Spring 2002
Volume 6 Number 3













Chaplains Who Serve the US Armed Forces

For God and Country  |  Section 2: Two Extremes of Love Section 3: The Demands of Ministry  |  Section 4: Two Chains of Command Section 5: A Ministry of Diversity  |  Section 6: Chaplain History  |  Section 7: Theological Boot Camp  |  Section 8: A United Vision

The Demands of Ministry

Yet within this tension of serving both God and country, chaplains—because they live, train, and are deployed with their “congregations”—enjoy (yes, that’s the right word—at least most of the time) unparalleled intimacy with those to whom they minister.

David Chambers

David Chambers

“When you’re a civilian, the pastor is often the last person you want to know your problems,” says David Chambers, Class of 1945, who is now retired but had served for 25 years as a navy chaplain and then as director of the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel. (This council has the role of “procurement, endorsement, and supervision of chaplains loaned to the armed services” by several Presbyterian denominations.) “In the military, the first person you go to is the chaplain,” he says. “You want them to be with you through it. When I was shipboard, every person who was up for disciplinary problems came to me first, whatever the problems or needs. That’s the closeness you get with your parishioner when you’re on board a 1,000-foot-long boat. You live with them. They see you 24 hours a day, and you see them 24 hours a day.”

All kinds of ministry can happen “when soldiers are up to their elbows in grease fixing a helicopter,” says Kibben, who served one of her tours with HMX-1, the presidential helicopter squadron. “You’re all part of the same team. You’re not like a pastor looking in from the outside on the members of your congregation employed by IBM. The marines appreciate it when you go on a run with them, even if chaplains aren’t always in the best shape. It proves that you’re dedicated and that you understand the rigors they’re facing. So they’re more apt to approach you, because they know that you understand where they’re coming from.”

Jeff Zust

“We actually go to work with our people,” says Jeff Zust, a Th.M. student and an active duty army chaplain who last served with the 16th MP Brigade (Airborne). He cited this desire for constant contact with soldiers as the major reason he chose this ministry. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Chaplain, I want to set up a formal appointment.’ But oftentimes I’m out in the field with a soldier who will say, ‘Sir, you got a minute?’ And the discussion can be about marriage counseling. It can be about ethics in the workplace. About faith. Or any number of things.”

“An incarnational ministry of presence” is what air force chaplain Raymond Hart, Class of 1989, calls it. Hart is chief, Professional Division, Office of the Command Chaplain, Headquarters, Air Combat Command, at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia. He has served as an active duty air force chaplain since 1979, including in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. Before that he was in the air force reserves for six and a half years when he also pastored African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches. “We carry the presence of God,” he says. “We go as God’s ambassadors, caregivers, and servants. Our most important task is what we actually do in a deployment or war situation seven days a week, 16–18 hours a day—that is, being out and about with our personnel, visiting them wherever they are.” 

Raymond Hart

The army’s UMT Handbook lists the core doctrinal principles of its chaplain corps as nurturing the living, caring for the wounded, and honoring the dead.

Zust breaks these down further: The chaplain is a protector of the religious freedom of all soldiers, no matter their faith—or nonfaith—allegiances. By calling attention to the presence of God in the daily life and ceremonies of the military, another role is as a sort of civil religion coordinator, who is concerned with the sincere expression of faith during public ceremonies. “Troop talisman” is a term he gives to yet another role the chaplain plays. “I come from an airborne unit,” he says, “so one of the things I do is jump with my soldiers, who see me and say, ‘Alright, chaplain’s on the jump today, everything’s going to be good.’ Even though they know I’m not immune, that I’ve been injured before just like them.” In other words, the chaplain’s presence allows troops to express their fear, or other emotions, without betraying the machismo/a culture. The chaplain is also supposed to ensure that equal opportunity is respected throughout the ranks, in everything from officer promotions to the fact that “soldiers watch how the chaplain treats different groups, for example, who he or she sits with during the meals.” Pastoral care for the families of military personnel is another part of the chaplain’s charge. “It’s been said a chaplain does more counseling in one day than the average civilian pastor does in a month,” says Chambers.

Then there is pastoral care in combat, as well as pastoral care to those who have endured the battlefield. “When people go through the valley of the shadow of death, and there’s a chaplain there, they’ll never forget it,” says Hart. “When the chaplain is there—whether they see the cross, the crescent, or the star of David—I think they feel that God is with them, because the chaplain is with them.”

Fred Tittle, an M.Div. senior, faced such harrowing circumstances—long before he entered seminary—when he served for twenty years in the Marine Corps, which included tours in Vietnam, Panama, and the Middle East, before he retired as a first sergeant. After seminary, he wants to minister to veterans, “particularly those who have been traumatized by combat, and to assist them as they continue to try to deal with the trauma.”

“My job was in the infantry,” says Tittle, “which involves seeing people die and taking the lives of other people. So for us, having the chaplain around was very important. We had all been taught not to kill, and there we were being trained to kill. Individuals went to the chaplains because they were conflicted—afraid of dying, afraid of killing someone. I felt like the chaplain was most important in this pastoral care.”

He says it’s very difficult for people who have combat experience to talk about their experiences with those who have no combat experience: “I have not found too many who have been able to cross that great divide.” Yet, he says, “With the training in pastoral care that they get now, chaplains are becoming much more sensitive to the needs.”

For God and Country  |  Section 2: Two Extremes of Love Section 3: The Demands of Ministry  |  Section 4: Two Chains of Command Section 5: A Ministry of Diversity  |  Section 6: Chaplain History  |  Section 7: Theological Boot Camp  |  Section 8: A United Vision