Chaplains offer 'ministry of presence' for deployed troops
By KELDA PHARRIS | American News, Aberdeen, S.D. | Published: May 26, 2018
The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps has been a military institution since the boots of men and women have stood ground and sacrificed ultimately for American values at their very conception.
The corps came before the country. You can thank George Washington.
"The (U.S. Army) chaplain corps was established by the Continental Congress in 1775, predating the existence of the United States," said the Rev. Michael Griffin in his office at St. Mary's Catholic Church.
Washington established the parameters for a chaplain corps for troops fighting in the American Revolutionary War, Griffin said. It started July 19, 1775, and chaplains have been active in every war since the fight for independence.
Griffin, 55, is a veteran of the chaplain corps -- and a recent one, having separated from the National Guard in December. He began with the corps later than most. He was 46. It was 2009.
Though the largest denomination claimed by troops was Catholicism, Catholics were greatly underrepresented by the chaplain corps, Griffin said.
"I joined to provide Catholic sacraments with the intent to be deployed," he said. "Then you discover your ministry is going to expand beyond that. It gave me a whole different understanding of the way to be a priest."
Visiting in his office at First United Methodist Church, the Rev. John Hisel, a Vietnam War-era veteran of the chaplain corps, discussed his views of the group's importance to the government.
Hisel went into active duty in 1970, when he was 30, and decided to leave the service in 1975. He was deployed for about a year during the Vietnam War -- 1971 into 1972. He was endorsed by the Baptist church.
"What you have to receive is an ecclesiastical endorsement from a denomination," Hisel said.
Griffin received his endorsement from the Roman Catholic Church. Endorsements from a religious entity recognized by the military are required of all chaplains.
Both men felt a call to serve. Although the chaplain corps has been a continuous institution of the U.S. military, clergy are exempt from mandatory military service.
"I never felt good about clergy being exempt from military service. We were sending all these young men, we should be going with them," Hisel said. "I felt the inspiration to join these young servers as a pastor. That was my inspiration. I was exempt, so then I volunteered."
Chaplains can join only as noncombatants. That means they don't carry weapons -- not even on the front lines.
"If I was armed I wouldn't be a chaplain," Griffin said. "I would've been more cool with (being killed) than killing anybody."
Chaplains now have an armed specialist tasked with their safety when on active duty. Griffin had Josh Schmidt from Marion. They've stayed in touch. Griffin performed Schmidt's wedding a few years back. Troops can become protective of their chaplain, Griffin said.
"So, we would tell (the other troops), 'Don't worry about me, Josh will worry about me," Griffin said.
"At the time I was a lieutenant and he was a specialist. He could and did determine on a regular basis whether I could or could not do things. I could pull rank, but I trusted his training," Griffin said.
That doesn't mean there wasn't any humor in Schmidt keeping tabs on the priest who he affectionately dubbed "Sneaky."
"We were at this one place. I saw a group of Afghan nationals and said, 'I'm going to go say hi.' He grabbed me by the collar," Griffin said.
A smile broke on Griffin's bearded face -- a common veteran's move is to stop shaving once they're released from service. Prior to December, Griffin had to be clean-cut. Above the ears, he still is.
"Every month before my drill unit has their weekend I'll get a haircut. Even though I have a beard, I still get my military haircut," Griffin said.
The habit helps keep him connected to his unit even out of service.
Military chaplain is likely one of the only paths members of the clergy can take wherein they live, eat and sleep alongside the same people they serve. Chaplains train with soldiers in everything but munitions. Chaplains are also given ranks like the rest of the military.
"We wore the uniform, we had rank without effectively being able to give orders -- rank without command. So you weren't the typical soldier, you were the advocates," Hisel said.
A chaplain performs several functions within the unit with which he or she serves including, but not limited to, giving pastoral and spiritual care to soldiers, being a religious advisor for commanders and keeping an eye on morale. The latter is quite often addressed by what both men called their most important day-to-day task -- the ministry of presence.
"This whole ministry of presence, just being there. The very fact you were there seemed to give relief and encouragement," Hisel said.
He carried metal crosses and pocket-size New Testaments to hand out so the troops had something tangible no matter where they found themselves. He was an audience of comfort for the men.
"I read so many Dear John letters. They had a shoulder to cry on when they were down whether it was from home or the battlefield," Hisel said.
He continues to offer such support hosting a regular veterans support group at First United Methodist Church.
The question of a conflict of church and state with a religious institution on the government payroll is a moot one for both Hisel and Griffin. For Griffin, it's the First Amendment at work.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..." is how the beginning of the First Amendment reads.
An American's right is to exercise his or her own religion. When U.S. forces are serving their country it is difficult, if not impossible, in some circumstances and locations for troops to exercise that right without a chaplain corps.
"(The chaplain corps) allow and supply the opportunity for them to freely exercise their religion," Griffin said.
Hisel frames the chaplaincy as one of a number of necessary support specialties in the military.
"It's a service that our government provided for the troops -- just like nurses, attorneys, everybody is there," he said. "To me, it would've been an exception to not send spiritual advisors."
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