August 30th, 2011
04:23 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi and Chris Lawrence, CNN
Fort Jackson, South Carolina (CNN) – The summer sun beats down on camouflaged Kevlar helmets. Weighed down by heavy body armor, men and women of the cloth are crawling through sand, under barbed wire and learning how to run with soldiers.
Explosions in woods simulate the battlefield as an instructor barks commands.
"You are not following simple instructions! Cover me while I move! Got you covered! Let's go!"
This is the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where the Army trains clergy of all faiths how to survive in combat.
Once many of these chaplains complete this modified basic training they will head to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the explosions and gunfire are not simulated.
Here at Fort Jackson, on a range in the woods, there is a bevy of broken down cars and trucks to simulate an urban battlefield.
The army says being a chaplain in combat is among the most dangerous jobs because the chaplains move from base to base ministering to soldiers.
"Once you move behind the vehicle, the chaplain, who has no weapon, will stay behind the engine block or the wheel base. That is the safest place for you to be,” the instructor yells to the long line of chaplains who are readying to run this course.
On the battlefield, chaplains look just like any other soldier.
Decked out in camouflage and body armor, the only addition is a two-inch patch signifying their religious affiliation. Christian clergy wear a cross, Jewish clergy tablets showing the Ten Commandments, and Muslim clergy wear a crescent.
What they do not have is a weapon.
Chaplains are unarmed at all times.
They travel in combat with a chaplain assistant who carries a weapon and protects the clergy member.
For this drill the chaplains are learning to hold onto the back of their assistant as they run from obstacle to obstacle.
The pairs have to stay low and move through the course two pairs at a time. The chaplain assistants have to cover the others as they move.
“Cover me while I move!”
“Got you covered!”
Then they run and dive for cover.
"Hold onto him like this and you will not get separated or you will be taken out. You are the target of opportunity. You stay on him!" The instructor yells when a chaplain is separated from his assistant.
This is about as far away from a suburban pulpit or seminary these clergy can get.
“In school I'm used to sitting at a desk and reading and writing, so it's definitely a little more physical,” 2nd Lt. Adri Bullard said. She is a Methodist seminarian, pursuing a Master’s in Divinity at the divinity school at Vanderbilt University.
“Being in grad school and trying to get your (degree) takes discipline and the discipline is pretty steady throughout my life right now. Getting up early, staying up late. These big booms, that's the main difference. You really don't have those going off at seminary or divinity school, hopefully,” she smiles and pauses as explosions punctuate her points.
She is the smallest person on the range and sports the biggest smile. What she lacks in physical stature, she makes up two-fold in effort and energy.
Bullard is among 200 chaplains and chaplain hopefuls going through various stages of chaplain school at any given time. In Bullard’s class of chaplain candidates, the group covers a wide range. “We’ve got two of our students who are actually in their 50s and we have two that are 22,” said Chaplain Maj. Harold Cline, who is an instructor.
Regardless of age, the candidates are put through their paces.
“When you’re working with soldiers, they’re in good shape. That’s part of their business. If you’re going to minister to them and work with them, rub elbows with them, you’ve got to be in good shape as well.”
The U.S. Army employs around 2,900 chaplains. About half are active duty and the other serve in the reserves. Eight-hundred chaplains and chaplain assistants are deployed in the war on terror and 300 of them serve in the Middle East and Afghanistan, according to a spokesman.
In order to join the ranks, a member of the clergy also has to meet the ordination requirements of their own faith and be endorsed by them to join the military.
Bullard has at least a year of schooling to go before she can be ordained in her church to serve as a full-time minister and an active duty chaplain.
She said she felt the call to ministry in college, “(I) did some of that in a congregational setting, yet felt like there was something else I needed to be doing, maybe taking it to another level in another setting. Military chaplaincy seemed to fit that.”
Even in training she sees a parallel between her spiritual calling and the military.
“You're helping to meet the most basic needs a person has to live and thrive and flourish. I'm going to look for everyone around me and make sure they're drinking water. I'll go get them water if they need it. And that's scriptural,” she said, referring to a passage in the gospels where Jesus talks about giving water to the thirsty.
“So I think it's pretty easy to do ministry out here in the beating South Carolina sun.”
The task at hand
In the Army, each combat unit is able to have a chaplain with them if the commanding officer wants one. They report to that commanding officer and are paid by the military for their services.
The chaplaincy corps had to grow in a hurry as combat operations increased in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, said Chaplain Carlton Birch, the spokesman for the chaplain corps.
“Our country is becoming more pluralist,” Birch said. “We’ve had our first Buddhist chaplain, now we have our first Hindu chaplain. Our chaplain corps has had to adapt.”
It’s a long way from the start of the chaplaincy corps on July 29, 1775, under George Washington.
Today army chaplains minister to soldiers of all faiths regardless of their own. They hold services in remote areas, connect a soldier of another faith with a chaplain of their own, and conduct ceremonies to send a fallen soldier home.
“They are the listening ear, they are there in times of crisis and turmoil for the soldiers,” Birch said. “The value we hold dear is to meet a person at their time of need.”
The danger of their job was brought home for many here last summer when Chaplain Dale Goetz was killed when an improvised explosive device struck the vehicle he was riding in Afghanistan.
He was the first chaplain killed in action since the Vietnam War.
“The danger is sometimes what gives us the credibility to minister to our soldiers. They know we've been there. We've been there with them. We've faced the fear,” Chaplain Capt. Karlyn Maschhoff said.
Maschhoff is a seasoned chaplain with multiple tours to the Middle East under her belt.
She came to Fort Jackson for another component of training – moving from rookie status like Bullard to being a more senior chaplain and helping those new to this unique ministry position.
Before September 11, 2001, she was writing Sunday school material and doing mission work. “I came into the chaplaincy after the events of 9/11. That made a profound impact on me when I saw the need for chaplains,” Maschhoff said.
“It was a combination of patriotism and recognizing the needs of soldiers as they climbed on those planes to go to a place where they would be in harm’s way and I just felt the need to be with them, to go with them. That is what led to me accepting the call.”
During her prior tours in Iraq she has seen the worst of war on the battlefield and on the home front.
“My first deployment was in 2005-2006 and that was a tough period. There was a lot of loss of life, a lot of bloodshed and a lot of uncertainty. But then I also went back later in 2008 for a 15-month deployment and at that time you got to see things improving. Incidents were happening, but you got to see progress.”
“Losing soldiers is always tough,” she said. “Watching families struggle through a deployment, yet you come on, you struggle on together. You get through the tough days together. You continue on. As a chaplain you bring hope for the future and that is our message to our soldiers, that it's a dark day but it's going to get better.”
Heading home the hard way
"In country if you're doing one of these it could be 100, 130 degrees, maybe even hotter," Cline barks as rookie chaplains learn how to send a soldier home the hard way, with a dignified transfer ceremony.
They practice with a flag-draped metal transfer case, identical to the thousands of cases used to send slain soldiers home from war.
Before the transfer case boards the plane for the long flight home, the chaplains say a prayer or hold a brief service.
“She may have moved on from this Earth, but she's still in my heart," a chaplain in training says as he looks over the transfer case.
Six soldiers pick up the case. They snap their heels together and begin to move.
"You do not want to be the chaplain who is walking too slow in front of an honors team,” Cline said. “Why? They're carrying the body, they're carrying the transfer case, and even though the case is relatively light, it's got a body in it and it’s full of ice, so they're carrying a lot of weight. Don't slow them down and don't make them hold that transfer case up while you're doing something ceremonial."
The chaplain candidate puts his hand on the flag, bows his head, and sends the solider off with a prayer.
Today is a drill, but the Army says in as little as two weeks, these trainees could be doing the real ceremony on an airstrip in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Days after our interview, Maschhoff was on a plane back to the Middle East to begin her third tour, fully confident of her mission from her commanders and from on high, “It's challenging and you know there are tough times ahead, but you're there to do what you've been trained to do. You're there taking care of soldiers and it doesn't get better than that.”
–CNN’s John Person and Jonathan Schaer contributed to this report
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.