Military chaplains face changing landscape among those they minister
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Military chaplains face new challenges as their traditional role changes to those they minister.
From ancient Israelites to the Roman Empire and through the Middle Ages to the present, priests, ministers and chaplains have marched with soldiers in their life-and-death struggles.
Now, tensions are rising as some military chaplains struggle with the social changes ahead following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010 and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s recent notification to the services to make way for transgender troops.
Ron Crews, a retired Army colonel and chaplain, said he never experienced serious restrictions on his ability to minister to soldiers during 28 years as an active duty and reserve chaplain, a career that ended in 2008. “I will say that the climate has changed,” he said.
Crews now serves as a pastor for about 25 active-duty chaplains.
“There has been a growing concern about chaplains being able to continue to minister what I would call ‘the full counsel of God’ in their ministries,” he said.
For 240 years, since the U.S. Army’s founding in June 1775, chaplains have been welcome in the military. Generals from George Washington and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson to George C. Marshall considered chaplains indispensable to a unit’s emotional and spiritual well-being.
In recent years, Washington has issued wave after wave of new regulations, some of which conflict with many chaplains’ long-held religious beliefs.
Any chaplain serving in the U.S. military is required to be endorsed by a religion or denomination recognized by the Department of Defense.
“The government makes it clear that chaplains must be faithful to the denomination or faith group that sent them,” Crews said. “So we expect Roman Catholics to be Roman Catholics, and they minister and serve from that vantage point.”
A new environment confronted many mainstream religious denominations when the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” regulation was repealed.
“It was during that process that several endorsers met and decided to form what we now call Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, because we saw the potential for chaplains who come from evangelical, Orthodox or Roman Catholic backgrounds to have their ability to serve challenged,” Crews said. “And, indeed, it has been.”
Crews cited multiple cases, in which he contends chaplains have been censored or had their careers effectively ended for espousing their beliefs, including that of Navy Chaplain Wes Modder.
Modder’s commanding officer, Capt. Jon R. Fahs, filed a detachment for cause letter Feb. 17 — basically firing Modder from his job and, if upheld, effectively ending his 19-year career.
Individual sailors brought accusations to their command about Modder that ranged from telling a sailor that she was “shaming herself in the eyes of God” for having premarital sex to telling another “that homosexuality was wrong,” according to case files.
Modder and his attorneys maintain the sailors approached him for confidential counseling, while the command said many of his comments were unsolicited.
Other than this situation, Modder has had an exemplary career, earning the highest marks possible on performance reviews and glowing praise from former commanders.
For his part, Modder and his lawyers did not dispute certain facts of the case.
“On occasion, and only when asked, he expressed his sincerely held religious belief that: Sexual acts outside of marriage are contrary to biblical teaching; and homosexual conduct is contrary to biblical teaching; and homosexual orientation or temptation, as distinct from conduct, is not sin,” according to his lawyers’ response to Fahs’ request for Modder’s removal.
Though cases like Modder’s appear to personify a collision course between freedom to exercise religion beliefs and equal opportunity, some chaplains see it as an opportunity while others view it as just one more hurdle to be overcome in the United States military.
“There is a fine line,” said the Rev. Ron Camarda, a Roman Catholic priest, who served as a Navy chaplain to Marines during the Battle of Fallujah in 2004. “Back during WWII, Korea, Vietnam, chaplains were much more accepted, but society is different now.
“The key to understanding a chaplain is, they’re there to sustain the faith they already have; that’s why we’re paid.”
In other words, chaplains are there to minister to service members who are already members of their faith, not to evangelize.
However, Camarda said those who stand firm in their religious beliefs should expect conflicts to arise.
“Rabbis and prophets all the way through Scripture, even St. Paul talks about it, that there are times when you will be persecuted,” Camarda said. “In fact, Jesus said if you’re not persecuted for what you’re doing, you better re-evaluate.”
In the United States, the Army Chaplain Corps recently celebrated its 240th year in official existence.
Since Colonial times, chaplains accompanied soldiers into battle.
From the Pequot War in 1637 to the French and Indian War, ministers donning black broadcloth suits were part of colonial militias.
During the American Civil War, it’s been estimated that anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of battle casualties went unidentified. Army chaplain Charles Pierce was the force behind instituting what are now known as dog tags to identify the dead during the Spanish American War.
Six chaplains have won the Medal of Honor, including one in Korea and two in Vietnam.
That legacy of bravery and caring will see the chaplaincy through, according to Pastor Doug Carver, who served as an Army officer for 38 years, Baptist minister for 33 years and the Army’s chief of chaplains from 2007 to 2011.
“The secretary of defense issued a policy [to prepare for transgender soldiers] and basically he’s directed the service branches to figure out how they’re going to make this work,” Carver said. “That seems to be the attitude: We’re all men and women under authority.
“We’ve been given the responsibility to carry out and succeed with the mission we’ve been given and entrusted with by the American people and the president of the United States.”
Carver also noted that the decision ultimately lies with individual chaplains. He cited one high-profile case in which the Army’s top chaplain resigned over a moral conflict.
In 1982, Gen. Kermit Johnson resigned as the Army’s chief of chaplains over his disagreement with nuclear proliferation.
“The chief of chaplains had been asked to do a white paper on nuclear warfare,” Carver said. “It got to the point where it was in conflict with what the policy of our armed services was, so that chief of chaplains, Kermit Johnson, realized he had a decision to make: Either agree with where we were headed as a nation, or to resign.”
There are also times, Camarda said, where chaplains must stick it out and be there for the soldiers for whom they are responsible. “It would be crazy if I told you I didn’t have those kinds of situations,” he said. “But those are opportunities for growth.”
Camarda felt his own moral misgivings when the Navy gave him two-weeks’ notice that he was being activated and sent to Iraq. “Now I did not believe in the war, but what I went in there to do was to minister to the soldiers,” he said. “So, in a way, I did not agree with what the commander in chief was doing and in some ways I was conflicted.
“I wanted to come up with an excuse to keep from getting on active duty.”
Camarda stayed, ministering to the living, the dying and the dead.
“I stuck with it,” he said. “Even though I believe it was wrong to support such a war, I can’t imagine my life without it and how I learned from it.”
Will there continue to be moral struggles for those who believe homosexuality is a sin?
“Yes,” Camarda said. “But that’s where the Cross comes in.”
©2015 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
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