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MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Personnel belt-tightening across the services could affect military chaplains who advise combatant commanders at home and at war, according to the chaplain for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Air Force Col. Robert Bruno, Joint Staff Chaplain, said manpower authorizations for combatant command chaplains is one of the most important issues for his office.

“The current status quo will not survive without some adjustments of manpower authorizations, particularly in the Air Force and Navy,” he said, adding that a commander at war could lose his chaplain staff.

Within the military’s nine major commands, including the U.S. Pacific, Europe and Central commands, there are no billets for most combatant command chaplains and their support staff.

“We’ve been filling those requirements out of overages that now in the Air Force and the Navy we’ll no longer have because those services are being forced to live within their end strength,” Bruno said.

If the combatant commander doesn’t create a chaplain billet, “they may not get a replacement chaplain when that person has to rotate,” Bruno said. “For them to shift some personnel billets to us, they’re going to have to take it from somebody else.”

Combatant commanders rely on their chaplains to advise them on issues of religion, spiritual care and morale within the command, Bruno said.

“With commanders returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, they tell me how … they couldn’t imagine going to war without their chaplains, their chaplain assistants and religious program specialists,” he said.

Bruno, a Roman Catholic priest who has been a military chaplain since 1980, was the keynote speaker recently at Misawa’s National Prayer Luncheon. In an interview before the event, he also discussed his role as the joint staff chaplain and the ongoing shortage of Catholic priests in the military chaplain corps.

Bruno advises Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on issues of religion, religious ethics, and ecclesiastical relations in the military.

Pace asks us “as chaplains,” Bruno said, “to help him keep his thumb on the pulse of our people, their well-being, their morale, and any issues that he should be aware of that we discover in our role as spiritual care providers.”

The ongoing shortage of Roman Catholic priests in the military means they deploy more often than their Protestant counterparts, Bruno said.

“In the Air Force, they deploy four to five times more often than any other chaplain does,” he said. Catholic priests are also in short supply in the civilian sector, making civilian bishops, who must release priests for active duty, more reluctant to do so.

While requirements for Catholic priests in war zones and at overseas bases are met, about 15 to 18 Air Force installations in the continental United States are without a full-time priest, Bruno said. “We are working on that problem,” he said.

According to a Feb. 26 Washington Times story, the other services are facing overall chaplain shortages.

The Army Chaplain Corps has about 520 vacancies — its most severe shortage in history — and the Navy, which has about 1,000 active-duty and reserve chaplains and serves the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines — has 29 vacancies, according to the Times.

Chaplains asked to exercise inclusiveness during events

With the suspension last fall of Air Force and Navy religious guidelines, military chaplains aren’t explicitly prohibited from invoking the name of their god at official events, but in keeping with long-standing tradition, they’re asked to be sensitive to the faith of others, according to Col. Robert Bruno, Joint Staff Chaplain.

“A chaplain can pray in a manner faithful to their tradition, always, when within the context of a religious worship service,” he said. “The problem becomes when you are at a function other than a denominational service (with) people of other faiths present.”

Early last year, the Navy issued rules that religious portions of events such as graduations or command changes should be “nonsectarian in nature” and that chaplains must “be willing to function in a pluralistic environment.”

Similar guidelines in the Air Force were written in response to complaints from some non-Christian cadets about proselytizing and religious coercion at the Air Force Academy.

But the rules triggered a debate in Congress last fall, with some Republicans supporting legislation giving chaplains the authority to pray “according to the dictate’s of the chaplain’s own conscience,” even in non-sectarian settings.

Senior military chaplains, among others, were opposed to the bill’s language, Bruno said.

A compromise was reached: The legislation was dropped, and in return, the Air Force and Navy would suspend those guidelines.

As has been the custom, chaplains are asked to be inclusive at official military functions such as command changes, where attendance may be required, Bruno said.

If a chaplain feels they can’t do that without praying “in the name of Jesus,” for example, “they will never be penalized,” he said. But “we might ask someone else to do it.”

— Jennifer H. Svan

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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