Very few of my immediate family went into military service—none of my three brothers, nor I, nor my father, who was deferred from WWII due to an important stateside job, entered any branch of the military. I did have two uncles who served, one during WWII, and the other somewhat later, but that is all my contact with things military. I was certainly eligible for the draft during the war in Vietnam, graduating from college in 1968, but I chose to attend seminary and thus attained a IV-D on my draft card (required to be carried by every male in those days until reaching the age of 35), thus deferring me from service. I was completely opposed to the war in Vietnam, but could hardly apply for conscientious objector status, since before I went to theological school, I had no recognizable faith of any sort. Yes, surprisingly enough, I gained a genuine faith in seminary, perhaps an unusual occurrence, or so I have been told.
During my college years, the school I attended was deeply engaged in the struggle against our deepening involvement in the war in Southeast Asia. Every day, especially during my final two years, some protest or other was held, events that included fields of crosses on the middle of the campus, each one with the names of the men of the school who could be called to serve and perhaps die. On one occasion, many of us linked arms to prevent Marine recruiters from entering our campus at all. In short, I was almost completely indoctrinated against the war in Vietnam as an appalling mistake that in my mind led to thousands of needless deaths, many more thousands of wounded, both physically and emotionally, a conflict that tore our country into angry factions that found conversation most difficult, if not completely impossible. “Hell, no, we won’t go,” we shouted, while those who did not agree screamed, “America! Love it or leave it!”
My seminary in Texas was not nearly as involved in protests against the war as my Midwestern college was, but while there I became increasingly progressive politically and socially, and that progressivism surely included a deep distrust of our military and its continued involvement in Vietnam and in numerous other conflicts around the world. After our ignominious defeat in Vietnam, our forces were soon engaged in El Salvador, Guatemala, Granada, and a host of other places that I felt we had no business being in at all. In short, I became very distrustful of all things military, and hoped that no child of mine would be forced to serve and die in some cause or other that they did not believe in.
Thus, it was quite a shock when I was asked to lead a series of workshops in various parts of the world for Air Force chaplains. I knew precisely nothing about the military chaplaincy beyond a few strained conversations with some chaplain recruiters who came to my seminary, looking for any of my colleagues who might be interested in such a life. Believe me, such a thing was last on my list of interests; I would sooner do anything but serve as some chaplain to soldiers who were asked to fight and die in some far away land. I asked one of these recruiters why he had chosen this life, and his answer was not at all satisfactory to my negative brain. So, when my now long-time friend, Hiram “Doc” Jones, who was at the time the head chaplain at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, (he since has retired as a Brigadier General) called me to lead a retreat for his chaplains and other chaplains in the area, I decided to go, but went with defenses high and considerable reluctance.
I had led many retreats by that time in the early 1980’s, but never for anything remotely resembling the military. I did the retreat for two days, as I remember, and had a good time discussing the Bible with some very sharp and deeply committed chaplains. I do not remember any specific conversations, but do remember several chats that revealed the rich and difficult ministries that these persons (most were men, but there were three woman, I think) performed.
I was soon asked to lead a retreat at Keesler Air Base in Mississippi, and there things became much more interesting. I was hosted by the chief chaplain who was a woman. Just a few weeks before I arrived, she had had a very tense confrontation with the base commander concerning her right to question the actions of the military, something she had done in the base newspaper. The commander wanted this woman transferred from his base at least, and would have preferred that she be drummed out of the service altogether. The struggle was sent all the way up to some general who had jurisdiction in such matters, and he determined that not only was the chaplain well within her rights to speak as she did, he further ruled that the base commander was out of line in the dispute. He was summarily transferred to another command, and the chaplain’s work was commended. This opened my eyes to the ways in which the military can operate, at times protecting the rights of those with less power in the system.
But much more importantly I was able to discover something of the life of a chaplain in the military. It is an extraordinary ministry. In Germany at the huge Ramstein base, each chaplain was responsible for many thousands of soldiers, many of whom are quite young, and most of whom had never been out of their respective states, let alone travel to a foreign country. The young men—most were men—were far from home and familiar sights. Many were single, having left girl friends or wives back home. Those who were able to bring their families had many pressures to withstand—a new culture, a different language if they moved off base at all. Most significantly, the spouses, particularly those with small children, were often isolated in their barrack-like homes with few friends or acquaintances. The chaplains could counsel grieving families 25 hours a day, but they too had multiple responsibilities connected to their chapels and their own relationships to their commands. I grew increasingly impressed by these chaplains and by the great work they were doing in very difficult situations.
While I was at Ramstein, I witnessed the return from Iraq of some soldiers who had died or were grievously wounded, and the huge role that the chaplains played in those terrible events. These experiences I had with Air Force chaplains became among the most important of my life. I found the great majority of these men and women completely committed to their ministries and well equipped to perform those ministries with superior skill, anchored in a deep and real faith. No, I was not converted to an uncritical lover of all things military by these experiences, but at the same time I discovered that these military people themselves were hardly uncritical of the work they felt called to do. But it was very important work, and I am very glad to know that such women and men are available around the world to hear the horrors and pains of our men and women and to act on their behalf in situations that I cannot begin to fathom. How grateful I am to have had these occasions where I was allowed to gain at least a glimpse of a life that I had shunned out of thorough ignorance and prejudice. Please join me in keeping these wonderful chaplains in your prayers this and every night.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)