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.
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.
"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.
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."
Nevius said chaplains don't pretend to be mental health therapists, and they refer those who need it for professional help. In additional to mandatory theological education before they can even apply for the chaplaincy, chaplains go through regular supplemental training in marriage relations, suicide prevention, and sexual assault and PTSD detection.
Lt. Cmdr. Arlin Hatch, a psychologist and acting mental health flight commander at Hill, said mental health professionals and chaplains work together to identify and ensure airmen and their families get the treatment they need.
"We have a great working relationship with our chaplains and other community helpers in supporting units affected by death or other potentially stressful events," Hatch said. "Our mental health staff has also collaborated with chaplains in working with families during post-deployment reintegration retreats."
Chaplains also serve as advisers to military leadership on issues of morale and ethics.
"In the combat environment that is so demanding, it can be very trying on one's character, so the chaplain provides that voice of values and ensures leadership is doing what's right and keeping the right focus," said Meeker, a Methodist who wanted to be chaplain since she was a teenager and is the first woman to hold the position of executive officer for the Army's Chief of Chaplains.
Caring for the chaplain
Chaplains also have their own personal and spiritual needs while they attend to others. In the Air Force, each command has a chaplain that looks after the needs of the chaplains at bases assigned to that command.
During a yearlong deployment to a NATO airbase in Izmir, Turkey, Nevius said he received visits from a chaplain who traveled the region. But he also drew upon his own spiritual disciplines to cope with being away.
"For me, it was scripture reading and prayer," he said.
It also helped that he was serving in an area of the world with historical significance to the early days of Christianity. Within 45 minutes of Izmir were the locales of the seven churches mentioned in the New Testament Book of Revelation. Nevius put together "spiritual journeys" for airmen to visit the Biblical sites.
"The Bible came alive to me as I visited Ephesus" and other sites mentioned in the New Testament, he said.
More importantly, the experience gave him an understanding of what other airmen go through when they are away from home and family.
"You can read books and go to briefings and PowerPoints, but until you experience it, you can't fully understand what they are going through," he said. "As you go through it, you learn the coping skills and how to minister to your own family. Experience itself is a great teacher."