Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

A “Real” Chaplain

The next person who even hints to me that, because I am a reservist I am not a “real” military chaplain, I might just scream at them. Fair warning.

I’ve been somewhat defensive about this for awhile, and quite frankly I’ve moved beyond defensive to feeling darned angry. I’m not just angry on my own behalf, or even on behalf of Reserve military chaplains. Hidden in the comments and actions over which I have become incensed lies a belief that all “Reserve” or “National Guard” soldiers and service members are not “real” soldiers or service members. I have heard this said by civilians as well as Active Duty service members… and I’ve had all of it I’m going to take.

Now, I know most of those who have made the comments that have me angry enough to strip paint off the walls have meant well. One was a very earnest conversation with an Active Duty military chaplain colleague where they wanted to “discuss strategies for me to become a real chaplain”. Another was a search committee who said they would be happy to consider me for their pulpit because I was not, after all, a “real” chaplain. Another was in a card, sent to me with the best of intents by some members of a congregation I had once served that said they were glad I had not become a “real” chaplain.

I’ve come to the belief that perhaps it is the other way around… perhaps those military chaplains and even those soldiers and service members who have only been on Active Duty need to spend a few years in the Guard or the Reserves… need to see what it is like to try and hold down civilian employment while still meeting all their military obligations… before they could be considered to be “real” themselves.

Ok… rant over. Now let me tell you why I’m really angry.

Perhaps there was a time when being in the National Guard or the Reserves was an easier military path than being on Active Duty. Perhaps there was a time when the military duty of reservists was not taken as seriously, when it was an opportunity for civilians to put on uniforms and pretend to be in the military. Perhaps that did exist in our nation at one time… but it is certainly not true now.

Why? Because we are fighting multiple wars with an Active Duty military that is too small and too stretched to meet all the obligations our nation is facing… and so the Reserves and the National Guard have changed from being “only in times of great emergency” forces into operational forces that deploy, train, and fight almost as often as the Active Duty. We do so with far less resources than the Active Duty, far less personnel than the Active Duty, and far less time than the Active Duty… all while managing to hold down (some of us) civilian jobs and careers. We have almost none of the support that Active Duty soldiers and families take for granted… no post exchange, no military hospital, no local military community services offices, no military housing. We face challenges in finding and keeping civilian employment, as many employers (churches among them) do not want to hire (or call) a reservist because they know that soldier might be deployed (regardless of the law). As such, reservist soldiers sometimes face long-term unemployment or functional homelessness (especially here in Michigan)… while their Active Duty counterparts are all assigned either barracks space or have a housing allowance.

As an Active Duty chaplain, if I had a soldier who was having family problems, I could take them down to the local Family Life center and get them signed up for counseling. As a reservist chaplain, I have that same soldier having the same problems, and I have a mad scramble of orders, calls to Military Onesource, discussions with command about our role, travel back and forth to see the soldier (who may live hours away) and so much more to try and get even comparable support for that soldier… that an Active Duty soldier could receive on the same military post they live and work on. More than that, as an Active Duty chaplain, I could be with my soldiers every day… not just one weekend a month.

More than this, I honestly believe that the spiritual and emotional challenges of Reserve soldiers are greater than they are for Active Duty soldiers. I say this not just from observation, but from having deployed both as an Active Duty soldier and as a Reserve soldier when I was enlisted. Part of the reason for this is that Active Duty soldiers can build a kind of supportive community, because they are with each other all the time, and are in communities that understand what they are dealing with all the time. I grew up in such a community, as my father was an Active Duty soldier. We knew that sometimes parents left and did not come home for a long time. We knew how to be with each other when that happened. We knew it could happen to us. Such things were a part of the life of our community.

Reserve soldiers and their families do not live in communities that understand what they are going through. They live in an America that is fairly ignorant about the realities of military life and service. Even the veterans among us do not understand a military life that is marked by frequent or regular deployments, or Reserve forces that are treated operationally and not emergency/strategic. So, reservists do not have many of the community supports that Active Duty soldiers and families can take for granted.

Active Duty soldiers also have the ability to focus on their mission, on their training, and on their lives as soldiers in a way that reservists and guardsman rarely can. Reserve component service members have to develop a mental agility to switch back and forth between soldier mode and civilian mode, and I tell you from my own experience that is difficult and tiring. Add to that the regular question that reservists and guardsmen have to ask themselves… why am I doing this? For an Active Duty service member, at least part of their military service is more than patriotism or duty… it is their career. It is how they pay the bills and put food on the table. It is free medical, it is a plan for retirement, it is what they do.

For a reservist or guardsmen, especially those who are not Active Guard or Reserve (AGR), it is few if any of these things. Most of the reservists I know are well aware that they could likely be better off financially if they left the guard or Reserves. If there was not the specter of deployment, they could probably get a better job than the one they keep. They would be able to focus on their career, and might even be able to find time for a hobby if they were not working a 40 hour a week job and then spending 5-10 hours a week or more doing online military training or counseling their subordinate soldiers or preparing briefing slides for the AGR soldiers. For most Guard or Reserve soldiers I have spoken with, the idea of actually achieving all of the necessary ingredients for a Reserve component soldier to get to a military retirement seems like a myth or a dream… not a reality they can depend on.

So, why? For almost every soldier I have spoken with who is above the rank of E-5, they have all realized that they might be doing financially better if they were fully in the civilian world. Each one of them has given me a variation of the same answer. Some frame it as patriotism, and many others frame it as a need to “be there” for younger soldiers… but they each do it out of a sense of honor and duty that is often unrecognized, unappreciated, and denigrated when compared to their Active Duty counterparts.

“David, I’m sorry you didn’t get to become a “real” chaplain.”

“Let’s see what we can do to get you onto Active Duty and real chaplaincy”.

“Do you want to eventually become a “real” chaplain, or are you planning to stay in the Reserves?”

The next time… just be prepared… I’m likely to scream at you…

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

5 Thoughts on “A “Real” Chaplain

  1. David, as always, I am in full support of your journey.

  2. As always, dear friend, be careful out there. You are one of the hardest-working ministers/chaplains I know. Blessings to you – and your soldiers.

  3. Thank you for doing real(ly) hard work. Miss you.

  4. David,
    You are fulfilling the commitment you made in seminary to a wonderful degree. The article was eye opening to me. It reenforced the feeling that I have had that reservists are to be applauded for their commitment to their famillies, communities and country. It is hard to be uprooted from your job and what is familiar to be deployed who knows where, to return , get settled again and then be redeployed . It is haard on the families too because they do not have the support of the military community whhile there loved ones are gone.

    Congratulations on a well written, much needed article. Keep up the good work.

  5. Chaplain Paul on Tuesday April 19, 2011 at 22:11 +0000 said:

    I apologize to you for all of the active duty Army Chaplains who ignorantly thought that what you do in the Reserves is not the “real chaplaincy.” I’m an active duty Army Chaplain who served in the Reserves and I know how very difficult it is to balance home, job and Army. And if someone in your Army congregation is in trouble, how hard it is to get them help during the month.

    My first – and most satisfying – chaplaincy experience was with a nursing and rehabilitation center, which was also not a “real” chaplaincy experience. A point of great contention between me and some of my “professional” peers.

    But David, thank you for serving the Citizen-Soldiers who truly are out there making the hard choices and the sacrifices. They could have taken the easy path, but decided to serve their country in the military instead.

    Take care out there and drop me a line sometime.


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