Military Chaplains Struggle with their Faith after Coming Home from War

The brutality of war is making many chaplains question the existence of God.

A military chaplain ministers to military personnel. They normally represent a religion or faith group, however, they serve military personnel of all faiths and those with no faith. The Geneva Conventions state that chaplains are non-combatants, and they do not have the right to engage in a combat. However, that does not mean that they are not exposed to the aggression, destruction, and the brutalities that happen in a war.

Military Chaplains Struggle with their Faith after Coming Home from War[/tweetthis]

Many of them have seen their friends getting blown apart in the battlefields. Many of them have seen the charred bodies of human beings lying around, still burning. Being part of a war has left many a military chaplain traumatized, and sometimes, questioning their faith.

For Matthew Williams, an ex-United Church of Christ minister, the understanding of suffering has been quite clear before he was deployed as an Army chaplain to Afghanistan, and then to Iraq. According to him, God allows suffering because it is temporary. However, being in an active war completely changed his perspective towards religion and God. He is no longer a minister. He still believes in God, however, his faith stops there. He no longer believes in God's grand plan for human beings.

According to Reverend John Weatherly, who served as a military chaplain in 2001, in Bosnia, and in 2006, in Iraq, chaplains respond to trauma just like other soldiers. They get scared, they suppress fear, and they also grow numb after some time.

A chaplain's bread and butter is their expertise in understanding the human sufferings. That is the reason why they are sought after by people to share their darkest fears, acts, and doubts. Yet, when they are exposed to extreme conditions, like a war, they also experience post-traumatic stress, just like any other person.

It is normal to be afraid, however, showing it in the battlefield is not an option, because, the last thing a commander wants is a weak chaplain, says Anthony Pantlitz, a retired chaplain with the Air Force. A chaplain, a man/woman of God, is someone who cannot be broken. At least this is the image that a military chaplain has to project. If the soldiers see a chaplain breaking down, they would also feel that it is okay to break down.

According to Father Samuel Giese, a senior Army chaplain for the D.C. National Guard, who also serves as a pastor in a busy suburban parish, balancing work (serving his congregation), family, and the National Guard is hard. It is kind of a juggling act, nonetheless, one that he is more than willing to perform. According to him, seeing the sacrifices that people make in the battlefield puts a lot of things in perspective, including the sacrifice of Jesus.

According to Pantlitz, serving as a military chaplain made him a better chaplain, and a better Christian. Sometimes God intentionally breaks a chaplain, only to make him/her a better chaplain.

There are a number of post-traumatic-stress programs for military chaplains. According to a Navy psychologist, Mary Neal Vieten, who runs the Tohidu program, a seven day retreat program in Maryland for veterans, military chaplains in the program are told if they are not traumatized on some level, then they are not functioning as a human being. Trauma is a kind of suffering, not a mental illness, one from which they can recover.


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