FORT BRAGG — With hundreds of bits of intense color, stained glass at a new Fort Bragg chapel illumines the melding of devotion to God and country for many soldiers and their families: The soldiers watch over the people, and God watches over them all.
The 82nd Airborne Division’s new All American Chapel, finished in October and dedicated at a ceremony on Monday, replaces one the Division had used since 1956. At a cost of $13.5 million, it is the first new chapel built on post since the Vietnam War.
It incorporates seven stained-glass panels moved from the earlier Division Memorial Chapel, depicting some of the 82nd’s missions since its inception in World War I as well as one of St. Michael, patron saint of the paratrooper. A new panel features troopers’ service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The military chapel has always been the spiritual center of the fighting unit,” Maj. Gen. John W. Nicholson, commanding general of the 82nd, said at the ceremony dedicating the building to the glory of God and the soldiers’ sacrifice.
While military families are welcome at hundreds of churches around Fayetteville, many prefer to attend services at one of more than a dozen chapels on post, where patriotic songs are as fitting as sacred hymns, and where fellow congregants understand the challenges — and rewards — of military life.
There, people can pray with others for the strength to endure the separation of deployments, or the death or injury of a loved one, and they can celebrate a mission completed.
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Mackberth E. Williams summed up both in his benediction at the end of the ceremony, asking God to be a shield during war and a redeemer during peace, “cleansing the blood from our hands.”
The popularity of post religious facilities requires most of those on Fort Bragg to hold multiple services on Sundays to accommodate crowds and different faith traditions. Chaplains have hoped for years to add more space.
U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, along with former Reps. Bob Etheridge and Robin Hayes, pushed the federal government to fund construction of new chapels at Fort Bragg, but base housing, community services, and war-fighting equipment came first. Finally, in 2010, construction of the All American Chapel began.
Rep. McIntyre, who was on hand for the dedication, said afterward, “There is a special spiritual bond that transcends all the activities and events these families live through,” and they need places where they can worship together.
The 22,600-square-foot building has space for 620 in its sanctuary when partition walls are opened up. That’s more than double the capacity of the old Division Memorial Chapel. It’s of contemporary design, with blond oak pews and paneling. Seating is upholstered in the division’s signature maroon, and the carpet has maroon flecks on a background the color of soldiers’ desert combat boots, Jim Polhamus, master planner for the post, said.
But the jewels of the building are the stained-glass panels, each about 8 feet by 20 feet. Except for the panel honoring St. Michael, they all incorporate three basic elements: at the top, the evolution of the aircraft that have carried the Airborne into theater; in the middle, the Division’s missions; and at the bottom, the Biblical justification for the work the troopers were sent to do.
Missions depicted in the panels include combat service in World War I, World War II, the Dominican Republic and Vietnam, along with humanitarian responses and the promise of peace.
The old windows, faded from decades of exposure to the elements, were refurbished before installation in the new building. Their rich reds and blues and their Army greens all have been renewed, gleaming from the 21,000 LED lights behind them. The panels are in the interior of the building, where they will no longer be exposed to sunlight.
The new panel is divided into the 82nd’s service in Iraq and Afghanistan, the two theaters where the division has spent the most time since 2001.
In Iraq, troopers are shown cutting a ribbon on a building. In Afghanistan, they’re patrolling outside a village. Chinook and Kiowa helicopters and C-17 transport planes hover overhead. Heaven’s beams shine down from above and angels gather below to symbolize divine protection.
Part of the beauty of the building, Polhamus said, is that the symbolism is meaningful to soldiers throughout the ranks. In this building, for an hour on Sundays, there is no difference between an infantryman and a general.
“They all come to God in the same way.”
Staff researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this article.