BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
Even before the U.S. was established, colonial forces took with them one local minister to provide morale, counsel and insight into the planning of a battle. Ministers were considered the most educated men in a community. In 1775, the Continental Congress established the military chaplaincy. With 150 years of foundation to stand upon, the chaplaincy would become a corner stone in the U.S. military.
Priest, rabbi, pastor, imam, humanist, lay representative or any man or woman of any other religion or philosophy can serve in the military as a chaplain. A chaplain's primary duty is to provide religious accommodation to military members' faith-based needs while protecting the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Chaplain assistants are also trained to help protect the First Amendment rights of military members and serve alongside chaplains in many of the support programs.
"One of the priorities of the Chief Staff of the Air Force is to care for Airmen and their families," said Capt. Randy Croft, 460th Space Wing chaplain. "Our primary goal is the First Amendment, but being a chaplain goes so far outside of that. Caring bleeds into other areas. We know our lane. Care just bleeds. We try to care so that military personnel can do their mission and take care of their families."
The programs provided at each military installation vary, but at Buckley, the chapel offers a plethora of programs. These include the Fellowship Luncheon, bible study or an opportunity to learn about Buddhism. Services can range from the weekend worship to premarital counseling. Another service offered by the chaplains is confidential counseling. Absolute privacy and security is given to those who seek out guidance or to clear their conscience.
"Confidentiality," said Maj. Gary Coburn, 460th Space Wing chaplain. "Well, it is just total. Anything you tell us, we cannot release. If you confess to us that you want to harm someone or yourself, we as chaplains cannot say a word. This is unless you ask us to speak with your commander or to take you to get help. After you sign a confidentiality release waiver, and only then, can we divulge any information."
Many careers within the military have a dark side to them and chaplains willingly make themselves available during those dark times. During deployments, a chaplain provides counseling on a wide range of issues that military members experience.
"Ministry is being there for people, caring for them and meeting their needs. When you're deployed, people still have needs. Service members still have relationship issues, sickness or experience death," said Coburn.
In the Continental Army, chaplains fought alongside the men they ministered. Today, the Geneva Convention states a chaplain is a non-combatant. The U.S. and the United Kingdom have also required chaplains to be unarmed. Chaplain assistants escort and carry a weapon to protect a chaplain during hostile fire.
"Sometimes while deployed, chaplains are in harm's way. Chaplains are non-combatants. We do not carry weapons whatsoever," said Coburn. In the event of capture, a chaplain cannot be held as a prisoner of war. He or she must be returned to their home nation, or they can voluntarily choose to stay and minister to prisoners of war.
Chaplains at home stations provide the same services downrange. In Iraq and Afghanistan, chaplains hold bible studies, guitar classes or hand out scorpion lollipops to elevate morale among the troops.
"In Afghanistan, I would pray with the units every morning before they went outside the wire. They would put themselves in harm's way every day by being shot at, mortared or escaping an improvised explosive device. In the hospital, it was learning to take blood pressure or blood samples--just finding a need and trying to fill it. You would help in any way you could, whether it was cleaning the floors, handing out blankets or sitting by someone's side as they breathed their last breath. In good times or through the valley of death, we try to be with them," said Croft.
Stateside, chaplains continue to "walk through the valley of death." With conflicts in two countries and suicides at the highest rate documented since 1980, according to the U.S. Air Force Suicide Prevention website. Chaplains also take on the responsibility to stand at the side of a commander or line officer when they have to knock on the door and tell family members about the loss of their loved one.
"I have had more notifications of lost service members here then I have anywhere," said Coburn. "We have an hour to respond when we get that call. We go on behalf of Sailors, Marines or Airmen. Army chaplains are available, but we will represent Soldiers, as well. When the call comes in, we form a team composed of a line officer and a chaplain. We as chaplains do not inform the families. The commander or line officer has the unfortunate job of telling the next of kin. We are there for their spiritual needs. We are there to care and to minister to them. We are there for them."
One may wonder if there is a conflict for chaplains choosing to combine their religious beliefs with service to their country. For Croft and Coburn their choices were shaped by different experiences in their lives to join the Air Force as chaplains. Coburn was influenced as a child by watching the television show "M.A.S.H." Croft always wanted to serve with people of other faiths, or no faith, in an environment outside the walls of his own church.
"We are not the holy," said Croft. "We are reminders to many people of their core values and their spiritual commitments. We help accommodate their spiritual needs along the road while they serve."
If you have religious or spiritual beliefs or no belief at all, chaplains are available day or night to provide support. The reach of chaplains extends beyond a Sunday service or an invocation at a commander's call. They provide food to those who have none and diapers for children who are without. Taking time to help fix your car or holding your hand and praying with you during a difficult time, chaplains can be a beacon of light to all who have faced, are facing and will face troubled times.
Additional information about chaplains or the services and programs offered at the Buckley Chapel are available at www.buckley.af.mil/library/chapel.asp
or by calling DSN 847-GOD1 (4631).
Information about the history of chaplains in the military was retrieved from www.airforce.com.