In harm's way

Church seeks to support chaplains and those left behind during deployments
May 16, 2007

A blast in the dead of night tossed Chaplain (LTC) John Weatherly from his bed at the Al Azad Marine Air Base near Baghdad. In Mosul, Chaplain (CAPT) David Sivret of Maine saw only a white flash before he was thrown 10 feet by an explosion that killed 22 people.

Weatherly and Sivret are two of 55 Episcopal chaplains who since 2001 have stood alongside men and women in the armed services in Bosnia, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq -- ministering to these soldiers "in harm's way," as Bishop George Packard, the presiding bishop's director for chaplaincies, aptly describes it. Five chaplains currently are deployed in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq; others have been notified that their units are on standby for possible deployment.

Sivret, Army National Guard chaplain, had just finishing praying over a noonday meal when the blast threw him to the floor. He picked himself up 10 feet from where he had been sitting and, despite leg and head injuries, "I just started doing what God has given me to do: minister to soldiers and civilians alike," he said.

"I prayed with the injured as best I could …We had two soldiers missing …We checked all the [hospital] wards, but they were nowhere to be found. We found them where I didn't want to find them. In the morgue."

Sivret had close connections with those who died -- he had officiated at the marriage of one; the other was the son of a former classmate. He is now home in Calais, Maine, a town on the Canadian border, serving as rector of St. Anne's Episcopal Church.

Sitting across a table three months ago in the canteen at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Weatherly, an Army Reserve chaplain, expressed impatience about the days it would require to complete his debriefing and medical exams before he could leave for home. Over coffee and a sandwich, he talked about his deployment to Iraq with an Army Blackhawk unit from Richmond, Virginia, as well as an earlier one to Bosnia. Weatherly is one of a few Episcopal chaplains called for active duty a second time.

It was on the eve of that first deployment, when he supervised eight chaplains ministering to a division of mainly peacekeeping troops, that Weatherly experienced his first stress and emotional turmoil.

"I had left my wife and three children in Virginia and was with my troops in New Jersey. Now one of them was on the phone. ‘Do you have to go now?' he asked me.

"‘Yes, I do,' I told him. The next day, we were in the air to Bosnia. It was September 12, 2001. Here, our nation is being invaded, and I'm leaving my family."

After that year in Bosnia, neither he and his family nor many of his parishioners at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Alexandria, Virginia, where he is rector, ever thought he would be recalled. But the war with Iraq began and Weatherly, with a battalion of 420 troops that included 125 pilots of Blackhawk helicopters that carry Marines in and out of battle, were on the ground in Iraq in 2005.

"My duties included providing not only religious support, crisis intervention and counseling to the unit I was assigned to, but also hospital and chapel coverage for the air base. One week a month I was on call at the base hospital," he said.

"As a chaplain, we say we provide three forms of support: to encourage the living, comfort the wounded and honor the dead. Each week I was on call presented opportunities for each kind of ministry."

His time in Iraq became a powerful experience. "You respect every solider out there. You don't think of them as an 18-year-old kid. They look at things in a very profound way."

When chaplains go to war, who looks after their families and parishes? "Everybody is a victim of combat stress," said William Lennon, clinical director of a Community Counseling Center for the U.S. Army.

Weatherly's parish in Alexandria, with 800 members, two priest associates and a seminarian, had a wealth of resources within easy reach. Just three miles from the Pentagon, the parish had members whose daily lives were linked with the federal government or the nation's security. Weatherly said his senior warden was a retired U.S. Air Force officer, the junior warden was a retired U.S. Army major and there was general acceptance when he was called to active duty.

It was different at Christ Church in Eastport, Maine, a town of 1,600 people, where David Sevrit served as priest as well as at St. Anne's in nearby Calais. Average Sunday attendance at Christ Church is fewer than 30.

"We didn't have the same demographics [as St. Mark's], but we have a number of veterans, or spouses who were married to veterans, said the Rev. Lynn Rutledge, deacon at Christ Church, who remembers when Skivret was activated and had to leave in November 2003, just nine months after arriving.

"It was a blow that he had to go so soon," she said. "We hardly had a chance to get to know him."

Eastport is in a very rural area in northeast Maine, Rutledge said, emphasizing the word "very."
"So, there are not a lot of Episcopal supply priests here," she said.

It is the job of the Rev. Gerald Blackburn, director for military ministries, along with others in his office, to supply resources to chaplains for their ministry to those who come into harm's way, whether from war, an act of terrorism or natural disaster.

For periods of weeks, months and now for four years, Packard and Blackburn have spent long days, nights and frequently weekends in their offices, on the phone and on aircraft, supporting chaplains in the field and providing practical assistance for their families.

Packard calls this their "Pastoral Support Mission." Priorities include supporting military and Veterans Administration chaplains, coordinating with congregations and dioceses to support military personnel and their families, updating resources available on the office's website and distributing a new CD resource for congregations and clergy facing crisis situations.

Packard conceived the idea of a plan to work with vestries in concerts with the Church Pension Fund to help churches having difficulty meeting the financial obligations of priests who are absent at war.

"We have made sure that, beyond the obvious thing of supporting military chaplains and their families, the dioceses know about the families of active-duty military. We are particularly worried about Reserve and Guard troops after they come home. The variations are astounding," Packard said.

His piece of advice for congregations and dioceses: "Find out who the military are in your diocese and link arms with the other faith groups to support them. We don't need any more prayers, we need concerted action."

There are 112 Episcopal chaplains in the military -- 55 are active duty; the others are Reserve, Guard and Civil Air Patrol chaplains.

"We try to see that chaplains and their families are prepared as best they can be," said Blackburn. "We're sensitive to where they are, and we're providing pastoral care through listening, through prayer and being supportive in any way we can to the families of the chaplains."

He tells the story of one Episcopal clergy couple, David and Christine Waweru, each of whom was deployed to Iraq, leaving two children behind. Blackburn made certain he kept in touch with both the chaplains and the children, who he visited.

Packard expressed more pessimism about how things are going. "We used to be pretty sure that our active military families were keeping pace with things and it was the Reserves and Guards who needed the supplemental help in gearing up for deployment. Now they are about even in being frayed. I'm very worried."

In the field, chaplains provide what the Air Force calls "visible reminders of the Holy." Their duty, as the Army puts it, is "bringing God closer to the soldier and the soldier closer to God." Noncombatants by law, chaplains are not allowed to carry weapons or command troops, although trained -- and armed -- chaplain assistants provide security as well as liturgical assistance.

Military chaplains of all faiths are required to be sensitive to the religious pluralism of the armed forces, providing equally for the spiritual needs of the various faith traditions represented, Packard said. (The Episcopal Church's Prayer Book for the Armed Services includes forms for the Roman Catholic Act of Contrition and a Jewish confession for the critically ill.)

"Chaplains are taught never to proselytize and, if they see any troops proselytizing, to caution them -- doubly so in a Muslim country," Blackburn said.

Never far from a chaplain's thoughts is the opposition expressed by church leaders worldwide to the Iraq war, from the pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury to parish priests and congregational leaders. "I think it's a strain right now," Packard said. Four years after the ground war commenced, "the indicator on the dial has moved in a different direction," he said.

"I worry about those who are fighting for us," he wrote in a reflection on the office website, "not for their training or their courage -- I worry about what we are saying to them. Maybe it's an imponderable, but the popular ‘support the soldier and not the war' phrase used by many comes across as odd to someone on the battlefield. Can you separate the doer from the deed?"

Further information on Episcopal chaplaincies is available here.

- -Jerry Hames is editor of Episcopal Life. The Rev. Jan Nunley, deputy for the Office of Communication, contributed to this story.


 

A community outreach program
Trying to respond more intentionally to the growing needs of U.S. military personnel, their families and communities affected by the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Episcopal Church Office for Chaplaincies supports a program called "Home Support Team."

"The need is great for local faith-based communities to be proactive in reaching out to these families and individuals," said Suffragan Bishop George Packard.

Nearly 50 percent of those being deployed in harm's way are from local Reserve and National Guard units and often their families don't have access to a military installation with support groups and other resources for active-duty military families, he said. "It's important for faith-based communities to be creative in meeting the needs of families and persons who are impacted when a member is deployed or returns home physically maimed or emotionally traumatized."

HoST is ecumenical, interfaith and nonpartisan in its attempt to reach all families or individuals affected by the war. Episcopal dioceses and congregations are expected to join with local churches and institutions of other denominations, synagogues, mosques and religious organizations and with nonreligious groups in this effort.

Further information is available here.

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