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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. thes33k3r

    What a pathetic waste of my tax dollars. Religion strikes again.

    August 30, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • Former Chaplain Assistant

      Absolutely not a waste. If you simply consider each military member as an asset, from their training, experience, and leadership, wouldn't you want to protect that asset? Chaplains help protect the military member and their families and are very much needed in the military...they are therefore worth every penny they are paid.

      August 30, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • jimtanker

      No, they aren’t that valuable. After 24 years I think that I can comment on this. All they want to do is say that their imaginary friend will make it all better, now get back to work. The money would be better spent on behavior health therapists like the Air force has.

      August 31, 2011 at 6:32 am |
    • Awkward Situations

      It benefits the military entirely to have chaplains reassuring soldiers that there is a magical afterlife to look forward to when they get killed for no reason.

      August 31, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  2. a whovain

    doctor who so called this 🙂

    August 30, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • Ed

      The Doctor knows all

      August 30, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  3. bailoutsos

    Maybe they should be taking a stand against war? Nah. They want the bars for retirement benefits.

    August 30, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  4. WOT

    All you people think about is tax payer dollars! Money is only paper and you can not eat it, so why is it called bread! I worked 32 years on the same job, however our system work will never please everyone! So shut up and pray for peace on earth!

    August 30, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • John Richardson

      It's called 'bread' (or was back in the 60s and 70s) because you can buy bread with it. Try doing that with a piece of notebook paper.

      August 31, 2011 at 8:06 am |
  5. Bob Rock

    Ernest Hemmingway:

    All thinking men are atheists.

    August 30, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • WoI Admin

      A lot of people don't like thinking.
      That's why they let others do their thinking for them.

      August 30, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  6. *frank*

    Wizards in the US military...lolol...

    August 30, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
  7. Bob Rock

    War is hell. You're basically killing each other to see who's got the better imaginary friend!
    – Richard Jeni

    August 30, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • EnergyBeing3

      How Ironic ... Murderers Who Need To Be Soothed with Fantasies. Please believe in in a book of odd grammar with lots of poetic versus that has been revised and rewritten over 20 times in the last four thousand years, so you can think you are murdering others for the right reasons. How convenient. I'm sure Jesus would be proud. If that is all it takes I think I'll start my own religion. I have a fantastic imagination and I won't make people pray to a torture device or eat or drink my blood. I'll even include glitter and unicorns.

      August 30, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • DaveinCincy

      Energybeing....
      Still ridiculing religion I see.....what are you so afraid of? Scared of what your heart knows to be true, but your head refuses to accept. Remember..you've had atheism shoved down your throat through the education system. Look deeper my friend...

      August 31, 2011 at 12:05 am |
    • Dr.K.

      Not sure I self-identify as an atheist, but I can tell you some legitimate things to be afraid of:
      1. men hijacking planes and flying them into buildings.
      2. abortion clinic bombings.
      3. being unable to live and love the way that is natural to me in my own country.
      4. the teachers of my children not being able to properly teach science, history, or social studies.
      5. excellent political leaders who cannot be elected because they don't pander to the right (or any) religion.
      6. the suppression of condom use as AIDS spreads.
      off the top of my head, that's some of the things I fear – none of them are hypothetical.

      August 31, 2011 at 12:55 am |
    • News Flash

      Dr K,
      There is a reason why this country is becoming/has become a third world country.

      August 31, 2011 at 5:09 am |
  8. Mrs. Chaplain

    As a Chaplain's wife who has been deployed I find this very sad to see women as Chaplains. Why can't women be women? War is no place for them. Sorry. Cnn, why did you not interview the male Chaplains who have seen the horrors of war? Women (even women Chaplains) are not allowed everywhere. Certainly not where it is very hostile territory. As a woman I feel grief when I see women going to war and leaving their children behind. What is more important? Your country or your kids? Allow your husband to go, stay home and nurture your children...They need you more!

    August 30, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • *frank*

      Lol you only want men to die.

      August 30, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Jesus Koresh

      Wow! Time to leave the bronze age behind, woman!

      August 30, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • Bob Rock

      True, men are more disposeable than paper napkins.

      August 30, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      Wow, typical christian...stereotyping woman and apparently you are a woman! Welcome to the year 2011 where women are considered equal to men!
      I know a great many women who are proud to serve their country and they should be allowed to do with their lives what they wish to. Woman no longer need to be barefoot and pregnant.
      Btw: I know men who do just as good of a job raising their children as their wives/partner's do.
      War is a waste of money and time, period!

      August 31, 2011 at 6:23 am |
  9. LouAz

    Bless you, in the name of . . ., Now, let's get out there and kill someone ! Onward christian soldiers . . . STUPID ! ! !

    August 30, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  10. Don Camp

    How many stupid comments do we have to put up with? Chaplains are there for the solders who find some comfort in their counsel and presence. They do not push their faith upon those who aren't interested. Would you nitwits deny a soldier that right because you personally don't believe in it? If that is your mind, please do not enlist. Or if you do, try the Russian army, they aren't likely to trouble you with a chaplain.

    August 30, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
  11. gary

    If chapliins were Xtain they wouldn't condone the killing, wouldn't wear the uniform, etc. Was is a scam on the people, a $ making racket for corporations.

    August 30, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  12. eastwood1379@gmail.com

    Crusaders!

    August 30, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  13. HotAirAce

    I'm an atheist but don't have a problem with chaplains in the military – it that's what it takes to keep a unit in the fight and operating at a high level, so be it. Being conned by the jesus myth is no different that a rah-rah speech from a commander.

    That being said, I think it would be very interesting to ask a TeaBagger about saving some money by eliminating chaplains, or anything related to religion, from the military. I bet there'd be a lot of squirming and double-talking going on, as they try to reconcile "separation of church and state" (and yes, I know your constitution doesn't explictly use that phrase...), the actual need for chaplains and unneccesary spending. As always, the more religion is in the public's eye, the goofier it seen to be.

    August 30, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Laughing

      If only it were true. Teabaggers are really good at the mental gymnastics thing, especially when it comes to religion in general (I mean come on, you have to be an expert at doublethink just to be religious in the first place) but I would bet one whole jesus that they would say that chaplains are essential and so can't be cut (probably more essential than body armor, who needs body armor when you have jesus armor?)

      Also, you aren't American?

      August 31, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  14. C

    "Chaplains" are just social workers, they are there to impress the command, if the Command (the devil) operates the program of God nd the Chaplain are concern about their paycheck and not the Soldiers (most of them anyway).

    August 30, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • EnergyBeing3

      Right, how much are these people getting paid btw?

      August 30, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  15. Riche

    Just go through Poet's speeches...

    WHERE ARE THE JOBS!!!!

    August 30, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  16. itsjustme

    No Wiccan or Pagan clerics? Or Buddhists? or Hindu clergy? or other denominations that do not apply to the 3 in the article?

    August 30, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • Army Chaplain

      the military has 2 buddhist chaplains and 1 hindu on the way

      August 30, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • Jesus Koresh

      You have to be Christian to be non-denominational in this man's army!

      August 30, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • Christopher Mohr

      There are Buddhist Chaplains. They actually do mention it in the article in a one sentence blurb that we have our first (actually now two Buddhists. I'm one of them (well, about to be...I'm currently a chaplain candidate). We just got our first Hindu chaplain, also mentioned briefly in the article. Wiccans/Pagans will join the ranks once they create an endorsing body.

      August 30, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Jesus Koresh

      So Christopher, how many Islamic Mullahs and Imams are in the services?

      August 30, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • DLlo

      There are 2 Imams in the Air Force

      August 30, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  17. ASH

    As a mother of a Marine that was deployed to Afghanistan I want to say thank you all for your service. I don't care what anyone thinks of the war or of religion because unless you've been deployedand served in a war zone you don't know what you're talking about.

    August 30, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • gary

      "Thou shalt not kill" doesn't apply to the USA, eh? It's Military Madness .... pointless, endless war and killing and Jesus would be appalled. Don't be proud of a paid killer.

      August 30, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • sam

      Gary, shut your hole when talking to the mom of a deployed soldier. Have maybe one good real moment of common sense.

      August 30, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      I think thanking this woman's son for his service is in order...set aside what you think of war or religion for one minute. This man is willing to put his life on the line for his country and that alone is honorable.

      August 31, 2011 at 6:27 am |
  18. Celeste

    And out come all the aetheist trolls from their caves..

    August 30, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • Jesus Koresh

      You had absolutely nothing to contribute, so you thought that a cheap insult would suffice?

      August 30, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • Ed

      @Jesus Koresh

      "You had absolutely nothing to contribute, so you thought that a cheap insult would suffice?"

      Based on some of your other comments this is a prefect example of the pot calling the kettle black.

      August 30, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • Jesus Koresh

      So that makes you the pan who is calling the pot who is calling the kettle black?

      August 30, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • Ed

      @Jesus Koresh,

      not really I didn't insult you I just observd your behavior and commented on it. But take as you wish

      August 30, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      I resent that!
      We live under bridges! Thank-you-very-much.

      Religious people live in caves, like cavemen.
      (Just so you know since you probably don't accept the theory of evolution, cavemen are prehistoric humans.)

      August 31, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  19. PG13

    If the chaplains were wearing any religious symbol other than a cross, they are sure to encounter 'friendly fire'. 😉

    August 30, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Christopher Mohr

      not so. We've only lost one chaplain in combat since Vietnam, and it wasn't "friendly fire".

      August 30, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  20. M

    What happened to separation of Church and State?

    August 30, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Bremen

      Separation of church and state was meant to protect the church from the state, not the other way around. There has ALWAYS been ministers, chaplains in the service. And it's a good thing, if it wern't for them, our soldiers would lose moral, even atheists.

      August 30, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • PG13

      That's not true, Bremen.

      The separation also stops the church from mingling with the state and its affairs (civic matters). If that wasn't the case you would have seen a lot of "restrictions" on Mormons and Catholics from the majority Protestants.

      August 30, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.