06 June 2012

Military Chaplains

Fr. Stuckwisch asked me to reflect on the special challenges, duties, blessings, and opportunities of the military chaplaincy especially in view of the kind of pastoral care involved. I was so honored to receive this request. As I told Fr. Stuckwisch, although I served in the United States Navy for 21 years, I was never a Chaplain. I was an enlisted man. I said I would write reflecting on my experience from the enlisted point of view while adding to this note a reflection of the work of a Chaplain from the perspective of the Preaching Office.

As with all things meet, right, and salutary, let's begin by examining the second part of this request; the blessings and opportunities of the Chaplain. From my experiences, the blessings and opportunities to serve in the US Military as a Chaplain are very similar to the blessings and opportunities of the preaching office in the local parish.

Chaplains lead the troops in prayer services. They experience the birth of babies. They get to celebrate with the troops when a wedding anniversary rolls around. They get to cry with the bereaved during a funeral. They rejoice while leading the troops in worship. Chaplains get to comfort the young and old when the soldier, sailor, airmen, or marine doesn't received that much anticipated promotion. I believe someone more qualified than myself, someone like Chaplain Captain Daniel Gard or Chaplain Captain Michael Frese, would be able to give a more in-depth reflection on the duties of the Chaplaincy.

When it comes to the special challenges a Chaplain faces, I can only imagine how long the list would be. I believe the first thing that would come to mind, especially in the US Navy, is that there aren't enough Chaplains to serve the sailors.

When I was in the Navy, I served at the PENTAGON in Washington, D.C. Later, I served aboard the USS Coronado and then Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron THREE. During my days in Washington, I lived like most of the young people in the Church today; I didn't go to Church. I was way to busy with work (at least that was my excuse). Unlike duty at sea, when a sailor serves on shore duty, he/she normally finds a local parish and goes to Church. I don't think I ever saw a Chaplain during my years in Washington D.C.

However, when I was ordered to the USS Coronado, the needs of this young man changed drastically. I was still homesick. I was lonely. I missed my wife. I missed my parents and family. I was scared about not being able to function at the expected levels for the rank I held. The list of issues was long and distinguished. Add to all this, I had no Chaplain to talk to. My ship wasn't large enough to have a Chaplain assigned to us. The nearest Chaplain was on the Carrier and who knew where she was. The Lord did bless me with someone to help during difficult days; He gave me my Chief!

After I was onboard for a couple of months, I got to know the Radio Gang and I found another blessing from the Lord. His name was RM2 Frank Hammond. He was the only other Christian in my department. WOW! I found someone I could read the Bible with and pray with during those long lonely days at sea.

Could I have used a Chaplain on the USS Coronado? ABSOLUTELY! Just like the pastor in a local congregation, The Chaplain can bring peace and comfort to the soul lost in the world. The Chaplain can calm the nerves of one stressed by battle and fatigue. The Chaplain can put their arm around the lonely with words of encouragement when the crew is busy tearing you down for silly mistake(s).

I remember, the year was 1986, and the USS Coronado was now home-ported in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I had the in-port watch in Radio. The courier brought the evening traffic to the ship just before dinner was served. I received the package and began to sort the messages for routing and distribution.

I was half way through the big pile of messages and I noticed the ship received a Red Cross message.

This type of message is easy to spot because of its special formatting. Every radioman in the service empathizes with his shipmates every time a Red Cross message is received. Nobody likes getting news that a family member is sick or has died.

As I reviewed the messaged, I noticed that my father's name was listed on the message as the originator. I kept reading. The message was sent to tell me that my Grandmother Yates died. I was in shock. I was just home a month ago and visited with her in the hospital. I remember thinking this can't be. This is a mistake. I remember learning in school that the worst thing that can ever happen to a radioman is to receive his own Red Cross message. The worst thing ever just became my present day reality.

Where was the Chaplain? Where was the Chief? Where was my friend Frank? I had no one. Every one was on liberty. We had no Chaplain. I was alone. I was mad to say the least. I was full of rage. I've never felt that kind of pain before. Fortunately, my Chief remembered he forgot to do something for the Captain before he left for the day and so he returned to the ship. He came up to Radio to see how everything was going.

Chief saw my frustration and sadness, He inquired what happened. I handed him the message. He comforted me and called down to berthing for a replacement for the watch. He took me down to the Chief's mess and told me everything was going to be alright. He instructed me to go and pack my things. You're going home, he said.

I remember going down to my bunk and began packing my things. I also remember praying to the Lord and thanking Him for my Chief. The Lord may not have given me a Chaplain but He did give to me a source of comfort and solace.

Since I've been a pastor in The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, I've inquired of the US Navy Chaplains Office about going to serve the men and women onboard the ships. I even told them I would do it for free. The response was that Chaplain had to serve full time or in the Reserves and I was ineligible.

There are so many men and women out there in the military that need the Word of God. There is a great need for them, whether on shore duty, at sea, or in combat. These young people need Chaplains. I thank the Lord daily for the men, and regret to say, women, who serve the soldiers, airmen, seamen, and marines daily to bring them the comfort of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In closing, I wish to thank those Chaplains that I do know. First, Chaplain Captain Daniel Gard. He was my Chaplain in the Reserves for two years before I retired. He brought me much comfort during my final years of service when I was struggling with duty, family, and school.

To my friend Chaplain Captain Michael Frese. I haven't known my brother for many years but I remember the talks we had while I was in seminary. He brought me comfort and strengthened me during those days of learning. He now does the same for our troops.

Finally, Chaplain Captain John Wolrabe (Retired) who encouraged me to write a book about the healing God gave me and my congregation after two years of antagonism.

Let us pray.

O Almighty God, Your Son, Jesus Christ, gave to His holy Apostles many excellent gifts and commanded them earnestly to feed His flock. Make all pastors and chaplains diligent to preach Your holy Word and the people obedient to follow it, that together they may receive the crown of everlasting glory, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Ghost, One God, now and forever. Amen.

We preach Christ crucified!

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