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Chaplains help soldiers, families face modern military challenges

Published: Friday, Sept. 7 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Chaplain Mark Nevius delivers his sermon during Protestant service held at Hill Air Force Base Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Chaplain Mark Nevius knew he would get into touchy territory when his Sunday sermon on Colossians Chapter 3 got to verse 18: "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands ... "

But he didn't dodge the controversial passage. Instead, he drew on a lifetime of experience as the son of a pastor and a minister over of his own congregation, as well as his own deployment away from his family as a chaplain, to turn an awkward moment into an opportunity to preach about strengthening family.

He took the congregation, which included two base commanders and some spouses likely experiencing the strain of an overseas deployment, through earlier verses of the New Testament epistle that stressed love, respect, kindness and compassion. He used personal anecdotes to counsel that with those qualities in a marriage both spouses naturally work together instead of against each other.

"Wives are not less than husbands," he said holding out both hands. "We are all equal partners in the grace of God."

The scene of Nevius, dressed in casual civilian clothes while presiding over the weekly Protestant service here, illustrates the unique relationship he has with his diverse flock — a flock that spans from the highest to the lowest ranking personnel and represents people from all walks of life and faith traditions.

His role is one that has been valued for centuries by rulers and commanders seeking a chaplain's counsel and by warriors seeking confidence and comfort in battle. The U.S. military has maintained a robust chaplain corps over the past decade — with increases during the buildup of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan — as it tries to meet the spiritual needs of a religiously diverse fighting force. These chaplains play a key role in helping manage modern-day military challenges, including separation from family, suicide, sexual assault and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Family affairs

Unarmed at all times, Army chaplains are embedded with the troops, building a powerful bond of trust in which soldiers know they can go to a chaplain at any time and almost any place to talk. Private time with a chaplain is without the normal formalities, reporting and structure of the military culture.

"It's a very critical function of the chaplaincy to provide a safe environment where a solider of any rank or position can come in and speak in full confidence," said Chaplain Karen Meeker, a lieutenant colonel and executive officer for the Army's chief of chaplains. "To provide that pastoral counseling is very important for the health of the unit and that soldier and his or her family."

Meeker was deployed to Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division and recalls being stopped day and night to provide a listening ear.

"I remember brushing my teeth about midnight and someone standing next to me saying, 'Oh, chaplain, I just got a phone call or an email. I just need a few minutes to talk,'" she said.

Family matters are among the most common reasons soldiers talk with chaplains while away from home, according to interviews with several chaplains.

The inability to communicate with family without touching and the limited time to share feelings and concerns can strain a long-distance relationship, especially if the marriage had problems before deployment, Nevius said.

"When you have a mission to do and you worry about all that is going on at home, it can affect you," Nevius said. "It further complicates it when an airman makes unwise decisions."

The increasing need to address the strain families feel when a sailor or Marine goes into combat then readjusts to home prompted the Navy to reassess its 2003 decision to reduce its number of chaplains serving the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard units as part of an overall downsizing in personnel.

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