The military is a total institution and army chaplains are embedded deeply within it. They wear the uniforms and the rank, they salute and are saluted. I was reminded how deeply embedded we are when I arrived at the US Army Chaplain Center and School at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina about two weeks ago. I was there to fulfill my obligations as a reserve chaplain for two weeks. After that, I would be shipping back to Austin, Texas, the post-hippy, techy, progressive university town I call home.
Making sure my uniforms were properly appointed, I walked in the front door and met the new class of chaplains I was to instruct. We were all nervous. All of us were reserve chaplains from all over the country and world. Several of us spoke English as a second language and all of us were from a variety of religious denominations and faiths. I was hoping the class would fit in with our active duty counterparts, who perform this kind of Army duty 24/7.
Power-jokes permeate military culture and the Chaplain Corps is no exception. I heard higher-ranking chaplains immediately joking with junior chaplains that they were going to “write that on your OER (Officer Evaluation Report).” We all laughed, as we all do when the boss makes a joke.
Slowly, over the next few days, Army terminology and acronyms slowly trickled back into my “brain-housing-group,” a military term for cohort if there ever was one. I began to talk the talk as best I could. I said, “We don’t want to re-invent the wheel” about 50 times a day and started sentences with “This is just for your SA (situational awareness).” I said “Roger” instead of “Yes,” and after every event we had a “Hotwash,” which is army slang for “AAR,” an acronym for “After Action Review.” I “back-briefed” my superiors and even pulled out my knife-hand once.
Yes, all the memories came flooding back to me. I was, once again, a young, 27 year old battalion chaplain in a Combat Engineer unit in Baghdad, crunching over the gravel walkways in tan desert boots.
I remembered the infinite levels of bureaucracy Army chaplains encounter every day. The online classes and the certifications never stop. On one particular afternoon, when I couldn’t seem to get anything right on the Army computer system, I stumbled into the Chaplain Corps Museum which is co-located at the Chaplains School. I moved through the history of our corps. As I read about the first chaplains appointed by George Washington in his Army, I thought about their role in forging a new nation. It got more complicated as time went on, and I could sense the enormity of this calling to represent God in the hell of war. As I moved toward the exit and into the bright sunlight of an August afternoon in South Carolina, I came face to face with my war, Iraq.
Pictures of chaplains leading services, small and large. Soldiers in dusty fatigues, standing around the Humvee as the priest elevates the chalice off the hood of the vehicle. These were my people. I knew them in war and in the trials of homecoming. The weight of their sacrifice came down upon me and I wept. I wept for their deaths and their wounds. I wept for how little they knew about Iraq and how little I knew about war. I wept because I loved them and I carried their stories.
They were the bravest men and women I have ever seen. Their bravery on the roads and alleys of Baghdad still astounds me. They loved each other and they loved me. I miss that love, especially as I gear up to go back and tackle the confounding intricacies of the Army computer system.
Military chaplains are deeply embedded in military culture. We derive our credibility from this relationship and it gives us access to the most closed off military units and personnel in places civilians and media cannot go. But this deep embedding also means we experience the same suffering our soldiers experience.
The world needs to know chaplains are human and not immune from the grim lottery of death or the wounds of the body, mind, and spirit.
I was reminded of this when I spoke to a chaplain I interviewed. He was just starting to feel a little better after coming home from his deployment, and beginning to think about what he was going to do with his life. The last couple of years were a blur, he said, and he didn’t remember most of them. His statements are echoes of a generation that has been marked by war and the pursuit of purpose in a world that seems driven only by consumerism and self-interest.
But there is hope. The first step in reconciliation after war is to remember rightly what happened. Oral history offers the opportunity for a “Hotwash.” It is my hope that more stories can be recorded and written down before the fog of time replaces the fog of war.
Image Credit: “www.Army.mil” by The U.S. Army. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.