When Capt. Aaron Jenkins, who is stationed at the Army Reserve Center on Roosevelt Road, celebrated the Fourth of July last Wednesday, he did the kind of thing many other folks do. He and his family went to the Taste of Chicago. Unlike many of us, however, he carried with him a heightened sensitivity to the fact that for many of his fellow soldiers, the “bombs bursting in air” were not fireworks at the park but roadside bombs in Baghdad.
“When you serve in the military, it is often said that there are two times when everyone needs a chaplain: in the foxhole and jumping out of an airplane,” Jenkins said.
During the more than 17 years that he has been in the Army, Jenkins has relied on military chaplains on many other occasions. The role that military chaplains play in maintaining the spiritual health of our armed forces is an important one, he said.
“Throughout my military career chaplains have aided me and my fellow soldiers,” Jenkins said. “I remember going through the rigorous Officer Candidate School training at Fort Benning, Ga. The chaplain there spoke with us, motivated us and helped us keep our mind and spirit focused on our goal.”
Chaplain (COL) Timothy Samorajski, who has served in the Army Reserve for 23 years and drilled in Forest Park, said that today’s reservists are being asked to do more ever. Not only must they juggle family, work and the military, but many reservists are now dealing with multiple deployments.
“It’s a unique situation,” Samorajski said. “Our soldiers are under a lot of stress, and that makes the need for chaplains even greater.”
Chaplain (CPT) Joseph Welch was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and to Afghanistan in 2004. Soldiers must handle being separated from their loved ones, moving every three years, infidelity, dangerous work conditions and a lack of creature comforts, Welch said. Those who are deployed face even greater stresses with longer separations, anger, depression and the possibility of mental and physical trauma.
“I have had soldiers under my command who have had every issue from financial to marital issues who have been aided by chaplains,” Jenkins said. “Although our army is the best trained in the world, there are spiritual issues that come up that are best suited to be addressed by our great chaplain corps.”
Jenkins has been especially impressed by the retreats run by chaplains. The goal of the retreat is to “reinvigorate” couples who have been separated for long periods of time and help them make the readjustments necessary for living together again.
“It helps you appreciate each other and the things that each one of you have done while you were separated,” Jenkins said.
Retreats for single soldiers returning from deployment are offered as well.
From the chaplain’s point of view, ministry in the Army is both interesting and challenging. Samorajski said that his “congregation” is a lot more diverse and pluralistic than what pastors work with in the parish. He said that in a typical battalion he will meet atheists, agnostics, Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims. What he likes about the Army’s position on religious diversity is its emphasis on integrity.
“Our core purpose as chaplains is to facilitate the free exercise of each soldier’s beliefs,” Samorajski said.
At the same time, chaplains-who must be ordained and endorsed by a denomination-are not expected to do or say anything contrary to what they believe. Therefore, if a Muslim soldier approached Samorajski and requested that she be allowed to attend Friday prayers, he would not be required to lead the prayers himself, but he must help the soldier either find a quiet place to pray, refer her to a local mosque or perhaps bring an imam to the base.
Welch said that the diversity among the troops and in the chaplain corps itself has both challenged his faith and enriched it. It takes a special type of pastor to be a military chaplain, to function in a pluralistic environment without sacrificing the integrity of your own religion, Welch said.
Of course, chaplains also need to get used to the idea of ministering in a war zone.
“I’ve gone to church services with my side arm on and had a person beside me with an M4 on his shoulder,” Jenkins said. “You don’t typically see that in a (civilian) service.”
Despite the challenges of the environment, deployment can actually provide a better setting for spiritual growth than a typical parish, Welch said. The intense pressure felt by soldiers seems to make them more likely to ask for spiritual guidance.
“My chapel services and Bible studies were full when I was deployed,” Welch said. “When deployed, soldiers tend to be more focused and think more seriously about spiritual matters.”
Of course, the details of war can include an extreme level of violence on a daily basis. Playing a hand in such tragedies seems to run counter to many religious teachings. Jenkins acknowledged that many Americans oppose the war in Iraq and some even condemn it on religious grounds, but said he feels no tension between his faith and his duty as a soldier.
“Iraq doesn’t raise questions for me,” he said. “It raises patriotism.”
Sgt. Scott Turner works with Jenkins on Roosevelt Road and said that his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, emphasizes duty to country and respect for authority.
“We are not to sit back and watch others make sacrifices on our behalf, while we sit comfortably and watch others defend freedom and the rights we enjoy,” Turner said.
Samorajski integrated his religious beliefs and military service this way. He said that he sees the primary mission of the military as preventing wars from happening in the first place. If that fails, he said the military’s job is to restore peace and normal life for civilians as soon as possible.
“That core purpose is a noble one,” Samorajski said.