Soldier of the cross

Retired chaplain reflects on his service and how war has changed
May 23, 2007

When Charles Arlin attended basic training after joining the Army Reserves in 1955, he was "terribly homesick for the Episcopal Church."

"I went to the general Protestant service, and it didn't work for me," he recalls. Eventually, he found an Episcopal chaplain -- a classmate of his father's from seminary.

Twenty-five years later, Arlin re-entered the reserves as an Episcopal priest and chaplain. He retired in 1991 but anticipates returning to duty as a Civil Air Patrol (Air Force auxiliary) chaplain. He's also rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd, Midland Park, N.J.

"I think there was no question that I brought something to the chaplaincy that a lot of chaplains don't have," said Arlin, 69. "I was actually in the ranks at one time and worked my way up from private to staff sergeant. That gave me a unique perspective about working with troops, and I always loved working with troops."

During the first Gulf War, he served at Fort Lewis in Washington state. One man serving under him was Roman Catholic seminarian Tim Vakoc, who had attended chaplain school. Before retiring, Arlin encouraged Vakoc to consider becoming an Army chaplain after ordination.

A year ago December, Arlin opened an American Legion magazine and saw a story about the first chaplain wounded in Iraq: Father Tim Vakoc. "He was riding in one of the Humvees when one of these IEDs went off. He suffered brain trauma. He lost an eye. ... It really stunned me."

"I knew intellectually that I wasn't to blame, but emotionally it kept tugging at me," he said. He eventually wrote to Vakoc, telling him "how troubled I was by what had happened and that certainly we would be praying for him."

"Warfare has changed tremendously," Arlin said. "There will never again be a war like the first Gulf War, where you'll see whole divisions of armor moving across the desert. ... What you're seeing over in Iraq is kind of indicative of how it's changed. Iraq is now in a civil war ... and small units have to change their tactics tremendously in terms of how they deal with guerrilla warfare."

That translates into dangerous, stressful conditions for chaplains. "We don't bear arms under the Geneva Conventions, but we're often out there with our troops," he said. The stress troops deal with "has got to be beyond belief," he said. "You can imagine the kind of stress that the chaplains feel, too. Because if they're going to administer to their troops, if they're any good, they're going to be out there sharing some of there dangers."

Arlin admits he felt a conflict between the messages of Christianity and military service. But he always told people that "the crosses I wore on my uniform were more important than my rank."

"My job is to minister to people where they are," he said. "They happened to be people who are in the military. ... It doesn't mean that I don't have my own conflicts about war and the kinds of things that go on, but the reality is that these people need to be ministered to. You can't cut them off and say ... 'we're supposed to be peacemakers, not warmongers, and so were not going to minister to you.' But there's a conflict there, and I don't know that it will ever be considered resolved."

The Rt. Rev. Carl Wright
Bishop Suffragan for Armed Forces and Federal Ministries