The Hardest Thing

“What’s the hardest thing about being deployed?”

I get this question from time to time. My Soldiers often make assumptions like, “man Sir, it must be hard for you, having to listen to everyone complain” or “there is no way I could do what you do, deal with everyone’s emotions. It has to be hard for you. How you doing?” I always smile and hear their unsaid story, the one about not being able to deal with their own emotions. Its generally why people have issues hearing someone else’s story – they can’t deal with their own.

But that’s not the hardest thing about being deployed. In fact, having a line of people wanting to talk is the opposite of hard, its tiring but good. It’s warming to me to know that I’m useful, that what I do matters to the group as a whole. Exhausting but not particularly “hard.”

No, what’s most challenging to me, to be frank, is the opposite – its when no one needs to talk. Its when I “make my rounds” and everyone is doing ok. When I need to make small talk to fill the void because no one is actually feeling bad. Its sitting in a quiet office feeling the need to do something but there really isn’t anything to do. It’s putting a ton of effort into an event like the National Day of Prayer Breakfast and three people besides the ones you specifically involved in the program show up. Its struggling with feelings of worth when everyone has a specific job on the camp that fills their day and yours is to walk about and talk to people. It’s watching the Staff work really hard at the business of war while you having nothing particularly significant to add. That’s hard.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I can come up with stuff to fill my day. In fact, I can come up with all kinds of busy work that thrusts me into all kinds of areas. Work that integrates me into the staff and makes my job something other than religious support (PAO and MWR come to mind). But these are not my job. In deployments past, in my anxiety, I came up with all kinds of efforts that kept me busy. Kept my mind occupied and focused on things other than unintegrated emotions but it certainly was not my job.

My job, every deployment, is two-fold – provide for the free exercise of religion and advise the Commander in the areas of religion, morale, ethics, and morals. So… yeah… that does not always fill the days. I visit. Stay informed. Read. Observe. And, once in a while, something pops up on the radar that no one is tracking and I have a mission to advise. But the overwhelming bulk of my work happens one on one. It’s when I observe that staff member in the meeting who seems just a little off and when I can approach them offline, I find out that their daughter is sick and they need prayer. I just wish sometimes that I didn’t have to seek this out every single time. It would be so very helpful if people would just utilize me instead of me having to pull it out of them.

But that’s the call isn’t it?

This is my first deployment post-CPE. I’d like to think I’m more integrated emotionally than I was for other deployments. I’d like to think I’m a little more self-aware. The thing is, of course, that the anxiety of uselessness in combat does not go away, I just have a name for it. I can sense the emotion and can deal with it. Focus the energy on useful things that actually relate to religious support. But that does not make it any less hard.

What’s the hardest part of deployment for me? Maintaining the un-anxious presence.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Chaplain and Morale: A Conundrum.

So, what does a chaplain do? Exactly?

Well, the book answer to that question is that a chaplain

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The Tools of the Trade

 

is the commanders proponent to ensure the freedom of religion for their Soldiers. In other words, religious support. A chaplain: Nurtures the Living, Cares for the Wounded, and Honors the Dead. The Chaplain provides for the free exercise of religion (by performing their faith tradition and providing for the other religions represented in their unit) and advises the command in the areas of religion, morals, morale, and ethics.

Right.

So, what does a chaplain do when they are not doing services?

Many Soldiers would answer that question by saying that the chaplain “does morale.”

Being the “morale officer” is in the traditional wheelhouse of a chaplain. This, of course, has nothing to do with religion but more to do with the absence of anyone else having the time to work with it. This is not to say that the title is legitimate or the chaplain ought to spend their time doing “MWR.” It’s tempting of course. Nothing gets a compliment or the oft coveted title “combat multiplier” quicker than organizing some morale-boosting events. But it takes time. Precious time that can be better spent elsewhere.

Events are worthwhile but I’ve struggled my entire career to effectively answer the question, “so chaplain, how’s morale?”

It’s difficult even when you spend a great deal of time talking to Soldiers and circulating. When I circulate, I’ll ask “how’s morale” and Soldiers mostly will tell me how they feel about life. Which is not, of course, a holistic approach and will give me a picture of whoever I talk to. Its inherently limited because I don’t talk to everyone and how would I, really, effectively evaluate the morale of 500+ Soldiers and their families in a given week? If I talk to a Soldier today and don’t see that Soldier for another week, their outlook on life may have completely changed. Frankly, it’s difficult to really know beyond a fairly limited group of people what their morale is.

But, I’m supposed to advise the commander on this very subject.

So, I applied systemic thinking and observation to this conundrum. I have observed, over the years, that small units (companies, platoons, squads) really are like families and operate in that fashion. Therefore, I look to their leadership. If the CDR and 1SG are getting along and seem good with each other, it’s fairly consistent that the overall morale in that unit is ok. I have learned the traits of a good leader and toxic leader and if I identify an NCO that fits the bill, the units morale is likely to follow. It’s not a science but it’s fairly accurate.

Over time, I also began tracking specific conversations/counseling that I did in a particular unit. It works for BN or Companies. I suppose one could take is as low as they wanted to but frankly, I think that time prohibitive. I have had success using this at the company level in field problems and site visits. Daily, I use it at the BN level. What is most helpful is tracking counseling/conversations over time. I look for trends and spikes in certain areas and use that information to create training or focus ministry in a particular place to a particular unit. I have a chart that I use sometimes when I am able. It includes this information:

Morale Advisement Worksheet

Dates covered ______________________ Quarter __________ FY ___________

Company/Troop/Battery _____________________________________________

Commander/1SG ___________________________________________________

Length of Command _________________________________________________

CDR

Strengths                                                       Weaknesses                                                 Impact

 

1SG

Strengths                                                       Weaknesses                                                 Impact

 

Overall Mission

Upcoming Missions/Training Events

Overall Impact on Soldiers

 

(1-5, 5=doing best)

Sleep                   Food                    Safety                  Religion                             Other:

Assets in CMD

 

ASIST:

 

Strong Soldiers:

 

High Risk Soldiers (to keep an eye on)

 

 

*Any recommendations to command?

Counseling Trends – Place tick marks representing counseling (however you define that**) and summarize quarterly.

Marriage:

Family:

Stress:

Depression:

Suicide:

Self Harm (to include addictions):

Spiritual Growth:

Personal Growth:

Personal Identity:

Anger:

Grief:

Sexual Assault:

Getting along with others/personal relationships:

Financial:

Leadership/Unit Complaints:

Notes:

 

Other:

Notes:

 

Definitions:

Morale: the confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time.

*Recommendations to command includes:

  1. Critique – Assessment based on objective standards and experience, non-judgmental or personal, straightforward
  2. Feedback – Reflection based on subjective experience, personal, one’s personal experience of another, recognizes cultural differences, positive in nature

(as opposed to criticism which is negative, harsh, judgmental, pretends to be objective but is subjective, and does not seek to build up the other)

** Counseling – I define this as any significant conversation where I provide pastoral care, advice, or a listening ear. A conversation where a Soldier deals with issues. No time constraint. Includes scheduled office appointments.

Note the definitions. There are no “official” definitions of these ideas and every chaplain seems to approach them differently, however, it helped me to create some kind of quasi-objective standard by which to evaluate my work.

Over time, I have developed fairly good methods of evaluating morale quickly. I guess it just comes with experience. Also, I notice that if MY morale is struggling, others probably are as well. Life just seems to work that way.

If people have lost their humor, it’s a fairly good indication that they are in chaos and overwhelmed. In any Army unit, there is always a good amount of “gallows humor.” By and large, it is a healthy reaction to the hardship that we face. As long as it does not develop into toxic humor that is aimed at hurt and pain, it’s good and I encourage it. When I experience people whose humor has moved from the ironic, sarcastic, and good-natured profane to toxic and mean-spirited (by the way, I should note here that what sound “mean-spirited” to someone not familiar with the military may well not be. A practiced ear can hear the humor and genuine concern in what may sound a little cruel. When in doubt, I usually just check with the person and see if everything is ok) I make sure to follow up with that individual and group.

Of course, there are the usual things like checking on a person who isolate themselves. Of course, many times we need some space and some quiet time in the chapel is helpful. If I observe a drastic change in behavior, I note that and follow up with a person to see how they are. If I observe that they are “taking things to heart” its likely that their capacity for change and hardness is waning and they need some help building resiliency to the situation they are in.

The single best method I find for evaluating morale is if the unit is connecting to the mission. If they see that they play a role in whatever the unit is tasked with doing. If they can find meaning and purpose in their work. Is the end in sight? I find that Soldiers can be the happiest in the most austere and harsh circumstances as long as: 1. Everyone is in the same position – i.e. the leadership is down in the muck with them and 2. There is meaning in the suffering.  If those two things are in place, morale (no matter the suffering) tends to be high.

At the end of the day, what does a chaplain do? Listen. Observe. Provide Feedback.

I observe the life that is happening. If I see someone struggling, I pay more attention to them and find a way to talk. Perhaps that is, in a nutshell, what chaplain work is after all. Paying attention and finding a way to talk.

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Filed under 3rd Deployment, Army, Chaplaincy

Cleft of the Rock

So, here in Iraq, there are times the enemy wants to lash out in their death throws so they lob things at us. We have amazing systems to deal with such things so its not really an issue. When we know it’s coming we run for the bunkers which are placed strategically around the FOB. These bunkers sometimes are built up and reinforced like this Hesco behemoth:

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But mostly, they are like this one, a concrete tube. Sometimes they have sandbags and sometimes, like this one, just the tube. What they all have in common is the small opening you have to get through in order to get to safety. IMG_20160318_163634

There is literally a “cleft in the rock” though which is safety.

On Sunday, we sang this:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
cleanse me from its guilt and power. 

 

 

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Filed under 3rd Deployment, Chaplaincy, Theology

Surprising Silence

One of the realities about camp life is that there is no silence. There is always noise. If you are in a tent, either the heater/air is running or the constant hum of the generator assures you that life is happening. Outside the tent, there are vehicles, machinery, the machinations of a war camp, and, lets not forget, the heart-stopping sound of the alarm letting you know trouble is coming fast.

Then, there are the people. Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, Sailors, Civilians, Local Nationals – people everywhere you go! There is no sanctuary where there are not people. Even in the portajon, a solitude against the ever maddening crowd, you can hear clearly the people in the stall next to you.

Tents are full of people. There are the day sleepers who work at night and the night sleepers who work in the day. Everyone is trying to be quiet and everyone is making noise. Sometimes the harder one tries to stay quiet, the more grating the noise. Especially when trying to sleep.

All the noise is for me reassuring. I grew up in a large family, one of 12 children, and noise really does not phase me. I’ve never really liked being fully alone. This is not to say that I like talking. The introvert in me loves silence and space but I also like knowing others are close by. At home, my family is ever present. In the field, my Soldiers are ever present. It’s actually one of the things I love about his work.

Two nights ago, I was reassigned to a new tent. I went into the tent and in it was the unit that we replaced, they were waiting for their flight home. Last night, after leaving Bible study at the chapel, I returned to an empty tent. It was surreal. I don’t think I have ever, in 11 years of Army service, spent a night alone in a tent. It was so odd. Even a little unnerving.IMG_20160229_083507520

I woke up with a start about 02 and heard nothing. The generator outside the tent had shut off and I could literally hear nothing. It was so weird. There was no shuffling about in cots, no rolling over, no hum of laptops playing movies, no hushed conversations, no clumping of boots from Soldiers returning from missions. Just silence. Then, the generator kicked back on and it sounded right again. It was still a little odd as I was the only one in the tent (there is another crew coming in tonight so it’s a one night experience) and could hear only my thoughts.

I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Such surprising silence.

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Waiting.

Waiting.

Transient.

Waiting.

This is the part I like the least. I won’t say it’s the “worst” part because there are always worse days but I still don’t particularly like it. Soldiers come and go. Everyone is waiting for their number to be called so they can board a plane and get to their mission. Those who are stationed here and doing their job are just working and waiting till they can go home. Everyone is waiting and everyone is thinking.Waiting

During the wait, I find quiet spots to sit and wait with them. Often, it’s the smoke pit. It occurs to me that I don’t know why we call the smoking areas “smoke pits” but we do. The one I prefer has a sun shade and picnic table. I sit, read, smoke my pipe and gradually my Soldiers pass through. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we joke, sometimes we just share the silence. Always we wait.

Getting to war is slow. There is so much waiting. My battalion has missions in multiple places and they have all left now except a few of us who are going to the most remote location. There are not as many flights there so we wait till there are enough to fill a flight and we’ll go eventually. In the mean time, ministry happens in the waiting.

Waiting gives time to reflect. Perhaps its why I don’t like waiting. In these moments, I am thinking about my family, the kids, Sara, and this work. I’m glad to be here. Glad to be with my Soldiers. Glad that if someone has to minister here, it’s me.

I brought a noteworthy journaling Bible with me this time. I’m using it for my war journal and devotions. There is a daily reading and space to write. Yesterday I read, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Today, I read, “You are the light of the World, a city set on a hill cannot be hid… let your light so shine before all that they may see your good works and glorify God in heaven.” It occurs to me that purity of heart results in seeing God in everything around you and then, the light you shed cannot be hid resulting in God being glorified. God cannot be hid.

Even in the waiting.

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This is not the end!

Proper 28 Mark 13 15 NOV 2015

Title: This is not the end!!

Context: Field Service at Ft. Sill. Last Sunday of Mission Readiness Exercise in preparation for a deployment in February.

Text: Mark 13:1-8

Proposition: There will always be war and rumors of war but have hope, the end is not yet.

What makes a phrase “iconic” perhaps the better question to ask is what makes a phrase, “timeless?”

In our passage this morning, we have an iconic, timeless phrase, “there will be wars and rumors of wars…” It’s a phrase that is repeated in literature and in culture throughout West. It’s one of those phrases that is almost always true.

There will always be wars and rumors of war.

Why? Because we are human. Because we consistently fail to resolve our issues with one another with dialogue and conversation. Because we are greedy. Because we seek for power. Because we love violence. Because we can’t abide evil that destroys life. Because we are human. There will always be wars and rumors of wars.

It is nearing the end. The followers are starting to notice that their leader has been getting darker of late. It’s evident to them as they travel that people are less likely to welcome them, house them, and give them food. Good, Yahweh fearing, hardworking, respectable people are closing their doors when they pass. The young come out in droves. The hurting needing healing are hounding them. The poor who have nothing to lose anyway come out to see them and hear the prophet. But the respectable? The established? The connected? The wealthy who could support them in their ministry? Nowhere to be found. What worried them were the zealots, the outcasts and subversives that brought with them spies and traitors, agents of the empire. Fear began to creep in and disturb their comfort.

Something, something was happening.

It wasn’t always like this. When they were recruited, it was exciting! They were part of a movement unlike anything they had ever experienced! Jesus was a rock star. They were awesome just because they were with him! Early on, everyone came out to see them. Everyone surrounded them pressed them in. It was exhilarating! They were part of something big!

They had given everything to this movement. They had abandoned their careers. Left their families. Walked away from security and home because they felt the call to something bigger. Lately though, it didn’t seem as fun. It didn’t seem as clear cut. The teaching was darker and Jesus kept going on and on about dying in Jerusalem. Then they went to that very place. The place where Jesus said he was going to die.

Day one was amazing. People who only had one coat in their lifetime threw that coat on the ground so that the donkey Jesus was riding didn’t even have to touch the dirt. Branches of trees were strewn everywhere. Jesus was riding in like a king! They cried out hosanna!! Then someone (clearly a zelot) started saying, “blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” The people picked it up and it spread through the crowd. They weren’t screaming for a messiah, they were screaming for their king. So, Yeeeahhh, that happened. Their leader became the literal second coming of King David. Obviously Rome was NOT impressed. Things began to go south. Moderate people started to avoid them. The reception began to go cold.

It all went downhill from there. Everyone is watching them. People are looking darkly from behind corners. There is angst about what comes next. Is this what they signed up for?

Angst. Anxiety. Worry. Embarrassment. Maybe this wasn’t the best thing to do with their lives. (I might be projecting a little but that’s what telling stories is all about right?)

So, then they come to the Temple. It’s beautiful. The stones are so huge! They rise out of the ground. These fishermen, most of whom have probably never been to a city in their lives much less Jerusalem, the Holy City, are amazed. They walk around gazing upward like the country bumkin rednecks they are. They comment to Jesus how awesome the stones are, how magnificent the building is (maybe trying to cheer him up?) and how does he respond?

“Do you see these great buildings?” replies Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Crash and burn. Jesus is talking about the very seat of Jewish identity. This is the core of the Jewish faith and their nationality. Of course, we know now that not long after this, Rome would burn it all and what would be left is rubble never to even look like what it was. But they didn’t know that. Jesus rained on their parade with fire and brimstone. This is after (in chapter 12) he has laid waste the religious establishment for building their wealth on the backs of the poor who could not afford it.

So the cozy up and ask – “so, when’s it going to go down?”

Jesus replies by describing what the end of the world would look like. It is important to remember that Mark is an apocalyptic writer. He believed that Rome would bring (as it, in fact, brought) about the end of civilization. This writing was to a people who believed that they would see Jesus again in their lifetimes. The message is to a specific people but it is also timeless.

There will be war. There will be rumors of war. This is a fact of life. But the end is not yet come.

And that, I hear with hope. The world will be bad, it will get worse, it’ll be tough. Things will be demanded of you that you can’t imagine but don’t be afraid, the end is not yet.

What does this all mean for us, sitting here, in this room looking down the barrel at (for some of us) another journey into the breach? We all saw the news yesterday, Paris and Beirut attacked, once again, the drums of war sound and those of us who have carried that burden hear them with the exhausted ears of the boxer hearing the ring to start round 14. Will the wars never end?

Perhaps and perhaps not. History, if it shows us anything, demonstrates that as long as we’re human, we’ll be either at war or talking about it. War is an exercise in rhetoric except for us, we who put on the armor, pick up the rifle, shoulder the ruck, and move to contact.

Here’s how I hear the text this morning:

Listen, these walls you see, they are built on the backs of the poor. They will fall. They cannot stand. This is the nature of life. There will always be people who come along and profess that their way is the only way, beware of them. They will say they represent me but they do not! When you hear of wars and rumors of war, do not be afraid, this is not the end.

Soldiers, there could not have been a better text for us this morning. There will always bGetting readye wars and rumors of wars. We are fighting one that is 14 years old and another that is moving into its third iteration. There is no doubt in my mind that war will define the rest of my career and possibly yours as well. If we continue as we are, in 2025 when my retirement becomes possible, we just might still be in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And yet, the message I hear is, “Don’t be afraid… the end is not yet.”

Saints, hear this from Christ, Do not be afraid, this is not the end.

So live! Love life! Anxiety is normal. It is part of recognizing that we are not working at McDonalds, we are Soldiers in the Army of the United States. And we, gathered here, are Christians. Followers of the Way. As we move to contact, as we live our lives, let us be the best of who we are. Let us be the best Soldiers for we represent our heritage. Let us be the best leaders for we represent our nation. Let us be the best people for we, believers, represent Christ. Let us live forward, into the light, unafraid, for this is not the end.

Amen.

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Mercy Vs Truth

Mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Psalm 85:10

Why would mercy not be with truth? Why don’t they just hang out?

Why would it be notable that righteousness and peace kiss? Shouldn’t they just be a thing?

Perhaps mercy and truth don’t always need to be around each other.12238505_10153725943941303_3888460118035802897_o

I’m thinking about my years in ministry. When first started teaching, the 6th grade teacher made a big deal about sitting down with me to explain the roster. He pointed out all the problems I’d be having with this student and how that student would be great. He
went on for some time. Then my classes started. As I quickly learned, the truth changed. The students who struggled with him blossomed under me and some that resonated with him struggled with me.

Mercy and truth didn’t see eye to eye.

I’m thinking about my years in the prison. A chaplain who preceded me made a big deal of reading and storing all the files on each inmate. He remembered each charge and saw each inmate through the lens of their crimes. I had a hard time doing that. I stopped paying attention. I learned that all of us are capable of horrendous things and wondrous things. Good and bad are in each of us. I found that if I saw the inmate through their crimes, I was less able to extend grace to them. It was not my job to be judge and jury, that work was done. It was my role to be merciful and full of grace.

Mercy and truth didn’t see eye to eye.

Perhaps this is a mark of sin. It’s so very hard to live in the tension of mercy and truth. I want to be merciful to someone who is destitute but I also see their choices, decisions, and behaviors that precipitate their demise. I want to be compassionate towards the struggling couple but it’s difficult to see past their infantile behavior towards each other. For me, mercy and truth really fight against each other.

I want to bring righteous justice to the world but sometimes it seems like it’s not possible without the force of arms. Which, of course, means death. I want ISIL to be purged from the earth, to be punished for the evil they do, but that means war. And war means death. And death means suffering for so many.

So much tension.

Perhaps, when the world is redeemed, when we are all at our best, living out the best of the Way, this verse will be true. And so we keep on keeping on…

Mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Psalm 85:10

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When “they fight for each other” just isn’t good enough

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. 2 Samuel 11:1

In 2009, I left the “Marne Express” (so called because the 3rd Infantry Division was one of the most deployed divisions in the Army back then and to be stuck there was to be on the “Marne Express” going back and forth to Iraq) and “took a knee” as an Advanced Individual Training (AIT) chaplain at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL.

It was the first time I came face to face with the “military industrial complex” outside of a combat zone.

In Iraq, the contractor support was everywhere but seemed necessary – in Huntsville, it is the economic reality of that city. Driving into the city, one passes large building after large building all dedicated to researching war and producing the material for more of it.

Benjamin, my brother, once came to visit while I was station there. He remarked on a sign he had seen and the memory is still with me. The sign was some large contractor praising the American “Warfighter.”

“Warfighter. As though it’s a career path. As though war never ends.”

Growing up, I idolized “warfighters.” These myths and legends of the books and movies I consumed were brave, always right, always in charge, and never quailed in the face of the enemy. I relentlessly imagined myself in their shoes; the enemy out front, the brave few holding the line, and with all the righteous indignation born of absolute truth, we would defeat all comers.

Of course, in my 11th year of Army service, I know the fallacy of youthful idealism. History has a way of bursting bubbles, facts have that unfortunate effect of bringing shades of gray to an otherwise easy, black/white perceived reality and my idealism was traded for the hard, nuanced truths of life.

Only empires have “warfighters.”

One of my favorite characters in fiction is Cornewell’s Richard Sharpe. Here’s a warfighter if ever there was one. He spends his life pursuing the goals of the British Empire. He is at once a very fallible man but also brave and kind in his own way. He is what I what I experienced in my Army. Brave, kind, generous, mean, cruel, and vindictive. We all carry the ability to be at our best and at our worst. Sharpe was a warfighter. A man talented at really one thing, winning battles.

In American history, there was a deep and established caution regarding standing Armies and professional Soldiers. After every war, the Armies were disbanded and those who fought them left to find their way in the Republic. But somewhere along the line, we became a nation that expects war. Expects that every day, someone, somewhere, is going to have to do combat with an enemy for “defense.” Who does that? Only people with enemies. And empires have enemies.

So we have warfighters.

Why does this matter to me? After all, I am a professional Soldier, a chaplain providing religious support to our Soldiers and family members around the world. I’ve had two combat deployments and am about to go on a third. It matters to me because of the narrative, because of our willingness to be honest about who we are as a people and nation.

Warfighter chaplainSo, the traditional narrative, the one I grew up with, cast America as the “land of the free and home of the brave.” It casts all military actions as the last possible measure. “We didn’t want war, but by God, if you bring it to us…” sort of thing. Our military industrial complex is labeled “the defense industry.” The capitalist corporations whose only existence is to develop and produce the weapons of war are labeled “defense contractors.” Incidentally, as I write this, I just finished my favorite MRE (meals ready to eat): chili mac, crackers and cheese, with a dessert of lemon poppyseed pound cake. So good. Thank you defense contractor in Evansville, Indiana for my wonderful, shelf stable meal!

Do we want peace? Of course. Do we want justice? Yes. Do we want our GDP to continually grow necessitating open markets around the world and why communism (and the closed markets it creates) is a threat to us? Also, yes. Do economics drive our warfare? Of course. Does idealism impact our willingness to fight? Yes. Do we go to war for political reasons? Really, do you even need to ask?

Turns out, our wars are just convoluted at the British Empire’s. Especially the recent ones.

So, now, here we are going back to Iraq. Soldiers, once again, moving to contact in that place. It makes sense. At least in this case, we can say that we made the problem and thus we’re the ones that need to fix it. We, the United States, broke that place and now it’s a hell-hole. So many have died. Tens of thousands have died on that altar of our fear and what do we have to show for it?

Debt. Death. Destruction. Division.

War.

There is a time when nothing will fix the problem except war. Nothing will get through but violence. But it is always bad. There is no good war. There is only death. Even in 2 Samuel, there was a time when kings went out to war.

Regardless of what we see in movies and TV, violence only begets more violence. It does not bring peace, it just shoves the problem deeper. So we try to fight small wars, limited conflicts, air campaigns (which is a nice way of saying killing thousands to people, innocent and guilty, from the air, far away from our sensibilities), and strategic initiatives. Violence might bring temporary peace but desperate people will fight back. Eventually, all the chickens come home to roost and the problem is worse.

War is the great human tragedy. It is the failure of humans to be human. It is absolute failure of the human race to be civilized and talk through their problems. It is sin. It is the brokenness of our people. War is terrible.

But we love it so much. We love the parades, the strength, the honor, the bravery.

We love the violence.

We fight because we want to. We fight because it makes us feel good. We create narratives and call them the “great cause” to justify it. We paste ethical names to it. We create offenses, straw men, faceless enemies, and throw all our blood and treasure at it. We call it beautiful, artistic but its just a fancy way of killing. We would rather our our people go hungry and live without than defund our beautiful, artistic, and brutal engines of death.

We call it just.

We claim that God is on our side, right is on our side, justice is on our side. And maybe it is. Or maybe it’s not. Either way, we could at least be honest about it and own that war is death. It is nothing else. If we’re going to do it, then own the animal nature of it and get it over with. Maybe that’s the narrative I want, honesty about the violence we pay for. Call it what it is. Own your stuff.

In the years before I commissioned, two movies came out that profoundly impacted me. They told stories that cemented in me the need to join up and be a part of the grand tradition of the Army. Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers told, in all it’s gritty detail, the stories of bravery, sacrifice, and honor that accompany war. They both had this theme, a theme that has become more and more popular as the “Cause” gets more and more convoluted and opaque:

“Soldiers don’t fight for the cause; they fight for each other.”

11 years in, I attest to the truth of that statement.

However, when that is the narrative, it releases those who run this great institution (i.e. – all of you who vote and influence elected leaders) from the duty of asking the question, why are we sending our Soldiers out to fight?

It is the duty of Soldiers to “fight and win America’s wars.”

It is the duty of the citizen to decide what wars are worth fighting.

I have stood by the greatest people I will ever know in battle. I have eulogized heros who gave everything for what they believed in and the person next to them. I have worked countless hours and ingested more caffeine than I thought humanly possible to effectively conduct warfare on behalf of the people of the United States.

I wonder how much thought they have given to their duty to hold their elected leaders accountable for how they expend American lives. I wonder how much thought you have given to it.

I’m not a pacifist. I toyed with the idea for a bit but I have guns and would use them to deadly intent on anyone who threatened the life of my family. I wear my uniform with great pride. I have, through blood, sweat and tears, earned every shiny thing on it. I am grateful to be a part of a great and honorable institution that has done so much good in the world. Though I sometimes question the cause, I always saddle up, grab my chaplain kit, and move to contact when called upon to do so. I have been a volunteer far past my initial swearing it. I will continue to stand by the greatest generation of millennials on the planet as they sacrifice over and over again for you, the American people.

Here’s the thing, “fighting for each other” just doesn’t cut it any more. There has to be a better reason. Causes matter. As a Soldier speaking for himself, I don’t need anyone’s thanks or for you to pay for my meal – I need you to take seriously the duty of deciding when and where you want to spill American blood.

I need you to ask the question – is this war worth the life of my child?

Because, if I’m going to stand on the doorstep of more mothers and fathers to tell them that their sons and daughters were killed in lands far away, I need to know that it’s going to be worth it. I need to know that it matters. I need to be able to say, the world is a better place because they died.

You need to as well. For their blood is on your hands. Their blood is in your hands.

I will own my place on the battlefield to nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead. I need you to own your place on the battlefield to ensure that when we send American boys and girls out to fight, its because there is no other way.

If “warfighter” is going to be a career path in the United States, then let’s ensure that every war is worth fighting and maybe someday, we’ll live in a world where “peacemaker” is just as viable a career field.

*Given the nature of this post, please hear again that this is MY opinion. I do not represent the Army, the Chaplain Corps or the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I represent me. 

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Ministry by Inches

Years ago, a teacher joined the Army chaplaincy. He was idealistic, hungry, and ambitious. He dreamed of adventure and glory. He had visions of going to war, preaching – Billy Graham style – and flocks of war-torn Soldiers would come to Jesus. If he was really honest, he kinda hoped he’d get a chance to shoot a terrorist or two too. He was a wandering fundamentalist. He had been through 9/11 and had grieved those days. He had been denied entry to combat troops but waited his turn, bided his time, went into seminary and found a place in the front lines as a Chaplain.

He believed the rhetoric that Iraq was a just war. A war to defend the homeland.

So he went. And he learned. And he fought. And he returned a different man. He was changed. He saw the world differently. He came away disenfranchised and disillusioned, haunted by the thought that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as he had been told. Maybe, just maybe, this was a hollow sacrifice.

He had seen so much death. So much destruction. So much sacrifice and so much heroism. Men who laid it all on the line for the men under him. Women, leaving traditional gender roles and heroically owning their space on the battlefield. He saw an America he didn’t think existed. One funded by massive amounts of cash. An America that seemed happy to contract out essential services and creating a proxy second class. A class that bowed their heads  and got off the sidewalk when Americans walked by. A real, no-kidding two class system with haves and have nots. It shocked him. He didn’t know what to do with that. He experienced the American Soldier, at once a hero, the best of their country, and also terrible, awful people capable of all manner of evil. Over the years, nose to the grindstone, he witnessed a country unsure of what to do with their sons and daughters who became warriors. They seemed to care but abdicated their role in holding civilian leadership accountable for sending them to war. It seemed all to easy to focus on killing the marginalized in some other place and thus ignore the chaos brewing at home.

The tension exploded in him. The fundamentals of his youth did not answer the questions swirling in his head. His journey brought him to this conclusion – violence only begets more violence.

He toyed with pacifism. But it wasn’t for him.

However, he saw truth in the ancient Zoroastrian thought, “Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community or peace.” (From Saving Paradise by Brock and Parker)

But his life was at the margin of violence. Sometimes, he was in the middle of it but mostly, he operated on the margin. Men and women for all sorts of reasons (few having to actually do with defending America) had volunteered to do violence and his role was to ensure they had the free exercise of religion while they did it. He was also expected to advise commanders of the morale and morals of their Soldiers while being the voice for ethical prosecution of said violence.

It tore at his soul.

Who am I kidding? It tears at my soul. It is at once terrifying and exhilarating to know the power at the disposal of the US Army. It is empowering to know what kind of violent force can be brought to the table by a battalion of Soldiers. But, oh the tension. The pain in my heart when I take seriously the teachings of Jesus and the reality of my work.

How does serving as a Chaplain in the most effective expeditionary land Army the world has ever seen mesh with “bringing Soldiers to God and God to Soldiers?”

For me, its only possible in the inches. When I step back and look at the meta, the over all strategy, it is overwhelming and sometimes depressing. When I focus on the steps in front of me, the inches and the margins, I see great ministry. I see God walking with Soldiers as they muddle through. Sometimes, its me doing the muddling and my Soldiers revealing God to me.

guitar on the roadThe crowds never happened for me. Most services I do are very small. Today I did four. At two of them, it was me and one other person. That is the nature of this work. Its one at a time. Person to person. It’s me walking from gun crew to gun crew, a troubled marriage here, a struggling spirit there. This one wonders if the God of his youth is still worth believing in. This one has the heartbreak of a poor choices impacting her life. This one wonders if they were just crazy joining the Army and are, frankly, frightened of what comes next.

They speak to me in the darkness, in smoke breaks, and walking along the trail. Drinking a hot cup of coffee, they sigh deeply and wonder aloud if any of their sacrifice and effort are worth it.

Its a question I ask.

I’m not sure I know the answer but I know the path to find it. I know grief and I know sorrow. I know the inches and the margins.

And I’ll walk with them. Every step of the way.

Perhaps that is the ministry I seek from the Holy Spirit. To walk with me in the inches and margins.

Every step of the way.

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If we wrote the rules, we can change them!

A follow up to yesterdays post about Career Management.

Thanks to all who read and responded to my thoughts yesterday. I learned something about the Chaplain Corps and about myself.

I had some thoughts after working through this yesterday and responding to those to took the time to write me. What follows are some of those thoughts.

1. Perhaps what I am getting after is a paradigm. While working in the prison, my mentor there, the deputy commandant had a very direct way of challenging issues. He would often ask if the rules were ours. If so, could evaluate the rules and change them if need be – we didn’t need to permission of the Army to do that!

Just because “it has been written” does not mean that we can’t change it! I witnessed years of institutional thought move in new directions because he empowered subordinates to look at core documents and rewrite something if it didn’t make sense anymore.

By doing this, he changed the culture.

I am saying that our current system isn’t good enough. It does not work as well as it could. I understand and appreciate that what has been built cannot be changed in a day (or in the case of HRC apparently ever) but I wonder what we could change?

Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.

What if the question personnel managers asked every day was: “What can I do today to make this process more transparent?” I wonder how that would start to change culture?

For example: there is a document that floats around every year around the time of the personnel conference. Its a simple excel spreadsheet that lists the various commands and locations and lists the number of openings they have. Some actually have a title like “family life chaplain” but most are just numbers. “2 0-3s at Ft. Carson” etc. Sometimes, this document is accessible. I’ve been able to see it and always find it fascinating. Who knew they had a slot in England??

There have also been years that I have asked for this document and it has been both refused (just fill out your “Chaps” form and don’t worry about it) and not available. It seems with the advent of the MilBook site that it has been more readily available but even then, there is still so much mystery about it. Basically, when we fill out the form, we have no idea what jobs are actually available, just that there are 10 captain slots on Ft. Campbell.

Question: what can I do to make the process more transparent and collaborative?

  • Here’s a way to answer that question that does not require a single change to the existing system.
    1. Have every chaplain fill out a job title and description for their unit. Create a form and have everyone fill it out. Find out what the unique challenges and opportunities that are available with each job.
    2. Collect those forms at DACH and create a searchable database of all the chaplain jobs in the Army.
    3. Link the available slots on that excel spreadsheet to the searchable database.
    4. Every chaplain could search that database and choose jobs they think they most desire and would be a good fit for.
    5. On the Chaps form, add a block that can hold more than 200 characters in which a chaplain can advocate for themselves why they want that job.

Of course, there are no guarantees but the process would be more transparent and collaborative.

It’s an idea.

But then, ideas have power. As do paradigms. I wonder what it would be like if we pushed ourselves to make the process more collaborative and transparent within the rules that already exist?

And if the rules are our rules, then maybe they need to be in a state of constant evaluation asking the question, “is this good enough? Clear enough? Does it put the right chaplain into the right job?”

2. I get it. I understand that in the Army, sometime it just is what it is. I’ve worked with it these ten years and, generally, I’ve gotten what I wanted. I generally take the approach that a job is what you make of it and as a result, I get great assignments!

That said, I still think that sometimes we accept systems that could be improved because it’s written in a regulation or SOP and therefore cannot be changed.

(side note: I learned early on that if I volunteered to write the memorandum or the SOP, I got my way because no one else wanted to do the staff work. Thus, organizations I worked with generally went with my recommendations because I was the one to write it down. Its my little secret way to control my world…)

In the end, what I am advocating for is more transparency, flatter communications, and a more collaborative effort towards getting the right chaplain into the right ministry. I believe that is a doable goal.

(Also, I still wish that the transition between reserve and active was easier and think that we’d get more and better chaplains if it were.) Just had to throw that in there…

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