Tag Archives: Army

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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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

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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Career Management and the Army Chaplain Corps

Chaplain Corps, you can do better.

My entire career, any branch officer could pick up the phone and call branch, have a conversation with the branch manager, see what is open and advocate for what they want. It has seemed fairly straight forward for them and they always look a little confused when I try to explain our system for assignments.

So, as I understand it, after 10 years of active service, here’s how it goes.

We fill out a “dream sheet.” This is an online form that allows us to input our salient data, offers three choices for both continental US assignments and overseas (including Alaska and Hawaii) assignments as well. Then, in a single box, we are allowed (using only 200 characters including spaces and punctuation) to write out any other considerations for our assignments. It is here, in 200 characters, we need to be able to articulate where we want to go, what we want to do, and why we would be good for that path in a career.

This information is taken to a “personnel conference,” prayed over and assignments made. I have been told that our personnel managers are there to advocate for us (there is a list of about 30 items – needs of the Army at the forefront) that are taken in consideration in order to make the best choice.

If it seems convoluted and over-complicated, I think that it is. Where I am stationed, there are three lines of authority between myself and the personnel manager. I have to trust that my messages are getting through. In 2015. Really?

In the flat-earth information age we live in, it seems archaic that we (chaplains) need highly paid personnel managers to “advocate” for us at a central conference.

I do not disparage their work, I’m sure they are actively engaged with making moves that make sense for the Corps.

The problem is, as I see it, is that the process is shrouded in unnecessary mystery and does not allow for personal control of one’s career. I would like more control in the process. I would like more of a say in where I go and what my career looks like.

I offer the following as an alternative to bring the system into a more modern way:

Apply_Hand1. Make it a transparent process. Publish the slots that are coming up. Describe them. Highlight needs of the Army and what would be a good career move.

2. Own that there are tiered slots. There are slots that are “good career moves” only its not clear what those are only that the Corps seems to value combat arms and special forces above all. I don’t care if a slot is “good or bad” for my career, I just want to Corps to own it. Let me decide if I want to have quality of life vs. a good career move.

3. On that note, make those top tier slots application based. Give the senior chaplain the power to “hire” their own team. Let chaplains apply for the jobs they want to have. Obviously there will be jobs that people won’t want. Needs of the Army always reigns supreme. But give chaplains more of a voice in their careers.

4. Let chaplains choose their career paths. If a chaplain wants to stay somewhere, let them. Even if it hurts their chance a promotion, let them knowledgeably choose want they want to do. Let chaplains work in the fields they are most gifted in.

5. Every move is three years. If a chaplain wants to stay beyond that, they have to apply to do so. If the senior chaplain wants them to, let them stay. After 1 year time on station, let them apply for a different job. There is no guarantee that they would get it but they could apply. Too much movement is bad for a career and too less would also be so but let the chaplain choose.

6. Finally, allow a seamless transition between reserve and active component. There really is no reason a chaplain could not take three years, go back to civilian ministry, and then apply for a job back in the active component. It is institutional arrogance that says that this would not work. In fact, I believe that if the Army mandated that say, every 8 years, a chaplain needed to return to civilian ministry, we would have better, more pastoral, chaplains. Chaplains hanging on for that magical 20 year retirement is not good for the Corps.

In short, let chaplains manage their own careers. I believe we’d be a better Corps for it and hold on to talent.

The “good ole’ boy” system needs to go.

The Chaplain Corps is a remarkably white, male, conservative, protestant Corps which does not resemble the rest of the Army. Perhaps opening up career management to the individual chaplain would go a long way toward correcting the problem I wrote about here. 

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Air Assault. So, thats happening.

There was this moment. I was at the knot of the “Tough One” rope and I realized I didn’t think I was going to be able to get my leg up on the bottom beam to mount the obstacle. I had a good lock on the rope, I was high enough but my arms felt burnt and I was afraid.

Afraid I didn’t have the strength to hoist myself to the final beam.

Afraid of failing.

Afraid of having to go back to my Battalion in the shame of having the rope beat me again without the excuse of torrential rain.

Afraid of my pride.

I prayed. Reached inside and yelled, released the lock on the rope and swung my left leg up. I didn’t make it. My foot slipped and I frantically tried to relock my feet on the rope. I managed to do it and in the desperation of a man unwilling to lose his dignity, I threw my leg up, pulled with my arms and suddenly found myself on the obstacle. I had done it. There were other obstacles, other pain (some overwhelming) yet to come that day, but the one thing keeping my out of Air Assault School was over and I beat it. I felt the rush of victory and the anxiety of everything else that needed to be done that day.

Day 0

Air Assault School starts in the wee hours of the morning, long before dawn with a great deal of standing in formation, kneeling in the rocks (everything there is limestone gravel), a 2-mile run, PRT (a series of calisthenics that includes a half-dozen types of the push-up – also demonstrated the maxim that any movement done long enough eventually hurts (fire running through your body hurts) – until thoroughly smoked) and then, and only then, do you actually get to climb the rope on to the Tough One.

tough one

I completed all the obstacles and the day moved on to sitting in a classroom simultaneously trying to stay awake and avoid doing the wrong thing so as not to do more push-ups.

By the way, here is a sweet video of the O Course done by the 101 Sustainment BDE.

Day 1

Again, the wee hours of the morning. Ok, really, when your alarm goes off at 0200, its actually the middle of the night. At 0330, we had formation and by 0400, we were off on a timed 6 mile ruck march that had to be passed in order to stay in the course. I passed.

#21 out of over 160 so not bad considering most everyone there is about half my age…

After that, we had an equipment layout and inspection. I had a moment of panic thinking I had forgotten my id tags – I had, but I also had packed a spare set in my ruck so I was good – and passed that.

After the layout our class, which had started out as over 230 the morning of Day 0 was now down to less than 160. After Day 1, we were down to less than 150. I think we are sitting at about 130 now. Fairly normal for Air Assault School.

Classwork.

People had told me that there was a lot of classroom training in AASLT School. They are correct. Only, it’s not like any training I’ve ever had before. As a Direct Commission officer, I never went to Basic Training so I really don’t know what that was like. Lecture is simply an Instructor barking facts he has memorized directly from the Field Manual and my furiously writing them down. There really isn’t room for any kind of creative thinking. Or thinking at all. This is Army training at its finest. When the Air Assault Sergeant says, “Study Air Assault” (we are called by our roster number and Air Assault – I am “roster number 620”) what he means is memorize. Somehow, I don’t think anyone really cares about pedagogical methods and my own learning style.

Day 2

More intense PT. I expected this. I am suddenly remembering that I’m getting older. My recovery time is nothing like it used to be. I get home after a day and just want to immerse myself in a hot tub and not get out of it. At all. Ever.

Then, it’s more classroom training and some field training.

So far, we’ve learned about the various rotary wing aircraft in the Army inventory – I need to memorize things like allowable cargo loads and maximum speed/cruising speed of each etc. Air Assault Combat Operations, Aeromedical Evacuation Operations and a bunch of other things that frankly, I don’t remember at this moment. I have so much memorizing to do this weekend…

Oh and “Pathfinder Hand and Arm Signals” which I’m pretty convinced is Army Tai Che.

Day 3 is Monday and at 0600, I’ll have a written test on all this as well as a demonstration about the hand and arm signals. So much work this weekend. At least I have the weekend.

I’m glad I made it but it’ll be even better when June 10 comes along…

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Ten Year Itch: Part Four – A conversation about two careers and conclusions

The last installment of the “Ten Year Itch” series is a conversation between Sara and I. We decided that it would be fitting, as we extrovert these thoughts about Active Duty, to also extrovert some of the thoughts, ideas, and motivations we have as a couple.

It’s the whole “one flesh” idea. Any choice that one person in a relationship makes impacts the other – it’s felt – by the other. Thoughts about the future are as much about Sara as they are about me. We are a “two-pastor family.”

It’s been pretty easy up to this point. As soon as I got pregnant with Sophia, I stopped working and spent the next several years home with our kids. “My career” was never an idea that crossed our minds; while I knew I wanted to work when the kids were older, I had no clarity on what that would be. We lived the maxim “Home is where the Army Sends You” – Jon went to work every day, I was a stay-at-home mom. Whenever we needed to move, nothing would change about my life except the location. And then, one day… I DID have clarity. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. And it became clear very quickly that my path would not always be “Where the Army Sent Us.” So then what?

Your call was clear. Certainly more clear than I ever experienced mine. I remember the first time you stood behind the pulpit at Memorial – it was an almost electric feeling that went through me. You belonged there. I remember thinking how obvious it was that this was where you were supposed to be. Clearly, it wasn’t just me that saw that. It’s been true throughout the last few years.

This calling presents a significant problem – how do we, as a couple – pursue two distinct careers? I’ve known dual military officers, dual enlisted Soldiers, and dual chaplains. But I’ve yet to experience a successful active duty chaplain and full time pastor. I’m wondering what some of those barriers might be to have a two career family?

There are the obvious:

  • Moves to areas we can’t control. I happened into a great position here in Kentucky, but it’s very likely that the next duty station either won’t have a Disciples church, or that church won’t be hiring. While I’m still pursuing my MDiv and ordination, part time/ intern positions are great – but in a few years when I’m done with that, it will be difficult to go through the denominational Search & Call process with Army moves.
  • I will have to leave good situations prematurely.
  • Pastoring requires networking and building relationships in a community and region. This is hard to do with frequent moves.

When I think of the challenges, the one that sticks out the most to me is networking. The way I experience the Disciples working, a pastor needs to “build a brand” within the region and that takes time. Consistent time working within a region building a reputation that will follow you throughout your career. As you follow my career, I’m afraid you’ll just have to be a volunteer or intern for the next 10 years until you’ll be able to actually embrace your call.

But the alternative isn’t appealing either. The only way for me to fully “embrace my call” (as in, enter the Search & Call process and we move to the church who calls me) would be for you to either not work or have a portable career. We rely on your income, so that is not a realistic alternative – whether you were Active Duty, or worked in the Bureau of Prisons or VA or anything else. Sometimes it just seems as though there’s no win-win.

There must be. I think its somewhere in trusting the call. At the time of every Army move, we take into account your career and what is available to you and choose accordingly. Coming to Ft. Campbell turned out to be a great move for us as you were able to work at First Christian and proximity to school/family. I have to believe that this will continue. While I am not really committed to the idea that it will always work out like this, I do believe that there will be two good opportunities for us to be a part of God’s work wherever we go.

In many ways, we make the opportunities good ones.

I agree. I think the conversation isn’t “your career” vs “my career” – or even how much weight each of our careers carries in the decision-making process. We take it move by move, job by job. Sometimes it will be really great for me and not quite as fulfilling for you – other times it might be the opposite. There IS no perfect. I think the key is acknowledging this – and acknowledging the grief that each of us has in our personal sacrifice for the other.

And as we make these move-by-move decisions, there might be a point where we do something nearly solely for one or the other of us. I think the move to Hopkinsville was that: after I spent so many years unfulfilled and mostly unhappy, we moved here because it was good for me. The next move will be different. We each make sacrifices for the family, because what’s best for the family will not always be what is best for you or best for me.

I really like that “move by move, job by job” – I think this is the challenge that everyone has in this age. We live in a two-career/income society. Really, in many ways, the Army is part of that last vestige of single-income jobs that make the traditional “breadwinner” life possible. One of the people that come to mind is one of my old principles, Brian Foreman who now blogs at Luke1428 He and his wife made the choice to switch who became the breadwinner but it does not seem like an either/or choice but one where they chose what was best for their family. I see our responsibility to each other’s careers in a similar way – what is best for us right now? The future is always changing but what is best for us: me, you, the kids; in the now and immediate future?

I’m fascinated when I meet dual pastor families who have been doing this for years. I’m amazed how they have been able to manage two careers that are based so firmly in relationships. How they know members in each other’s congregations and are engaged in the social fabric of two churches. It binds the two congregations together in a intangible way.

While we’re far from having this figured out, I am encouraged that we have these conversations. I am constantly reminded that whatever we do – we’ll do it together. We think about the two-clergy couples we know, and it looks different for every single one of them. There’s no “right” answer; there’s only what’s best for our family in each time, in each place, given the information we have at the time.

Indeed. Thanks for having this conversation in public.

Conclusions

For what it’s worth, we’re nowhere closer to any decision than when we started the conversation. At the end of the day, choices like this are just choices. I like what Andrew commented a couple days ago – things that are life-changing and massively significant to us are not to God. Wherever we serve, whatever we set our hands to, God provides and blesses. I believe that. In the mean time, we serve with our whole hearts engaged in the task at hand.

Finishing in the Army would mean total flexibility after I finish my career and that’s significant. One thing I have determined in this thought exercise, my value of family is more important that just about anything and that we’re going to bloom wherever we’re planted. Things like retirement and salary are important but not at the expense of our family.

I have loved being a Soldier – not all of it – but it’s a part of me that will never really go away. I suspect that no matter where we end up a decade from now, Soldiering on will be the order of the day…

Thanks for taking this journey with us. I hope it’s given some clarity for you.

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Ten Year Itch: Part Three – The Retirement

With calling addressed. I’ll approach the sticky subject – money.

When the question, “should I leave Active Duty” comes up, invariably, the answers come back quickly. There is a short calculation, basically how many years do you have left until the magical 20, and then it’s, “well you only have XX left.” It’s all about the retirement.

US-Army-retired-logo

The military pension, as it exists today, was set up for another time. When it was instituted, life expectancy was much shorter and military pay did not equal civilian pay. This, of course had dramatically changed over the years with the advent of the all-volunteer force’s pay coming up to par and sometimes exceeding civilian pay. To be fair, the demands of military life certainly justify the pay and benefits and if you survive to 20 years, the defined benefits package includes half of your paycheck and free healthcare (among other things) for the rest of your life. It’s a sweet deal if you can pull it off.

There have been some proposals to change the system. Proposals that seem beneficial in the long run. As great a deal as it is, I’m wondering if its really a sustainable system when people like me can “retire” at 47, pull a paycheck (while pursuing another career) for the rest of my working days. Truth be told, all I need to do is make it another 10 years on AD (this means not getting into trouble and passing my bi-annual physical fitness test) and I’m set. For life.

Too good to be true? In some ways, it kind of is. It’s a little like winning lottery – the check of the month club – if by that you mean exchanging your blood, sweat and tears for 20 years… it’s all or nothing. Either you make it there or you don’t.

Of course, there is always the reserves – in which I have 11 years good time – which also pays a retirement albeit I cannot draw until I’m 58.

With all the upside, what is the personal and family cost of serving in the military?
I’ve spent years away from my family.
My family and I are currently living in the 9th house in 10 years of Active Duty. My kids, ages 3,5,7, are in their third school district in as many states and 4th school. I think that as a field grade my moves might slow down a little but they haven’t yet and if I extrapolate that reality over another decade, my daughter might be in as many as ten different schools before she graduates high school.
These continual moves have been an adventure and we’ve adapted well but every one wears on me a little more. The last two were just work. No fun. No adventure. Just the “cost of doing business.”
When deployments happen, it’s 24/7 – the work never stops. Basically, the deployed Soldier just lives for the day that he or she can come home and rest. Only, there really isn’t rest for the weary. There is just more work. The optemp of the active duty force is all day/every day. After all, there are other Soldiers deployed and we can rest… when we retire…
We’ve not lived close to family – ever – all our vacations revolve around seeing them. I know this is a reality for many people in and out of the military but it’s a cost nonetheless.
The physical/emotional/spiritual cost on my personal wellbeing is intangible but there are days I feel it deeply.
My children make friends quickly and then suffer when we leave and we are always leaving. Sara and I find that it’s getting harder to maintain deep relationships since we’re always the one’s leaving.
My wife’s career is on hold until I get out. She can always get more education but to actual get a church, she needs stability and to network in a region. I’m not willing to be a geographical bachelor.
And then, there is the very real risk – to my life – being a Soldier. It was one thing to take that risk ten years ago with no children but I’ve changed, I have three who are very dear to me and it weighs on my shoulders.

But it is also true, we are well-compensated. I’ve gained a great deal from my time in the Army, not the least of which has been a DMin (still working on that one), 4 units of CPE and a residency, and all the experience that comes with a decade of ministry.

If I left, it would cost of a great deal. Besides drawing a pension at 47, there would be the exemptions I have from state income tax, homestead exemption, free healthcare (no copays, no deductibles) and other benefits I can’t really think of right now.

The benefits are tangible, the cost, less so.

Which is why Army service is never usually talked about in purely monetary terms – it’s not like other occupations – it’s a calling for most and chaplains especially.

Over the years the most impressive people I’ve met, those whose life has stood out to me are people that have such a clear sense of call that their service in the Army is just a part of that call rather than the sum total. Chaplains who served their deployments and got out (or went to the reserves) because their call to preach/family was stronger than the retirement. Soldiers whose calling to be a firefighter/doctor/police officer/business executive were stronger than a simple 20 year retirement.

Soldiers for whom the Army was a part of their identity but not their entire identity.

In many ways, I’ve envied them, looked up to them, wished I had such clarity of vision myself.

But then, I enjoy being a chaplain. I always have. There are parts I don’t enjoy but there are parts of any vocation that are not fun. What is remarkable to me is that the parts I no longer enjoy are the parts of this work that brought me in in the first place. That’s significant to me.

I have other options. Because of my 4 units of CPE, hospital and prison experience, I’m a good candidate for either the Department of Veteran Affairs or the Federal Bureau of Prisons, both of which would count my ten years of federal service toward a federal retirement.

If, in fact, a retirement was what drove me.

What drives me is fulfillment of the calling, the burning in my soul to be there for the outcast, the forgotten, and the underserved; to preach and teach.

The most fulfilled I’ve ever been was the last two years serving the inmates at the JRCF/USDB and the little congregation at Memorial Chapel. My weeks were full and I was often tired but it was a good tired – like a great workout at the gym – I knew what I was doing mattered. Every. Single. Day.

When it comes to retirement and compensation I’m reminded of a story in our family. There was a time in my mom and dad’s life when they were poor and just starting out. They needed some dishes and a church mother gave them some from her attic. They were beautiful plates with gold rims and ornate designs on them. My father, being a son of the Midwest, was astounded at the gift. He responded to the generosity with, “we can’t take these they are much too nice.” The Minnesota grandmother’s response has always stuck with me, “The’ re just things pastor, just things.”

It’s just money. Just money.

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Speaking out.

All this talk of torture has reminded me of a memory I have from my first deployment in Iraq, 2005.

The battalion had just experienced a tragic death. The third vehicle in a patrol of four had been hit by a bomb buried under a road. The vehicle, an armored HUMVEE was totally destroyed. It had been turned inside out like a cracked egg. All four Soldiers and NCOs inside the vehicle were killed.

I walked through the tactical operations center in a fog. I was 26, a 1LT, been in the Army for all of a few months, and overwhelmed. I walked from person to person praying, encouraging, crying – I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.

Then I saw a patrol getting ready to go out to the scene. I don’t remember what it was they were planning to do but I do remember that they were angry. The talk was of vengeance and death. I grabbed my gear to go with them. Before we left, I looked into the eyes of each Soldier and NCO and said something like, “Remember who we are. Don’t forget the flag you wear on your shoulder. Remember who you are.”

At a memorial a few weeks later for another four Soldiers killed from the same platoon, same squad, in the same way, I heard an officer who outranked me telling some Soldiers with tears streaming down his face and anger in his voice to “do what you have to do. Kill the bastards.” Later I would tell him that by telling some privates to “do what they have to do,” he was giving them permission to follow their emotions rather than their training.

As Soldiers, we do our duty. We do not “do what we have to do.” And we certainly do not do what we feel.

Soldiers follow standard operating procedure. We follow Field Manuals, Regulations, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

I remember a pit stop during a patrol I was on at the “safe house.” We had stopped to refit, drop off some supplies and continue. During the smoke break, sitting in the shade of a fig tree, several Soldiers asked me why we couldn’t just give our detainees to the Iraqi army since they didn’t have the rules that we did. In other words, they were frustrated that we took detainees into custody and gave them food and water. The Iraqi Army was brutal with them. (My commander once confiscated a stick that had a ball on one end of melted plastic. Into that plastic was embedded all sorts of sharp objects. The stick had been taken from the Iraqi Army.) I replied to the question that the rules governing our conduct was an extension of our constitution. That our code of justice was an extension of US Law. US Law forbade torture and torture was counterproductive anyway. Of course the Iraqis wanted to be detained by us rather than their Iraqi brethren. At that time, Iraq was in the midst of ethnic cleansing. At least Americans were governed by something other than brutality and cold pragmatism. We talked about ethics and morality in the heat of an Iraqi afternoon.

Then, this week, I heard the former Vice President talk about doing what we “had to do” after 9/11 to keep the country safe. Apparently that included feeding an untried, uncharged inmate (detainee) through his rectum. Apparently that included paying contractors to do it for us. Apparently, it included keeping people, uncharged and untried, locked in boxes shaped like coffins. I could go on but you get the point.

Bottom line: it would seem, what I told those Soldiers, what I encouraged leaders to think about, what I taught young Soldiers about the American ethic and law – was wrong.

From what I am hearing from our former vice president, religious leadership, political leadership in this country is that our ethic should be based on:

1. Effectiveness – if it works we should do it.
2. Legality – if a lawyer will write a memorandum detailing how its legal, we should do it.
3. Retribution – if 3,000 people were killed, then we should do it.
4. Punishment – if a person is thought to be guilty, there is no mercy, we should do it.
5. Semantics – if we can call it something other than torture (such a negative word), we should do it.

By it, I mean torture.

But is it torture?

Ask this question: if an American Soldier, held by the Taliban, Al Qaida, or ISIL had the following done to them, would it be torture?

Detainees were subjected to “rectal feeding,” a process by which food or nutrients are pumped in through the anus…
Detainees were told they would never leave these “black sites” and that their families would be sexually assaulted or murdered.
Detainee died from hypothermia after being chained to a floor and left there.
Detainees were waterboarded until they turned blue… and were on the verge of drowning.
Sleep deprivation, nudity, dietary manipulation, facial holds, abdominal slaps, facial slaps, and “walling” – being thrown against a wall.
Confined for 11 days in a coffin-sized box.
At one black site, groups of detainees were regularly stripped, beaten, hooded and bound with tape.
Detainees were also refused access to toilets, put in diapers and left hanging by their wrists in cells for extended periods of time.
Others were forced to maintain “stress positions” even on broken limbs and though medical personnel had advised against it.
Not everyone was guilty – Some mistakenly held detainees were subjected to prolonged periods of torture before being released.

If it was your son or your daughter – would it be torture then? Or would it be acceptable since we’re at war and they are just “doing what they have to do” to protect their homeland?

I’m certain that if it was me locked in a coffin shaped box, I would think it torture.

If I was getting fed through my rectum, I would think it torture.

If I was being forcibly drowned, I would think it torture.

As a US Army chaplain, I am obligated by AR 165-1 to speak to ethical and moral issues. The chaplain is to be the moral and ethical voice in the Army.

Torture, effective or not, legal or not, is wrong. It is immoral. It is unethical. It violates our constitution and collective conscience.

It is not for the operator, the corrections officer, the Soldier, the policemen to punish the offender. Retribution comes through the legal process by which a person is tried under US Law and an open, transparent penal system doles out said punishment. No single person can be judge, jury and executioner – not in America and not by Americans.

I worry that we too easily accept the notion of effectiveness. I mean, after all, if Jack Bauer gets it done through torture, why not us?

The other day, on Facebook, I wrote the following as satire in response to the “effective” argument:

“If this ‘torture’ that you speak of is so ‘effective,’ then why do we relegate it to accused terrorists? Why don’t we apply it to domestic kidnapping cases? War on drugs? Traffic violations? Seems like if it’s not ‘torture’ and it ‘works’ to gain actionable intelligence, and it demonstrates the morals and ethical stance of this country, I just don’t see why we need to do it to do it overseas in private, secret prisons. Maybe if we made videos of this safe, effective, and moral non-torture, it would act as a detergent to all sorts of bad behavior. Maybe we could start using it to find out who sprayed that ugly bad word all over the town monument! This is awesome! By making this sort of behavior not-torture and legitimizing it, there is no end to how we could use it for good! After all, if our intentions are ‘right’ then the end justifies the means….”

It was sarcasm but my point is this – if we govern our ethic by pragmatism and effectiveness – it opens the door to everything. That is a world of which I am afraid.

What about the argument that the enemy does it to us??

We are not Al Qaida. We are not ISIL. We are not the Taliban. Our standard of behavior is US law not a terrorist. Full Stop.

But it was legal!

I understand. That does not make it right. Being angry, scared, and needing retribution does not make it right.

So where does that leave us?

Let us collectively decide that torture, by any name, is wrong. We will not do it no matter what is done to us. Let us be above the actions of our enemies and do what is just, regardless of what is done to us.

As a Christian, I am governed by the imperative to “do unto other as you would have done unto you.”

But when it comes to vengeance, retribution, and torture, there is no tension. Vengeance isn’t mine to give, retribution comes through the justice system, and torture is just not done.

We are Americans. Let us be great. Let us be shining lights on a hill. Let us be examples to the world of what it means to have power and wield it for good.

Epilogue – I was going to embed all kinds of links to back up my points but realized that most would not follow them anyway. A quick Google search of these terms will bring you loads of articles agreeing and disagreeing with my opinion:

“Christianity and torture,” “Torture in American history,” “Is torture right,” etc.

I speak for me. The above is my opinion and recommendation I would give anyone in this situation. I’m sure the operators and agents involved with this did so out of love for their country and in a desire to protect it. They also did so with the backing of a legal system that said it was ok. That should protect them. I believe we should search our souls, ask ourselves if this is who we are and examine our systems to see if this is where we should go. It is certainly not where I think we should. Please, for the love of that freedom we hold dear and all that is holy, let us not condone torture – for any reason.

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Purple Pizza – the skit we did for my CHOBC 2005 class ball

For my old ensemble comrades, I pulled out the classic “Purple Pizza” in my Chaplain Officer Leadership Course military ball in order to make fun of my leadership. I ran across this little gem while moving. This was 1LT Fisher and company in 2005. Three days after this video happened, I was married and a week after that – on my way to Iraq with 2/121 Infantry Regiment. This was a young chaplain who had not yet tasted war. What a life!

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July 2, 2014 · 12:49 am