Ever since I was a child, I can remember my grandfathers talking about their military service in World War II. My paternal grandfather started as a pilot and later served in the infantry in the US Army. My maternal grandfather served in the US Navy on board the USS San Jacinto which fought in the Pacific. For me, it was my grandfathers, along with many of my friends who served in various branches, combined with a call into military chaplaincy, that drove me to join the US Air Force Reserve as a chaplain last year.
While my family was aware of my calling into the Air Force Reserve as a chaplain, I think many of my friends found themselves surprised when I shared with them that I had taken the oath to serve. For many, there is often a stereotype that the military will make you into someone who you are not, and given a gun and trained to kill people on your first day. This, of course, is a stereotype based upon fiction and while we do have special forces trained to protect the lives of others and the security of our country, the majority of people will not have this experience. In reality, the majority of men and women who serve are from various backgrounds and walks of life and use their skills and gifts to provide support to their fellow service members and to protect our country.
There are also misconceptions about the military too, particularly military chaplaincy. One of the misconceptions many of my fellow clergy colleagues had about military chaplaincy is that it was our job to prophesize, which is not true about military chaplaincy. While military chaplains tend to come from more theologically Christian conservative traditions, there are also chaplains from many various Christian traditions and other religions. And even though I come from more of a progressive mainline Christian tradition, in my short time so far serving, I have had the opportunity to work and serve under exceptional chaplains who may not share my theology, treat me with respect and provide mentorship. All of us who serve as chaplains are there to be a spiritual presence to those in uniform and their families, meeting them where they are and helping them see the divine no matter what their faith tradition may be.
The process of becoming a chaplain in the United States military isn’t easy and it varies from branch to branch. However, to become a chaplain in the United States military, you first much have a Masters of Divinity and have an ecclesiastical endorsement from a faith tradition. What this means is a faith tradition, in my case the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), gives me their endorsement to serve in the military. Additionally, since chaplains are officers in the military, they must go through an officer training program where they learn about how the military works and how to serve at a base.
For me, I had the opportunity to do this officer training program this past summer at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. And to be honest, it was one of the hardest things to do in my life. While I had never served before, the early mornings of physical training, the constant marching, the academic studies, and most of all, the yelling were things were difficult. However, while there were times I felt that I was ready to quit, it was through the words, guidance, and support (even from those who were yelling at me) that allowed me to see at the end of the training program the privilege it was to wear the uniform and the need not to give up on others and not to give up on yourself. This is something that I will carry with me as I do another training course next summer at Maxwell specifically geared to chaplaincy.
As a reserve chaplain, I am not serving in the military full time in comparison to those who are active duty. However, when I do serve I have the opportunity to provide spiritual care to others in uniform.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is often what you hear has been a major issue that men and women in uniform are dealing with today. And unfortunately, this is true. From PTSD from being in dangerous war zones to PTSD from seeing others die, our military is starting to recognize the need to treat PTSD of those not just returning from overseas, but also in the lives of our veterans. However, there are many other issues service members deal with in which they seek spiritual support. From issues relating to being separated from families to issues relating to relationships, personal struggles, or struggling with the presence of the spiritual divine, chaplains serve to provide this support by meeting men and women in uniform where they are. Much like other forms of ministry, while worship services are a way we encounter God, it’s through the art of spiritual listening we can often hear God speak to us the loudest.
Even though my full-time call has me serving in ministry in the secular world, being able to serve in the reserves is a privilege and honor. And while it comes with its risks and the chance that I someday may be deployed, I often remind myself that I am called to serve the spiritual needs of my fellow men and women in uniform no matter where they may be.
For the millions of people who are currently serving to the millions who have served, being part isn’t just about fulfilling your patriot duty. It’s about being part of something greater than who you are and the ability to work together with those from various backgrounds and protecting the one thing which at times we as Americans take for granted—our freedom.