have no regrets about their decision to serve when faced with challenges,” he said. “I hear this repeatedly—when I was in Iraq and provided ministry to wounded Marines, they would often say, ‘Chaplain, if I had to do it all over again, I would—despite the hardships, injuries and risks.’”
Comes down to faith
Many UM chaplains were on active duty on Sept. 11, 2001.
Capt. White was at the Pentagon on 9/11 as the deputy director of plans and operations, office of the Chief of Navy Chaplains. He said it is hard to put into words how that day changed him and his ministry.
“Ultimately, it helped me reshape and reprioritize what is important. There is nothing more precious than life.”
Capt. Smith was assigned to the 35th Signal Brigade (Airborne), Fort Bragg, N.C., as a brigade chaplain on 9/11.
“Prior to 9/11, we were an Army preparing and training for war. Since, we are an Army engaged in two wars,” he said. He said that has increased the relevance for religious support and has given chaplains expanded staff responsibility as the religious adviser to the commander. Part of that work is to help the commander understand the religions of the countries where the military are stationed.
“This assists the commander not to make mistakes with regards to religion and customs, therefore not making a critical mistake affecting the success of the mission to win the hearts and minds of the local people,” he said.
The Rev. Robert T. Williams, Navy captain, was chaplain at Camp David on 9/11. When President George W. Bush, his family and some cabinet members gathered for worship the Sunday after 9/11, Capt. Williams offered them words of comfort from Psalm 27:13: “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
“I never really focused much on the attacks themselves. I was much more focused theologically on the response,” Capt. Williams said. He tried to live out one of St. Ignatius Loyola’s famous maxims: “Act as if everything depended on you; trust as if everything depended on God.”
Now 57, he is fleet chaplain for the U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va.
“I was very much taken aback by the sacrifices of the people that day, by the patriotism and by the concern and compassion of the people of America,” he said. “It made a lasting impression on me because of the way the faithful responded.”
Capt. White is back at the Pentagon in the exact place he was on 9/11.
“It is kind of surreal, but a stark reminder that life is not forever and our faith is what is most important in this life.”
Heather Hahn of United Methodist News Service contributed to this story.