War's intensity testing military chaplains
March 30, 2003
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — If any Army chaplain truly understands the anxieties of deploying soldiers’ loved ones, it’s Chaplain (Maj.) Dan Wackenhagen.
“I’m learning now — after 20 years in the Army, and having been on several deployments — that it’s harder to send someone you love then it is to actually go yourself,” Wackenhagen said.
His son, Spc. Luke Wackenhagen, is headed for Kuwait with the South Carolina National Guard. Wackenhagen’s Baumholder-based unit, Division Artillery, 1st Armored Division, also has received deployment orders.
A quiet, steady 46-year-old Protestant minister, Wackenhagen is too modest to say a son in the military gives him greater credibility in his ministry to soldiers.
He will say working through his own fear and anxiety “of saying goodbye to a son who is deploying has heightened my love for all my soldiers. It’s heightened my awareness of, and admiration for, every solider in Division Artillery and in the Army.”
The organizational and counseling skills of chaplains all across the military are being tested as Americans fall in Iraq and Afghanistan and other warriors prepare to replace them. Veteran chaplains say that even those who served in the 1991 Gulf War can expect new tests of skills and faith.
The ground campaign during Desert Storm lasted only 100 hours. There were few casualties, and not much time for battle fatigue, said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Michael Cerrone III.
Now a Roman Catholic chaplain in Baumholder, Cerrone served as a chaplain with the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division during the first Gulf War. This war promises to be of a greater intensity, said Cerrone.
It’s an intense time and has been since Operation Enduring Freedom started in Afghanistan in Oct. 2001, said Army Chaplain (Col.) David McLean. Twelve-to-15 hour days have been the norm, said McLean, with the 415th Base Support Battalion at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
Days stretch with chaplains doing everything from death notification and casualty assistance to organizing volunteers and preparing services. With a typical day of patient care, chapel worship, staff and administrative duties “and talking with people about their faith,” energy flags, McLean said.
“You have to slow down. I try to find places — to use an old religious term — ‘to be revived,’” McLean said. In the course of ministering, McLean says he deals both with people whose bravery inspires him, and those who have given up on life.
One of most difficult, and yet most inspiring, experiences for McLean is dealing with the profoundly wounded or ill.
Amputees who’ve lost limbs, “though they’ll be handicapped, they’re not deflated in spirit,” he said. “They’re certainly not happy about their loss, but they’re accepting. They reached deep down inside … and realized it's a price we sometimes have to pay.”
While some reach inside to find reasons to go on, others give up. But chaplains have to be there for them just the same, McLean said. “You can’t ‘tell’ them anything. Sometimes you just have to be there with them … just be present and hear where they are.”
In interviews with a dozen chaplains, all agreed their conviction that this is a just war keeps them going. Even when it puts them in conflict with their religious hierarchy.
Pope John Paul’s condemnation of the war is causing a dilemma for devote Roman Catholics who are also loyal Americans, Cerrone said. In his pastoral outlook last Sunday, Cerrone wrote that the bishop who ordained him agrees with him. “To him — and to us — the war is not a preemptive attack on an innocent nation, but a defensive response to aggression, and therefore can be a just cause.”
While chaplains help others with family concerns, their own families must be a source of support, said Suzanne Tidbull, whose husband, Maj. Jon Tidbull, is a Protestant chaplain for the 2nd Brigade, 1st AD in Baumholder.
Jon Tidbull “is very much the head of our household … the spiritual head,” Tidbull said. But she lightens the burden on him by “picking up the slack, and filling the voids.” The load may get even heavier as the 2nd Brigade prepares to deploy.
While some fear going to war, others are anxious about staying behind. Only about 30 of 1,000 soldiers at Warner Barracks in Bamberg, Germany, haven’t deployed to the Middle East, and chaplains have added a men’s group to help those soldiers. “The men’s group is designed to help the soldiers left behind,” said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Michael Travaglione. “Many of them are not happy to be in the rear detachment while the rest of their unit is deployed.”
“I wanted to go, but [commanders] told me ‘no,’” said Chaplain (Maj.) Robert Land at Baumholder, adding how soldiers often say they never felt more alive than in war.
Despite his disappointment, Land is convinced God has a war plan for him: “He just hasn’t told me what it is yet.”
— Stars and Stripes reporter Rick Emert contributed to this report.