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Military Chaplains Undergo Unique Boot Camp

September 11, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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For chaplains to become effective ministers to troops in the field, they undergo specific training about the rules and customs of Army life. Saul Gonzalez reports on how Army chaplains are pepraed to provide religious guidance in war zones and the guidlines of their ministries.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, boot camp for military chaplains.

NewsHour correspondent Saul Gonzalez of KCET-Los Angeles has the story. A version of this report aired on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.”

SAUL GONZALEZ: At Fort Jackson, South Carolina, soldiers train for the dangers of Iraq and Afghanistan.

SOLDIER: Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!

SAUL GONZALEZ: This recent afternoon, it was a simulated insurgent ambush on a military convoy.

SOLDIER: Combat base. This is Charlie One. Copy that.

SAUL GONZALEZ: But many of the troops in this exercise, the ones not carrying weapons, aren’t warriors. They’re members of the clergy attending the Army’s boot camp for chaplains.

COLONEL CLARKE MCGRIFF, Commandant, U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School: So, we are not a theological school, but we take theologians and train them on how to provide or perform religious support in an Army setting.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Colonel Clarke McGriff, an American Baptist minister, is the commandant of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School. It teaches new Army chaplains who have already been ordained by their own religious bodies the rules and customs of Army life.

Teaching chaplains military skills

COLONEL CLARKE MCGRIFF: The Army is a world of its own, and we walk, we talk, we do things in a peculiar way, and for a chaplain and a chaplain assistant to be effective in that environment they each must have the understanding of the codes, the lingo, the particular battle rhythm that the people that they're serving have as well.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Much of the school's 12-week-long curriculum emphasizes battlefield skills, from how to react while under fire, to administering first aid and moving wounded soldiers.

TRAINER: And you just gently ease him down.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL MARC GAUTHIER, Chaplain Training Officer, U.S. Army: The biggest question is, if they deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, their survivability on the battlefield.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Chaplain and Lt. Col. Marc Gauthier plans and manages training at the school.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL MARC GAUTHIER: The expectation is they already have the ministry skills understood, and what we are trying to do is teach them to learn military skills to make both those things match together, so they provide effective care to soldiers and families and provide effective ministry.

TRAINER: Behind me, behind me, Chaplain.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Since military chaplains are classified as noncombatants, they don't carry weapons on the battlefield. Armed and unordained chaplain assistants, who also train at Fort Jackson, provide protection for the military clergy.

TRAINER: Conduct yourself with dignity and honor and comply with the law of war.

SAUL GONZALEZ: New Army chaplains say they have joined the military as a way to serve both their faith and country.

CHAPLAIN MIKE SMITH, U.S. Army: I'm giving every soldier the opportunity to learn about God, to get a source of faith and hope that they may not get.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Prior to becoming a Baptist minister, Mike Smith had been an enlisted Marine and Florida police officer. He says joining the Army chaplaincy has given him a new purpose.

CHAPLAIN MIKE SMITH: What an opportunity to be with those young soldiers now, as a mentor and as an encourager to have -- to give them spiritual motivation, what they -- what kind of motto that we have. We are bringing God to the soldiers and the soldiers to God. That is exciting. That's exciting. That's a new mission.

SAUL GONZALEZ: To further serve soldiers, chaplains at this school learn about crisis intervention and counseling.

TRAINER: Here is the scenario.

SAUL GONZALEZ: New chaplains are also taught how to deal with death on the battlefield.

TRAINER: You are the chaplain for the infantry unit, and you have two soldiers who are killed in action as a result of an IED.

TRAINER: Forward march.

Rejoicing and weeping

SAUL GONZALEZ: Through practice ceremonies, the chaplains learn the solemn task of conducting memorial services for soldiers killed in action. The details range from organizing pallbearers to reciting prayers before bodies are sent back to the United States.

CHAPLAIN MIKE SMITH: I will say of the Lord, he is my refuge and my fortress and my God. In him, will I trust.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Some chaplaincy students at Fort Jackson have already served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and have returned for additional training.

CHAPLAIN SETH GEORGE, U.S. Army: We lost, in this last deployment, 22.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Chaplain Seth George has served two tours of duty in Iraq.

Is it hard being all things to all soldiers at different times?

CHAPLAIN SETH GEORGE: Oh yeah, it's difficult, because you will be with a platoon that just lost a soldier. Guys are crying. You're hugging them. You are trying to talk to them a little bit.

And then you literally walk around the corner to another company area, and they're like, "Hey, Chaplain, what's the word for the day?" And so they're -- they want to laugh and cut up, just like always. And, so, to switch gears like that is very difficult, and I try my best to do that.

You rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. And that's part of the -- I think, the unique element of being a chaplain in the Army.

Understanding religious tolerance

SAUL GONZALEZ: Along with all the military training, chaplains who attend this school are also supposed to learn a lesson in religious tolerance, namely how to uphold the beliefs and practices of their own faiths, while also respecting religious differences within the ranks.

COLONEL CLARKE MCGRIFF: As I say to my students as they first come in here, this is not a Christian summer camp. The Army did not call the chaplain into the Army to promote his or her faith. The Army has called the chaplain into the Army to provide for the religious support needs of its members. And its members include men and women of all sorts of orientations.

TRAINER: Evaluate your opinions very carefully.

SAUL GONZALEZ: However, the Army also has no formal rules against its more than 2,500 chaplains actively sharing their religious beliefs with soldiers of other faiths, as long as soldiers don't feel coerced or pressured.

CHAPLAIN DAVID DICE, U.S. Army: I am given a lot of freedom to be myself to the soldiers as I minister to them, and as they ask questions regarding their own faith or my faith. They're coming to me seeking advice.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Chaplain David Dice, an evangelical Protestant, says he looks forward to sharing his religious beliefs with soldiers interested in his faith.

CHAPLAIN DAVID DICE: You know, I live out my ministry and what that is as an evangelical, and the Army gives me a freedom to do that. As a soldier comes to me asking questions, that's when I find full freedom to really share what my personal belief is in God's word and in that truth that I hold to personally.

A need for a wider range of clergy

SAUL GONZALEZ: Although the Army recognizes 115 religious groups, about half of active-duty chaplains are Protestant. Some people, both in and out of uniform, fear that the growing number of evangelical chaplains could lead to proselytizing and religious discrimination within the ranks. They also worry about military outreach activities by conservative civilian religious groups.

At Fort Jackson, the Army was embarrassed when a photograph was posted on the Internet showing soldiers holding Bibles and weapons in a study group affiliated with the Campus Crusade For Christ. The photo was quickly taken down, at the request of the Army.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Col. McGriff acknowledges the Army's need for more qualified clergy from a wider range of faith, but says the military is clear about what lines cannot be crossed.

COLONEL CLARKE MCGRIFF: When a person's ideals or faith orientation gets in the way or supersedes the provision of religious support to all persons, then it becomes a problem.

SAUL GONZALEZ: As for these new chaplains, they will soon be putting the lessons they have learned at this school into battlefield practice, where they will serve their fellow soldiers in both life and death.