Chaplains can be an important part of life for troops in combat. Chatting with Chappie can help them through tough times without the baggage they sense they’d incur by visiting their unit’s psychiatrist or other kind of mental-health worker.
Army Major Brad Lewis in an Army chaplain who was ministering to troops in Afghanistan with the 4/25 Brigade Combat Team for a year beginning in February 2009. He spoke of his work in this March 2011 interview, here, with the Combat Studies Insititute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Highlights:
I had six battalion chaplains and myself, and chaplain assistants as well; every chaplain always deploys with a chaplain assistant, so at the end of the day I had about 20 guys that I supervised throughout eastern Afghanistan…
[What was an average day like?]
Pretty mundane; the same thing over and over, it was Groundhog Day. I would get up, do a little reading, shower, go to chow. I had a morning battle update brief (BUB) every day except Sundays. That was anywhere from one to two hours depending on what was going on. After the BUB, I’d go back to my office and link up with the other chaplains and chaplain assistants that were on my FOB [forward operating base].
We were spread out over three different provinces, there were guys everywhere, so at any one time we only had three or four chaplains on the FOB, and those were not there for very long, they just floated in and out. I’d meet with them to see what was going on and get everybody working off the same sheet of music for the day, and then just set about doing whatever that day held.
A lot of times we would react to incoming wounded from various places throughout the AO [area of operations]; it was pretty boring other than the times when something extraordinary happened, which was a couple of times a week. Most of the time it was just Groundhog Day, over and over. Boring…
I had one chaplain, one of my priests, I think he told me at the end of the year that he spent 56 days on his home FOB, the rest of it was out living on the ground, living in aircraft, living in terminals, conducting Mass, moving here, moving there.
The Protestant guys, just because there were more of them, they had it a little bit easier than that, but not a whole lot. It was still quite a year for them…
Being a chaplain is being a chaplain. You do the same thing no matter where you go, it’s just more difficult in some locations than in others.
You’re always who you are.
You’ve got to understand that a chaplain does not operate in a vacuum. You operate with a chaplain assistant, and when you’re downrange, you always have that enlisted guy with you, because he’s your weapon. He’s the guy that throws lead if necessary and protects the chaplain.
We did spend a good amount of time talking about, emphasizing and training on moving with your chaplain assistant. We made sure that all the chaplain assistants in my brigade that I had the power to influence were able to get to a rifle range as often as possible, knowing that the potential was there for that guy to be the one that needs to protect my chaplains.
We did stuff like that. Of course, everybody went through driver’s training and things like that. There are certain things that you can do, but some if it is just what you do. Being a chaplain, you’re always that guy. There’s not a way to train for that; that’s what seminary is for. That’s what being a pastor is for. You train for a lot of that stuff before you ever get there, if you want to call it training. It’s more like just living what you do…
In the Army, you are a part of that staff. By regulation, the battalion chaplain, brigade chaplain, all chaplains, serve as their commander’s advisor on religious and moral aspects of operations. He has to be neck-deep in what’s going on. He may not sit there and build a slide for MDMP [military decision-making process], but he will certainly sit in on the process, watch it happen, listen carefully, and when he sees something, say, “Hey, time out. What about X, Y, Z? I noticed something; do you realize we’re doing that on this holiday, that’s Easter in this country we’re going to?…
It doesn’t need to be Christian; the chaplain’s job is not to convert the world, although we all come into this with high evangelical expectations, and that’s our background. I come from a very evangelical background, and I’m still that way, but you have to step into any country knowing that my job as a chaplain is a constitutional job.
I am here to ensure the free exercise of religion for all of my Soldiers no matter what their religious background, and when we go into a country that’s not a Christian country, and my commander is wanting to do something, I’m not a pastor at that point, I’m the staff officer. I have to know those [things], I have to keep an eye on the calendar [for] what’s coming up in this country, what does their culture say; weigh all those things that are the intangibles and try to feed those in.
A lot of that is going to depend on the commander. When I went into Afghanistan, having been there and other places and other Muslim countries several times, you get an idea for what points of the year and what holidays are important; what are the minor holidays, and things like that. Had something popped up, I would have said “Hey, we need to maybe rethink this.” A lot of that is really going to depend on the commander, because at the end of the day, the chaplain is an advisor. I’m not the commander.
By doctrine, I will never command anything. That’s fine; but I do advise.
When I tell the commander, “Hey, I don’t think it’s a good idea to assault that village on Good Friday or Easter Sunday or Ramadan,” or whatever, he can just say, “Whatever. Go away.”
Or he can say, “Okay, let’s rethink this.” I’ve got to be able to catch those things far enough in advance; you pull that out a week before the operation, you’re done. The time to see that is when they first say, “Hey, we’re going to do something; somebody come up with something on Day X,” you instantly look at Day X. Otherwise, you’re too late; and that happens a lot.
[Did you have a Muslim chaplain?]
No, nor did I have a Jewish chaplain or an Orthodox chaplain. There are several different things that I wasn’t able to have organic to me; however, what we did was during various points of the year, such as the Jewish High Holy Days, division then brought in a chaplain rabbi and floated him around the AO so that everybody got a day with the rabbi, we brought in all of our Jewish Soldiers.
We did the same thing for Muslim Soldiers, did the same thing for Orthodox Soldiers, to give them an opportunity on those High Holy Days or those important holidays to have that chaplain there.
Very rarely will you have a chaplain like that in one of those low-density groups with you just because there are so few of them and we’ve got a whole Army to take care of. We’ve either got to contract out, and if I was in the States I could go to the local synagogue and get a rabbi, or I could go to the local mosque and get an imam and say, “Hey, could you come do something for my guys.” Downrange you just can’t do that, so that’s where we tap those low-density faith group chaplains…
The locals were always willing to meet with a holy man. That’s the way they viewed the chaplains; he’s just a holy man. They don’t care what your faith is, they look at you as a special person. From that perspective, we had a little bit of pull.
But I go back to the reason that I said, “Don’t do that, or minimize your contact;” it had absolutely nothing to do with the locals, it had everything to do with their Soldiers. The job of a chaplain is to provide or perform religious support for his Soldiers.
Now, if he’s out talking to Billy Local, he doesn’t have time to speak with his Soldiers. He doesn’t have time to meet their needs, to do the things that the chaplain does on a day-to-day basis, because he’s out dealing with the locals.
I do know some chaplains, they didn’t work for me, but I do know some chaplains who spent the majority of their time interacting with local imams and sheiks, and that’s all well and good if that’s what their commander wants them to do, but in my mind it’s a colossal waste of an asset that a commander has at his disposal…
It’s not what he’s there to do. Because the day is going to come when some Soldier is going to write his congressman and say, “My chaplain is too busy with — I don’t have a chaplain.” And I’m telling you, that guy’s career is over, and so is his commander’s…
There was a time in 2005 or 2006 when we got word that — this was in Iraq — that al Qaeda in Iraq was targeting chaplains and doctors for their morale.
They never got any of us, but it all of a sudden got real. Keep your head down, keep your chaplain assistant with you, don’t go wandering off, things like that.
That would have been just a great public relations campaign, to watch them take the head off a chaplain.
That was just one of those moments that we watched out for. It was very short-lived, but in my mind it solidified the fact that we needed to be doing what we do, and not worrying about everybody else…
At the end of the day, I don’t care about the locals. That sounds hard; I don’t give a rat’s fanny about the citizens of Mosul. I want them to have freedom, I want them to prosper, but I’m there for my Soldiers. That’s what I do. That sounds evangelical, doesn’t it? [Laughs]…
Probably the most difficult aspect of this deployment was my commander. He was a very hard man; he had very exacting standards. He laid requirements on me and my chaplains that no other brigade had, and it’s just what he wanted done. Okay, he’s the commander, we’re going to do it.
What that translated to was, because we had to move more often than anybody else, we spent less time on the FOBs with the guys, because we had to get to the next one. It was all about numbers, being every place within a certain number of days; which was, in my mind, too high of an expectation to provide quality ministry.
The result was, back to your question of what would I have liked to change, that. The standard.
I would have slowed down a little bit and provided quality ministry as opposed to quantity. Again, that was his call. I did talk to him about it at the beginning of the deployment, he didn’t care. He was a hard man, and I took more than my fair share of heat rounds to the chest in meetings. But, he’s the commander, so you do what he wants done.
The thing that I would have changed would be the standard. I would have lowered to the Central Command standard; we were far above the CENTCOM standard for religious support, and it killed us. It wiped my guys out. We were all tired at the end of the year, but we were there for just a year, so we plowed through, finished up, and came home.