Separation from loved ones and the growing threat of war have kept Utah's military post chapels and chaplains unusually busy this holiday season as the faithful seek "Peace on Earth" and within themselves.
"People are responding to these difficult circumstances with a tremendous range of emotions, and as chaplains, we are trying to assist them as best we can," said Utah Army National Guard Chaplain Willard Malmstrom.He and the other chaplains in the state have been at the front line of the emotional and spiritual battles being waged by the thousands of personnel who have been deployed to the Persian Gulf, as well as their loved ones.
No regular, reserve or guard unit has been deployed without prayer and reflection. All departing servicemen and servicewomen have been offered - and most have accepted - religious materials. And a number of support groups have been formed for family and friends at home.
Every Thursday at 7 p.m., relatives of deployed personnel gather at the National Guard headquarters in Draper for a family briefing and support meeting, which Malmstrom says has played an important role in helping individuals cope with difficult situations.
"From what we have seen so far, there is considerable disruption in their lives, considerable emotional distress. Many are expressing deep feelings of loss, anxiety and anger," Malmstrom said. "It is clearly a grieving process."
The emotional fallout may be more widespread than previous military operations because of the large reserve and guard component, which involves many more individuals who are married and have children, he explained.
For the chaplains, it means responding to a wide variety of needs and concerns both from the personnel on duty and their families. "Yes, we are ombudsmen in many ways, and advocates and counselors. We attempt to fulfill the needs of the people we serve."
Malmstrom said the separation from spouses and children within such a dangerous setting is having a "profound impact" on military personnel. And their emotions naturally affect those around them, he added. "The heart strings are drawn out."
Even though servicemen and servicewomen on reserve status are trained to prepare for the eventuality of a call-up and the possibility of armed conflict, the reality is always difficult to accept, Malmstrom said.
"Preparing for it, talking about it - that is never the same as actually experiencing it," Malmstrom said. "It will be a test for many of them."
And chaplains are there to help them pass it, at home and in the Persian Gulf. Two of the nine Utah Army National Guard chaplains have been deployed to Operation Desert Shield, joining others from all branches of the military.
"The most important role of the chaplain is to protect the rights of all personnel to maintain their religious beliefs and to help them practice those beliefs," Malmstrom said.
Certain restrictions on religious practices in the predominantly Moslem Persian Gulf have complicated the chaplains' job. For example, religious items must not be publicly displayed, proselytizing is prohibited and religious services must be discrete. "We have had to be very sensitive to those concerns," Malmstrom said.
Chaplains are not required to perform any religious service that is contrary to their own beliefs, but they do perform non-denominational services that cover a broad spectrum of needs. They are required to have the ecclesiastical endorsement of their own religious organizations and also must meet military criteria.
Almost all faiths are represented in the chaplaincy service. Malmstrom, who has been a chaplain for 20 years, is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In civilian life, he works for the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
He said the prospect of separation and the possibility of war has caused many servicemen and women to return to their "spiritual roots." Individuals who are placed in that situation find themselves facing significant choices and begin to reflect more upon the greater values of life.
"It is a very sobering thing, and they need our support, emotionally and spiritually, more than ever at this time," Malmstrom said. "For the religious community, it is important that we show our concern and support. Families that have that will fare much better."
He urges anyone wishing to participate in the National Guard's family support program to join the Thursday night meetings. "We have experts and volunteers there to answer technical questions and to help in a variety of ways. Also, there are other spouses and family members there who are going through the same thing, and no one understands it better than they do."