Saying Yes to Holiness and Service
Roman Catholic Chaplaincy
In the Army National Guard, the work of a Catholic chaplain is very much a ministry of presence. One of the unique qualities of being a priest in the military is that it is such a large piece of the vineyard in which to get your hands dirty. There are no boundaries that delineate where your ministry should begin or end. You can be as creative as you want and use your gifts and talents every day.
First and foremost, a Catholic chaplain in the Guard needs a deep passion for Catholicism and a strong desire to bring that faith and the sacraments to the Soldiers and families in the military.
Because all Catholic chaplains must be endorsed by a diocese, the work of the Archdiocese for the Military Services would not be possible without the continued sacrifices that the local dioceses make. Their belief in the importance of ministering to military men and women and their families makes the work of Catholic chaplains possible.
It is important for Catholic chaplains to make connections with other priests in the local diocese and tap into that support system. Priests can rely on each other as brothers. This is especially important in light of the fact there are often only one or two Catholic priests within a major Guard command.
Military chaplains and religious support personnel have served with distinction as uniformed members of the Armed Forces in support of the Nation’s defense missions during every conflict in the history of the United States. An example of this is Father Vince Capodanno, a Catholic Chaplain, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions in Vietnam (1967).
Bringing God to the Troops and the Troops to God
Although chaplaincy in the U.S. Armed Forces has its roots in Christian pastors, it has evolved into an interfaith profession. Today, the Jewish clergy are an integral part of the Army National Chaplain Corps.
The military Jewish chaplaincy offers a unique challenge to rabbis who aspire to serve “K’lal Yisrael” in a special environment: the Army National Guard. Jewish chaplains represent the entire spectrum of Jewish identity, from the most assimilated to the most traditionally observant.
Soldiers often find themselves isolated from contact with their Jewish communities because of their global mission. The presence of a rabbi in uniform can make the difference between a Soldier having a strong personal Jewish commitment or the potential abandonment of their faith.
Being a Jewish chaplain in the Army National Guard is an interesting and stimulating ministry. They are trained to respond to a variety of situations and serve all over the world, ministering to a diverse group of people. They also enable Jews in the military to celebrate life-cycle and festival occasions, while providing multi-dimensional educational and support services.
Chaplains are involved in the Soldier’s “Circle of Life,” from births to marriage, to illness and last rites. Every day, Army Guard Chaplains positively affect the lives of Soldiers and their families.
Muslim Chaplains Play Key Role
Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military are stressing to troops of different faiths that Osama bin Laden’s brand of violent fundamentalism does not represent the Islamic religion. “Not only is it not the mainstream of Islam, it is not any part of Islam,” said Abuhena Saif-ul-Islam, a Muslim chaplain here. “What has been done (at the Pentagon and World Trade Center) is a crime against humanity and is strictly against Islamic doctrine.”
To Saif-ul-Islam and other Muslim ministers in the military has fallen the role of explaining Islam to the vast majority of troops who know little or nothing about the ancient faith. The Navy lieutenant, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Bangladesh, will leave soon to join troops in Egypt for a multinational training exercise.
Muslim chaplains and assistants at numerous bases are carrying President Bush’s message that the conflict is not between religions but between the United States and terrorism. Muslim chaplain James Yee, an Army captain, has lectured troops at Fort Lewis in Washington state. And at Fort Campbell, Ky., Army Staff Sgt. Taqwa Ali, a chaplain’s assistant, is briefing soldiers who may soon deploy to the Middle East.
Qaseem Ali Uqdah, a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant and director of the Virginia-based American Muslim Armed Forces & Veterans Affairs Council, plans an Islamic education program for bases across the country. He says that while there have been isolated cases of Muslims in uniform being subjected to insulting comments, he remains confident that military commanders are dedicated to a zero-tolerance policy toward such harassment. “This horrific event is not going to divide Christians, Muslims and Jews,” Uqdah said.
To accommodate an increasing number of Muslims in the U.S. military, the Pentagon in recent years has redoubled efforts to add Muslim chaplains and educate military personnel about the religion. Officials hope that those efforts will now help blunt the potential impact of fiery rhetoric from bin Laden and others that the United States is planning a holy war against Muslims. “Now is a good time for Muslims in the military to be a moderating voice, to play a role in showing everybody that Islam is not a religion of extremists,” said Ingrid Mattson, Islamic studies professor and director of a program at the Hartford Seminary training Islamic chaplains for the U.S. military.
Of 1.4 million active-duty personnel, the Pentagon estimates that 4,000 are practicing Muslims. Uqdah’s group puts the number at closer to 10,000. There are 17 accredited Muslim chaplains in the military and possibly double that many chaplain assistants. The first Muslim chaplain joined the Army in 1993. Saif-ul-Islam was the second Muslim chaplain in the Navy and the first to serve the Marine Corps.
Retired Col. Fred Peck, the top Marine Corps spokesman during the U.S. intervention in Muslim-dominated Somalia, said the Muslim chaplains offer an invaluable means of preventing religious misunderstandings that could undercut troop readiness. “What better way to communicate across cultural lines than to have officers (chaplains) who can both serve troops of their own faith and also help the vast majority of troops understand that faith better?” Peck said. “I think we should have a lot more.”
On Nov. 30, Pentagon officials plan to sponsor their fifth annual Iftar, a Muslim observance marking the end of the fasting period of Ramadan. “If bin Laden and others want the world to think the U.S. is the Great Satan, it’s important that the world knows the truth: that America is Christians, Jews, Muslims, all praying together,” Uqdah said.
A Caring Heart and Willingness to Serve
The work of Protestant chaplains is not confined to the chapel; they’re part of a church that stretches across the world. They go wherever Soldiers need them – in a tent in the desert or in the hospital or at an armory. It is a personal ministry of presence, caring for the needs of military personnel and their families.
Because military service requires extraordinary sacrifices of those who serve and their families, chaplains strive to make themselves available and present. Day or night, chaplains offer guidance, education and direction on religious doctrine. Sometimes, they simply listen. Through their words and actions, they provide a place where those in the military can take comfort, draw strength from their faith’s rites, and reflect on the responsibilities and challenges they have taken on to protect their fellow Americans.
Protestant chaplains have a flexible and creative ministry. They seek ways to reach out and connect with the different people they serve on a personal level, an opportunity that can be hard to come by in a civilian congregation.
Protestant chaplains in the Guard will tell you they would not trade this ministry for any other. The reward is the opportunity to support Soldiers. They are open to spiritual growth and willing to work hard for it. As the Soldiers in the Guard do the difficult work of protecting our freedom, Protestant chaplains walk beside them, providing the spiritual and emotional strength they need.
Religious organizations have richly blessed the uniformed services by sending clergy to comfort and encourage all persons of faith in the Armed forces.