You Can Call Me Chaplain

02/22/2020  |  By CH (MAJ) Ng, Sai On 104th Division (Leader Training)
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One of the oldest branches in the US Army is interestingly, a group of noncombatants; the Chaplain Corps, officially recognized on July 29, 1775. The US military not only recognized the importance of Chaplaincy from the very beginning, but continues to build and equip the Chaplain corps, which is the largest in the world. There are close to three thousand Chaplains serving in the three components of the US Army.

What is a Chaplain? What does a Chaplain do? This article is to answer these questions, and hopefully one will better understand the role of a Chaplain

Chaplain (COL) Johnson set a good example for me to follow when I was a Chaplain candidate. He was assigned as my mentor. I first met him in one of the restrooms in the Reserve Center. He was busy taking care of the trash and did not pay attention to anyone walking in the restroom. I approached him and offered my help. He turned around and smiled at me and I realized, “Oh, I am his apprentice!” I was dumbfounded and wondered what I would need to do to show my humbleness under his mentorship. That image stays in my mind and helps me develop my picture of being a Chaplain.

I would like to start with a simple question: how to address a Chaplain. According to Army Regulation 600-20, all Chaplains are addressed as “Chaplain,” regardless of military grade or professional title. My understanding is that military rank should not be a way to identify a Chaplain. A Chaplain should be recognized by his or her humility and serving heart. Chaplain (COL) Johnson set a good example for me to follow when I was a Chaplain candidate. He was assigned as my mentor. I first met him in one of the restrooms in the Reserve Center. He was busy taking care of the trash and did not pay attention to anyone walking in the restroom. I approached him and offered my help. He turned around and smiled at me and I realized, “Oh, I am his apprentice!” I was dumbfounded and wondered what I would need to do to show my humbleness under his mentorship. That image stays in my mind and helps me develop my picture of being a Chaplain.

Chaplains serve as the unit spiritual leaders, accommodating Soldiers’ spiritual needs, performing and providing religious support for them. Rule 503 of the Military Rules of Evidence (2019 edition) states that “a communication is “confidential” if made to a clergyman in the clergyman’s capacity as a spiritual adviser or to a clergyman’s assistant in the assistant’s official capacity.” This means communications with Chaplains and their assistants are sacred, protected and cannot be used as evidence. A Chaplain provides an opportunity for the Soldiers to be themselves. “Honesty is the best policy” is no longer a theory only, but with the presence of a Chaplain, one can actually practice it.

According to AR 165–1, Chaplains will not bear arms in combat or in unit combat skills training. The only exception would be specialized training like Ranger School) which requires combat training for completion. Why does a person choose to bear no arms to go into battle? As a spiritual leader, a Chaplain provides a different perspective to see life. Going into battle without weapons demonstrate this different perspective. The Army promotes spiritual health, which is not easy to define. One way to access spiritual health is to see how capable a person is to find a new paradigm, instead of feeling stuck in life. Fighting is only one paradigm, but not the only paradigm to live a life. The presence of a Chaplain provides a different picture of life that being gentle and non-aggressive is also a possibility.

Since Chaplains play a role of spiritual leader, one may consider a Chaplain a mental health professional as well. However, there are limitations of a Chaplain to function as a behavioral health counselor. For example, as the Chief of Chaplain’s office reminds all USAR Chaplains, Chaplains are ONLY an augmentation to the Suicide Ideation process. Chaplains can help remind commanders when alerted of a suicidal ideation, to make sure the Soldier gets proper evaluation by a mental/behavioral health specialist. The role of a Chaplain in moments like this is to stand ready to assist the Soldier through this difficult time and help the command to ensure the Soldier receives the care he or she needs.

To conclude this article, I would like to share my experience of watching New Amsterdam on television. In one of the episodes, Dr. Max Goodwin hired a military veteran named Todd Vincent, who is only good at making trains run on time. Todd works like a machine and stands at parade rest when talking to Dr. Goodwin. This kind of military stereotypes result from the fact that some Soldiers do act like drones with rigid and set functions. The role of a Chaplain is to bring back humanity to the military with humility, a sacred space and a new perspective in life.

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