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Chaplains in the military

By Staff | May 8, 2009

I like to think of military chaplains as ministry in motion. Chaplains serve those who serve.

Chaplains accompany service members all over the world as they carry out their missions. While they minister to service members, they are enriched as they are exposed to new places, new peoples, and new cultures.

Military chaplains have appeared as characters in several works of fiction. Father Mulcahy, a character in the M*A*S*H novels, film, and TV series, is the one I remember best.

The term “chaplain” is derived from a French legend. According to the legend, Saint Martin of Tours split his cloak in half and shared it with a beggar at the gates of Amiens, France. The officer tasked with the care of the cloak and carrying it into battle was called the chaplain or “cloak bearer.”

While chaplain was originally a Christian term, it is also now applied to people in other religions filling the same role. A chaplain is typically a priest, pastor, ordained deacon, rabbi, or imam.

Though the Geneva Conventions do not state whether chaplains may bear arms, they specify that chaplains are noncombatants. In recent years, both Britain and the United States have required chaplains to be unarmed.

Captured chaplains are not considered Prisoners of War and must be returned to their home nation unless retained to minister to prisoners of war.

Inevitably, serving chaplains have been killed in action, sometimes in significant numbers. The U.S. Army and Navy lost 100 chaplains killed in action during WWII.

The Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism is a special U.S. military decoration given to military chaplains who have been killed in the line of duty, although it has to date only been awarded to the famous Four Chaplains.

All four chaplains died in the 1943 USAT Dorchester sinking. They helped other service members board lifeboats and gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out; 230 of the 904 men aboard the ship were rescued.

Whether on land or hundreds of miles out to sea, military chaplains are the spiritual and emotional guides for a large and diverse group of soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, coast guardsmen, and their families.

I am looking forward to the end of my deployment and seeing my civilian chaplain, Reverend Mat Rowgh, and my fellow parishioners again at Saint Agnes Catholic Church in Shepherdstown.

– Tom Maiden lives in Shepherdstown with his wife and four children. He is currently serving in Iraq. When not serving as a “Citizen Sailor”, Tom works part-time teaching insurance and financial planning at Shepherd University and owns a financial planning practice in Shepherdstown.