Military chaplains ‘serve two masters’

Photo Credit: D. Ashley Campbell

Serving at home and abroad, the faithful wrestle with religion, diversity and two worlds.

By D. Ashley Campbell

A prisoner in the hospital at Fort Leavenworth, disciplinary barracks in Kansas, refused to talk to anyone, but he would sketch. Then-Army chaplain, Col. John Hoffmann, asked the prisoner to draw how he was feeling. What the prisoner drew still brings Hoffmann to tears.

Photo credit: D. Ashley Campbell John W. Hoffmann poses with a signed photograph from President George W. Bush in which Hoffmann is the flag bearer. Hoffmann served for 36 years in the military. Many of his friends from Vietnam got cancer from agent orange and passed away. He considers himself lucky even though he is disabled from his service, because he got Parkinson’s disease rather than cancer.

Photo credit: D. Ashley Campbell
John W. Hoffmann poses with a signed photograph from President George W. Bush in which Hoffmann is the flag bearer. Hoffmann served for 36 years in the military. Many of his friends from Vietnam got cancer from agent orange and passed away. He considers himself lucky even though he is disabled from his service, because he got Parkinson’s disease rather than cancer.

The prisoner drew himself as a naked, bald man chained at his hands and feet, sitting in a corner. One could understand the sense of confinement, humiliation and loss of self-worth depicted in the image, recalled Hoffmann, now 71.

“He was willing to talk to someone, because I took the time to understand,” Hoffmann said.

The life of a military chaplain is not without its tensions and challenges of faith, as chaplains counsel soldiers at home and abroad. This has not changed over the years.

As of 2015, more than 9,000 chaplains are registered as serving in the U.S. Army. Chaplains represent a growing variety of traditions, including Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism among others, according to Marcia McManus, director of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Museum.

Even ‘help the atheist’

Army chaplains serve with a battalion that ranges anywhere from 300 to 1,000 soldiers, according to Capt. Jason Unsworth, 40, of the U.S. Army. Not all of these soldiers share the same religion, creating a space for a potential misunderstanding among the troops.

It’s the chaplain’s job to negotiate, facilitate and be “an agent of trust” in that diverse setting so each soldier can freely perform their religion, said Unsworth and former U.S. Navy chaplain Capt. Lyman Smith.

When Unsworth cannot be a source of religious or spiritual guidance for a person, he must provide access to other resources, he explained. He even mentioned that it’s his job to “help the atheist be a good atheist.”

Smith, 63, who is the executive director for the Military Chaplains Association, shared an example of how he negotiated space for neo-pagans on board his ship to practice while also maintaining peace where religious ignorance could arise. He had to negotiate between the neo-pagans, who use fire in their rituals, and the ship’s fire marshall because open flame is forbidden on board.

“It was up to me to make sure they were undisturbed,” Smith said, explaining that on a ship where nothing is secret. “There are some people who don’t appreciate that kind of diversity.”

Sometimes this misunderstanding comes from a lack of exposure and understanding, when some members of the military come from rural areas where they’ve never met a Hindu or Baha’i, Smith said.

“It’s not that they have hatred in their heart,” Smith said. “They just need to understand what it means to serve in a diverse environment.”

Easing suffering

Unsworth said he experienced crises of faith during his deployment to Iraq in 2007. It was hard to be in a war zone and not question the existence of God, but he focused on those he served – his fellow soldiers, he said.

Credit: Unknown; soldier stationed with Unsworth in Iraq in 2007 Capt. Jason Unsworth during his 2007 deployment to Iraq. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and will return to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas to teach after he graduates.

Credit: Unknown; soldier stationed with Unsworth in Iraq in 2007
Capt. Jason Unsworth during his 2007 deployment to Iraq. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and will return to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas to teach after he graduates.

“I had soldiers who were grappling with the ethical dilemmas that combat provides,” Unsworth said.

The suffering of soldiers compelled Unsworth to enlist as a chaplain. Unsworth attended divinity school after 9/11 and felt a calling to serve those going abroad to fight, he said.

“It was more a sense of these young men and young women are going and suffering,” Unsworth said. “They need chaplains that are compassionate and can remind them of their common humanity.”

 One night an aircraft malfunctioned during landing, endangering the pilot and crew of the aircraft carrier on which Smith was stationed in the Persian Gulf.

He completed his nightly visits to different portions of the ship when he felt compelled to return to “air ops,” the equivalent of a tower at an airport managing take-offs, landings and flight paths. When he returned he learned the crew were in an emergency situation. Smith said he provided support and encouragement “by simply being there” and praying for them.

“It meant a lot to be a part of the team and to contribute in an intangible way,” Smith said.

Bearing two symbols

Unsworth said there is a tension in balancing two types of service – the military and the Church – especially when the primary motivation is to fulfill a religious calling of ministry.

“Military chaplains kind of serve two masters,” Unsworth said. “On my uniform I wear two symbols. I wear the symbol of my rank and I wear the cross.”

Being a part of the institution from the standpoint of a faith tradition allows for a different voice. Chaplains are officers within the military institution, but they also represent their religion since they must be endorsed by a religious organization.  

“We’re insiders to the institution that offer an outsider perspective,” Unsworth said.

Hoffmann’s outsider voice allowed him to advocate for those not meant to be in combat during Desert Storm. He assisted getting a seven-month pregnant woman back to the U.S. even though her commander demanded she stay with her unit.

It also allowed him to develop relationships with Kurdish families in Iraq while he worked as a liaison between NGOs and the U.S. military after Desert Storm.

“I identified very readily with them,” Hoffmann said, speaking of one Kurdish family in particular that owned a slushy stand and invited him for meals at their home.

“I think I received more than I gave,” he said. “I think they did more to bolster my faith than I did to bolster their faith.”