Yesterday was Veterans’ Day. I attended the Eucharist to pray for all those I know and don’t know and their families. That brought back some memories.
In 1979, I was awarded The Chaplain of the Year by the Reserve Officers’ Association. I had to travel to Washington D.C. and attend a fancy gathering and give a short speech. For some reason, these ideas came back to me as I prayed my Lectio Divina this morning. (Philippians 2:5). I remember thinking that I had no idea in the world why I would be selected out as Chaplain of the Year. Come to find out that it is awarded every three years to the US Army Reserve Officer Chaplain, the other two years go to the Navy and the Air Force. They told me I got my name on a plaque somewhere in the labyrinth inside the Pentagon. I can remember having to wear my dress uniform and try to look chaplainy. At that time, I had been a US Army Chaplain for only two years and knew almost nothing about the military, mostly tripping over myself with all the mistakes a rookie makes. I remember trying to say something from the heart during my brief two-minute thank you speech. Here is a combination of what I did say and what I think I should have said to those gathered at that event. This only makes sense to me because it is also what I think Christ would have said to his disciples and Apostles in the upper room before He left them alone.
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A US ARMY CHAPLAIN
I am happy to be with you tonight to share this award with my other brother and sister Chaplains. I have been a US Chaplain for two years, and I never thought I would end up where I am. I have never been in combat, nor have I the wisdom that comes from trial and error (mostly error) and learning from those events. Yet, I stand before you a novice, one who does not have the paint of his first military coating yet dry. Yet, I want to share with you four things that I have picked up.
A chaplain has absolutely no authority to do anything, but if they are humble enough, they can greatly influence their commander. Not all chaplains are good, and some of them are complete fools. Commanders can realize that chaplains are not god, but can point out the hotspots where soldiers can get into trouble. A good chaplain is another set of eyes and ears for the commander, respecting confidences but knowing what is really going on in his unit. You don’t get that by sitting on a chair all day. Be out with the troops, and everything else is gravy.
Realize that you are not God’s gift to the Army. The first stop was to my commander to introduce myself, report for duty, and ask what the commander wanted from his religious chaplain. The second stop was to the Sergeant Major. I introduced myself and asked them what they wanted from a chaplain that I was there to help them not be a morals MP. I always asked if there was anything I could do for them that they could not do and where I might be of help.
A chaplain must serve all those in the Commander’s unit. A chaplain is assigned to a unit to perform the spiritual services of that commander for the troops. I considered myself a Roman Catholic Chaplain; that is, I did that for those who wished to avail themselves of the Sacraments. But how I saw my role was to be out there in the field with the troops. This was in the motor pool, in the mess hall, in the stockade, in the places where officers can’t go (Enlisted Club with permission of the Command Sergeant Major). It is the commander’s program for the troops, not yours. You, as a chaplain count, only insofar as you help the troops, all troops.
I spent many a day just walking around the unit, learning how to load an M48A tank, which is where the saying, “Up, ready to fire,” is used. I tried to keep my mouth shut and listen to the troops, where they were from, how things were going, how their families were back home. Yes, I saw all the sexual shenanigans everyone did. No, I did not condone it. Yes, it did not stop me from thinking of soldiers as the reason I joined the Army. I like the saying of G. K. Chesterton: “I don’t need the church (chaplains) to tell me the what I do is bad that I know is bad; I need them to tell me when something is bad that I think is good.”
Pray for the chaplains of all our denominations.