In 2003 during the initial attack toward Baghdad, Sherer was assigned to 3rd infantry Division, somewhere in the desert of southern Iraq.
Rev. Dr. Barbara Sherer, MDiv ’82, the first female chapel deacon at Princeton Theological Seminary, began her military service as a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserves, then moved into active duty, including four combat zone deployments. Ascending to the rank of colonel, Sherer became the senior chaplain at the United States Military Academy at West Point and the deputy commandant of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center.
Sherer says that as a chaplain, “I’d perform any service I could – communion, worship services, or weddings.”
Three weeks after she’d entered active duty, Sherer was sought by soldiers whose religious needs were rejected by other chaplains.
“I was in a medical unit when we deployed to Somalia. One of my doctors was a Latter Day Saint,” she said. “A group of Mormon soldiers wanted to worship. A previous chaplain said, ‘Well, you’re all going to hell.’ I was glad to be able to help, but was frustrated that people were having to ask.”
Sherer credits her relationships with commanding officers with the success of her efforts to uphold soldiers’ right to worship. She says, “As I got to know my commanders, we’d work really well together, and they weren’t threatened by me. I could stand up to them and they’d listen.”
In a deployment to the Middle East, Sherer describes a commander who was a very strong Christian. She says, “A soldier working closely with the commander admitted to me that he was Wiccan. I was arranging a Wiccan open circle meeting and helping him get there. The commander brings one of the flyers to me, and says, ‘Chaplain, we’ve got to do something about this.’ I said, "We have to let them meet. How can we have our meetings of faith and not allow others to have theirs? The commander was not happy, but knew I was right.”
“We’ve come to the point where some chaplains may say, ‘It’s against my religion to provide for a Muslim soldier or a soldier who’s gay.’ You have to understand that the whole reason for the chaplaincy to still exist is that a couple of Harvard students decided that they would go after it. They went almost all the way to the Supreme Court. The reason the government won and was allowed to continue having a chaplaincy was the First Amendment. When soldiers deploy, it is so important that they have available to them their ability to worship.”
When Sherer was named Army colonel, the two other women who’d reached that rank had retired. For the next few years, Sherer was the only female colonel among approximately 1,200 chaplains in an army of about 457,000 soldiers. Her keep-it-real approach allowed her to be a soldiers’ advocate through her years of Army chaplaincy.
Sherer retired from the Army in 2017, volunteers at a local zoo and with therapy dogs, and continues her support for military chaplaincy by serving as one of the representatives from the PC (USA) on the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel.
She says she holds hope for and concerns about the provision for religious freedom in the U.S. military.