Chaplains help soldiers, families face modern military challenges

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

"They took another look and recognized chaplains were integral part of handling some of those needs," said Chaplain Doyle Dunn, executive assistant at Office of the Chief of Navy Chaplains. "Chaplains are vital in an effort to build strong families and individuals and communities. When that happens, our service is mission-ready."

After a five-year decline in the number of Navy chaplains, figures have been gradually going up since 2008. The number of Army chaplains increased steadily during the height of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but has tapered off since the pullout from Iraq. The Air Force chaplain corps has experienced a gradual decline since 2006 as part of an overall personnel reduction.

Pastoral care

All branches of the military actively recruit chaplains at seminaries, divinity schools and other religious institutions. But when Air Force Chaplain Lucas Dalgleish was attending the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago, he paid no attention to the military recruiting booth.

"I had no desire to be a chaplain while I was at divinity school," recalls Dalgleish, the son of a pastor. "At that time, I felt my calling was in the local church ministry."

After graduation, while serving as an assistant pastor at a church in Rochester Hills, Mich., Dalgleish was corresponding with his brother, a nurse, who was serving with the Air Force in Iraq. He learned that a Catholic chaplain was having a profound impact on his brother, who was struggling with what he was experiencing in a military hospital.

"Acting as a good chaplain, he met my brother's personal needs," Dalgleish said. "It was through a personal ministry to one of my family members that caused me to consider it."

His brother converted to Catholicism. And Dalgleish eventually enlisted in the Air Force. Hill Air Force Base is his first active duty assignment, where he serves with Nevius as a second Protestant chaplain and an ordained minister with the International Communion of Charismatic Episcopal Church — the same denomination as his father, who oversees a congregation in Rochester, N.Y.

"It makes for interesting dinner conversation when we get together for the holidays," Dalgleish said jokingly about his family's diverse Christian faiths.

But Dalgleish and Nevius stress that conversion and proselytizing are not objectives of the chaplaincy. "We meet them where they are at, but they have to open the door to God and dictate where they want to go," Dalgleish said of those who choose to seek the counsel of a chaplain.

If soldiers, airmen or sailors wants to meet with someone of their own faith, the chaplain has a duty to meet that spiritual need. "We must ensure the First Amendment right of the free exercise of religion is honored for each airman," said Nevius, who is the acting Wing Chaplain at Hill while his boss, Chaplain Kenneth Crooks, is deployed in Afghanistan.

In a military that is becoming as religiously diverse as the nation, that can become a daunting task. At Hill, the chaplain corps has representatives of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths. An assistant chaplain also serves the 15 Wiccans on base.

The high-ceilinged chapel on base is equipped with various symbols and emblems as it accommodates a wide range of religious services, from an ornate mass to an unadorned sacrament meeting for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The pastoral care chaplains provide also reaches across branches of the military service. Nevius recalls that when he was stationed at Offut Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb., an Army reservist from Iowa came seeking help following a tour in Iraq.

"You could visibly see the shaking, the fear and panic in his eyes as he talked about his experience and how he wasn't coping with life," Nevius said. "He didn't come for anything spiritual. He needed help and just wanted to tell his story. And he knew the chaplain would listen with complete confidentiality."

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