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A Chaplain’s Work – More than Worship

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- The word "privilege" is defined as freedom, license or opportunity. While serving as a deployed staff chaplain at Balad Air Base Iraq, from January through May 2007, I had the significant privilege of being allowed to travel much of Iraq to visit Airmen serving in "In Lieu Of" or ILO missions.

In Lieu Of jobs are normally Army missions but are being manned by Air Force troops in Iraq and Afghanistan due to personnel pressures in the Army. They do many different jobs. Airmen train Iraqi police in downtown Bagdad and Tikrit, others called RPAT teams' process vehicles for shipment out of Iraq from forward bases. Some troops train the Iraqi Army on base operations such as power production, water and sewage issues, and operating dining facilities to feed the troops and a host of other functions necessary to maintain an Army. Others inspect the captured weapons of the insurgents to learn how to better protect our men and women from danger. Still others train the Iraqi Army on Base defense measures. All of these tasks are hard work.

In each case these airmen make a significant contribution to the work of bringing peace and safety to the troops and the people of Iraq. They are unsung heroes who should be praised and recognized. They work long hours under austere conditions, often at Iraqi bases which have far fewer amenities than may be found at many of the American bases in Iraq. They overcome cultural differences, language barriers, and the obvious hardships of separation from family and their usual support systems, often for a year at a time.

As their chaplain I had the privilege..., no, the honor to meet many of these troops, and spend time with them. I listened to their challenges, walked beside them and tried to understand what their lives are like, what they do in their mission and to minister to their unique needs. Each one is a hero in their own right.

Who among us could know the relentless courage required to daily travel to the inner city of Bagdad in the last year or to the city of Tikrit and pass the day patrolling with Iraqi police, training them, and walking the city streets among the population? Improvised Explosive Device attacks against their convoys and sniper attacks against them on the ground are regular events. Many of my troops have been injured, or worse. As their chaplain, I had the sad task of officiating at two memorial services for these young heroes. They gave their lives in the performance of their duty, one killed in an IED attack, the other an EOD troop while saving the lives of Iraqi children.

While at Balad I served one day a week at the Air Force Hospital. I was on duty when four of my ILO troops arrived with serious injuries. They were heartbreaking experiences for me. Who would not be affected when dealing with such heroes? But there was joy when their faces would light up with a smile upon recognition of a familiar face.

Heroism can be measured in many ways. One of them is to learn a troop's only concern is that they may be too badly injured to return to their comrades in the field. I spoke with a troop with dozens of injuries to his leg and hand. I said, "You can go home now, put the war behind you."

He replied, "No, Chaplain, not until every one of my people comes home too."

It's heart wrenching to minister to these men and women who seem to have so little concern for themselves and so much care for others. These heroes may be Christian, Jewish, Muslim or have no religion at all. But they were in my care because I was their chaplain. I was privileged to hold their hands, and comforted them. As a chaplain, I was the only person at the hospital who did not poke or prod. I was there solely to minister to them as people.

A Chaplain's ministry begins with understanding and is fostered in an atmosphere of appreciation. It is accomplished with mutual respect. I believe God uses all of these elements to bring about something very special which bears significant fruit in the here and now and for eternity. I was blessed to do this ministry because of the empowerment of my supervisors and the trust of higher Air Force leadership. I will remember their gift to me in allowing me this opportunity all my life. What has been the result?

Through the "ministry of presence" which involves visits in work centers, shops and offices. I get to see all of the troops entrusted to me, not just Christians who desire worship opportunities. Worship is a significant portion of my week but there is so much more to the work of the chaplain. I am able to visit with the troops in their spheres and I can be with them when they share their fears, anxieties and problems with me. I can also offer understanding and friendship and some small advice that could help. Most of this happens almost exclusively outside of worship.

The Chaplain offers friendship and compassion to believer, atheists and agnostics. To Christian, Jew, Muslim or Mormon, or anyone else, there is no difference. Chaplains offer tenderness and a listening ear to any and all with troubles in their marriage, trouble with children or with peers or countless other issues. We do this regardless of the troop's belief system. We are privileged to be there to help troops through crisis, emotional pain, and to honor their humanity and bring understanding and compassion to their lives. All of these things have been my privilege regardless of their religion or lack of religion. Ninety percent of this has taken place outside of worship and outside my office, in their space.

The heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world deserve the ministry of the military chaplain. My story is undoubtedly repeated hundreds of times by other chaplains. Army chaplains, Navy chaplains ministering to Sailors and Marines, and yes, Air Force Chaplains like me. We are all constitutionally entrusted to honor the men and women of our armed forces by ensuring their free exercise of religion. But we don't stop there because our work is to every troop. The chaplain comes bringing understanding and empathy. We never arrive with work or to inspect as do their commanders. Instead, we come as men and women who are charged with their care as human beings.

The priceless value of our troops demands that this privileged ministry to troops wherever they may be called for service, never be curtailed de-valued or denied. The men and women of America's Armed Forces deserve the understanding, the honor and the respect afforded to them by our military Chaplain Corps. Wherever our troops travel, we are called to follow and minister to their needs. They deserve nothing less.

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