Category Archives: 3rd Deployment

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

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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