August 30th, 2011
04:23 PM ET

Preparing clergy for war: army chaplains train by the hundred for the combat zone

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.

U.S. Army chaplain candidates train at Fort Jackson in South Carolina.

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.

A cross patch signifies a chaplain's religious affiliation.

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.

Army chaplains must learn to run with soldiers.

"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.

Chaplain Cline instructs chaplain candidates how to do a dignified transfer for a soldier killed in action.

"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

Watch The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer weekdays at 4pm to 6pm ET and Saturdays at 6pm ET. For the latest from The Situation Room click here.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Afghanistan • Belief • Buddhism • Christianity • Content Partner • Hinduism • Iraq • Islam • Middle East • Military • TV-The Situation Room

soundoff (818 Responses)
  1. Pastor Kim Rapczak

    I never knew a military chaplain until I enrolled in a degree program in Washington, D.C. Both of the men in my class are outstanding human beings, and I'm sure good pastors. Nevertheless, despite many conversations with them, I still cannot fathom how a member of the clergy can join the military. As soon as that happens, one's loyalties are automatically divided. I wholeheartedly support the notion that clergy are needed on the battlefield. However, I would send them there as civilians trained to survive in such an environment, without compromising the safety of others. I would also send them there paid by their respective religious organizations. That way there cannot be any sort of subtle or overt pressure to support a military value or goal that might be in conflict with the chaplain's spiritual and religious values.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  2. appliance moving dolly

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    July 29, 2012 at 4:10 am |
  3. Chaplain Ukemezie Amechi

    Is good to be chaplain

    June 21, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  4. cactus san pedro

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    April 22, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  5. Juan Torres

    to echo: you forgot to mention harry s. truman remember hiroshima, nagasaki.

    September 2, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  6. hawaiiduude

    CNN biased calling them pastors instead of clergy. "Pastor" does not represent all faiths like "clergy".

    September 2, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  7. CrystalRiver

    American soldiers should be proud to be the liberator of every nation on earth. Never commit suicide when belonging to such honorable tasks. The only depressing reality is the fact that America(the West) is becoming a protector of perversion instead of normal freedom.

    September 2, 2011 at 2:26 am |
    • CrystalRiver

      The problem is, I love perverted p0rn too much, and the West keeps giving me the best material.

      September 2, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • The Original

      The second CrystalRiver is a fake.

      September 2, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • The Real Original

      Whoever you are The Original, I really don't appreciate that you keep slandering me. Just because I'm Korean and love perveted p0rn doesn't mean you can take my name and call me a fake.

      September 2, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • CrystalRiver

      @The Real Original: The West is perv and immoral because it legally supports perversions such as g-a-y marriage. That alone states the moral level of a society. P-o-r-n is a global problem, not just of single nation or two. Man must learn to love and honor one woman for lifetime unless he is a monk; there is no other solution for s-e-x-ual sins. Man must battle against the evil till the end, never giving up; it is gu-aran-teed he will find de-li-ve-rance on the way in Christ. Atheists never battle against evil but only affirm and promote it. I don't belong to Korea. Stop calling me Korean, you fake.

      September 3, 2011 at 2:50 am |
    • KentAZ

      Do you sincerely believe that the U.S. military acts in the role of a "proud liberator"? Even a cursory consideration of the history of American military incursions since the end of the Civil War indicates that few if any have been undertaken primarily for defensive purposes or to liberate the oppressed (yes, that includes WWII).

      Read Marine General Smedley Butler's tome "War Is A Racket" for some of the details.

      September 6, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  8. CrystalRiver

    Jesus, John the Baptist, and all the Apostles never told any soldier in duty to lay down swords, not even to Romans. Like money, it's abuse of sword that is wrong, not sword itself. Some Christians stay pacifist and choose to die or get protected by other kind of Christians, but really every man must be trained to combat effectively. It's a sinful world with real criminals and real human tyrants that we live in. One cannot afford to stay naive in this world. If you don't battle for what is right, you end up creating more victims. The Jews in Nazi camps could not have been rescued by pacifists, though prayers to Almighty God and trusting Him is indeed vital.

    September 2, 2011 at 1:41 am |
    • thenextgeneration

      @crystalriver and @unscholarly very well stated, im glad people like you still are out there

      September 3, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • KentAZ

      The history of Christianity indicates that few if any nominal Christians took up arms for the State until the late 4th century. Soldiers who converted to Christianity would typically refrain from combat after doing so. It wasn't until after Augustine of Hippo's contra-biblical "just war" theory was embraced that nominal Christians became involved in secular warfare.

      The swords that Jesus told his disciples to carry with them during their ministry were not intended for the purpose of attacking humans or even self-defense against humans, but for protection against wild animals that they might encounter, as is evident from Jesus' rebuke of Peter after he attempted to defend Christ against the Roman centurions.

      September 6, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • KentAZ

      Secular warfare is rarely if ever a 'battle for what is right.' Instead, they almost always motivated by a desire for the acquisition of land, resources, etc., and/or to establish and maintain geopolitical hegemony. Of course they are presented to the populace with a lofty rationale in order to garner support.

      Jesus clearly stated that his kingdom was no part of the world. At Matthew chap. 4 Satan is seen offering Jesus control of all of the kingdoms (governments) of the world. Christ did not dispute the Devil's authority over such. The prophecies in Daniel and Revelation indicate that Christ's kingdom will eliminate secular governments. Thus the notion that one or more human governments somehow represent Christianity or Christian principles has no basis in the Bible. Paul's statements at Romans chap. 13 relate to the fact that God temporarily tolerates secular governments because they prevent total anarchy and provide basic essential services–it is not an endorsement of secular warfare nor an argument for Christian participation in such.

      September 6, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  9. unscholarly

    For all my "Biblical Scholars" that say the Apostles never carried swords:
    John 18:10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear.
    Jesus would condem those who live by the sword?:
    Luke 22:36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.
    Romans 13:4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
    But of course you already knew this.

    September 2, 2011 at 12:15 am |
  10. Felipe Ruiz

    Be chaplan o soldier and identifiing yourself as Christian, you are wrong because the apostols and disciples of JesusChrist never! never! were involved in wars, so be honest y save your life because the Apocaliptic horse of the war is red and fire color, be wise and think about it.

    September 1, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
    • Army Phil

      You should take context into account before you make a general statement like this:

      a) Israel was not involved in a war in Jesus' time. They were under Roman occupation, but there was not a conflict involving Israeli soldiers.
      b) They may not have been "involved" in a war, but they certainly did minister to soldiers (Jeus healing the Centruion's servant, Matt. 8 for example), including those under the charge of the occupying authority.
      c) Chaplains are not "involved" in war for fighting purposes, but to minister to the people involved. Soldiers need to be loved and cared for too, and that's what a chaplain does, as well as other ministerial things. A Chaplain ministers where other pastors dare not. Chaplains have the courage and commitment to God to lay down their lives for their "congregations."

      September 5, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  11. Echo One

    Joseph Stalin, Atheist: 20 million plus dead
    Mao-Tse-Tung, Atheist: 40 million plus dead
    Adolf Hitler, Atheist: 10 million plus dead
    Pol Pot, Atheist: 2 million dead
    Kim-Il-Sung, Atheist: 5 million dead
    Fidel Castro, Atheist: 1 million dead

    September 1, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • Echo One

      Atheism is to religion what Macs are to PCs: a trendy subculture for Vegans and unemployed weed-smoking losers.

      September 1, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • David

      Hitler was not an Atheist he was Catholic. And most of his supporters and fellow Nazis were Christians also. Why would an Atheist hate Jews? That is a purely Christian idea he learned from Martin Luther.

      September 1, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • Echo One

      "Christianity is potentially one of the biggest problems facing society."

      —Adolf Hitler, Not a Christian.

      September 1, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • Godwin


      "I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so."

      – Adolf Hitler, to General Gerhard Engel, 1941

      September 1, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
    • Godwin


      Stalin, Mao, Pol-Pot and Castro had purely political motives and the Church and religion had great power to control people who they wanted to control.

      Kim is not really an atheist. The Kims *are* gods, with their very own fantasy scriptures and supernatural powers.

      September 1, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
    • hawaiiduude

      david below: There were many "athiest" nations in Europe and elsewhere that have kicked out the Jews for a number of reasons, like not integrating, money lending, shrewd but questionable business dealings, and for following a basic talmudic teaching to hate all non Jews. So yes athiests also have a problem with European jewry.

      September 2, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Atheist

      Not-so-clever troll.

      September 2, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Robert Sutherland

      Catholics and Christians obey the teachings of Christ. That's a fundamental necessity of the Christian life.
      You must be deluded if you consider Hitler a Christian, regardless of what he considered himself to be.

      September 4, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  12. Echo One

    Atheism is a religion for people who worship Richard Dawkins instead of God. It is most notably the only religion without any real basis or organization whatsoever. Its followers are no less uneducated, dogmatic and fanatical about their chosen spiritual path than they claim Muslims, Christians, Hindoos or Jews to be.

    However, there is a key difference. People who convert to Islam or Buddhism do so for philosophical or cultural reasons: people who become atheists do so because they got picked on in high school. Rummage through an atheist's emotional baggage and you will find a pile of leftover teenage angst, a few cases of repressed rage at mommy and daddy, and an overpowering urge to feel superior wrapped around a stupendous amount of self-loathing.

    In fact, atheists are so fanatical that they go around with a chip on their shoulder looking for 'rational' debates. Upon watching an atheist in an argument, it becomes clear that their points consist entirely of condescension, lofty moralizing, and 'clever' quips about their opponents' intelligence – in other words, atheists think that sarcasm amounts to a valid argument. They will begin by stating they only want food for thought to 'improve their position'; five minutes later, they'll state that talking to their opponent is like arguing with a brick wall. The irony of this statement is consistently lost on the atheist.

    September 1, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • JonJRaymond

      Religion is a fairy tale for adults. It's a grand delusion used since the beginning of time to control people who crave being told what to do and how to think.

      September 2, 2011 at 8:08 am |
    • herbert juarez

      Did you think that up for yourself or did someone teach it to you,because you crave to be told what to do and how to think?

      September 2, 2011 at 8:12 am |
    • TNPoliceWife

      Echo, you're kind of painting all athiests with a broad brush aren't you? You've obviously been very LIMITED in your contact with them as your ignorance is just extraordinary. Typical of the judeo-christians who know less about their own faith then most athiests. For the record, most athiests got that way after years and years of being indoctrinated into the xtian cult. At least an atheiest knows what he doesn't believe, most xtians on the other hand, are still arguing over which of the 33,000 sects of their religion is "the one". Your ramblings are just evidence of the brainwashing many of us are turning away from. The opiate of the masses still works on many, as is evidenced by the GOP/TP.

      September 2, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Atheist

      Too ridiculous to think about right now.

      September 2, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • cameryxle

      Either you believe in the eternal uncreated nature of Matter or you believe in a eternal consciencness we call God. Both require a leap of faith. So athiest are no more scientific, real world or logical then Thiest's are. Both positions require a level of unvarifiable faith.

      September 2, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  13. JJ

    God Bless them ALL!

    September 1, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  14. SuddenlySpam

    Chaplains provide a valued service to the Army, and I am thankful for them. I served with several, and they were all fantastic., even those who knew me to be Atheist, they continued to take an active interest in my own and others mental, and 'spiritual' well being.

    September 1, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • wahkanwarrior

      I am a Chaplain and honored to be called to be a friend to soldiers in need

      September 2, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Christian

      American chaplains, please maintain sound Biblical theology over all things. Pray a lot and read the Bible a lot. Pray in Jesus' name. God bless you.

      September 3, 2011 at 3:29 am |
    • Vandy Fan

      @SuddenlySpam: First, thank you for your service. Second, thank you for a post that concerns the story and the duty performed by the US Army's chaplains.

      September 8, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.