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Chaplains Minister to Young Military Troops

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Chaplains Minister to Young Military Troops

The clocktower at the Great Lakes Naval Base

More than 3,500 U.S. military personnel have died since the beginning of the Iraq War. These past four years have been a time of great stress on the men and women fighting the war. There’s pressure, too, on the military chaplains behind the scenes. They’re ministering to the troops in the field. And these clergy are counseling increasingly young recruits preparing for their first battles. Chicago Public Radio’s Jason DeRose recently visited the Great Lakes Naval Station on the North Shore and has this report.

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Shortly after the Iraq War began, Chris Whimmer joined the Navy. And just before he entered basic training, his father died.

WHIMMER: I just wanted to give up. I’m an only child so, especially when you’re as close to one of your parents as I was, losing them and you already have the stresses of knowing that you’re going somewhere new.

There was no way to put off his entering the military. He’d signed on. So, Whimmer soon left his grieving mother behind in Hollywood, Florida and came to the Great Lakes Naval Base for recruit training. He was okay at first. But then about three weeks in...

WHIMMER I went to my drill instructor and I said look I need to see a chaplain now. And the next morning, the chaplain was there knocking on the door, came right to the ship and helped me out with my issue, with my problem. I was ready to give up to be honest with you. To go home. The chaplain probably saved me.

Saved him by listening to him, by talking with him and by praying for him. Whimmer says admitting vulnerability--as a member of the U.S. Navy--was the hardest part. Whereas much of military culture works to forge group identity in service of heading off to battle, chaplains work in a different way. They address the deeply personal issues of individual recruits.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Right now we’re postponed for a few minutes. We’re waiting for some very important guests to arrive.

Pomp, rigor and protocol are hallmarks of military ceremonies. But at a recent commissioning ceremony, you see a different relationship between chaplains and enlisted men and women.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Outstanding. You do look outstanding. No, you look outstanding.

It’s a lighter, more relaxed moment. The chaplain is kidding with the recruits, standing stiffly in rows waiting for the ceremony to being. Although chaplains are much higher in rank than these young, starched sailors, there isn’t a sense of a strictly enforced hierarchy.

CRAWL: Very similar in a way to college life, like living in a dorm you build those kids of friendships and relationships.

Bob Crawl has been a Navy Chaplain for 23 years. He’s an ordained Presbyterian pastor who served a congregation in eastern Pennsylvania before joining the military. While the focus of most pastors is on writing sermons and leading Sunday worship, Crawl says, Navy chaplains have a different mission.

CRAWL: I would say most of it’s pastoral care. So many times a conversation starts, I’ve never told anybody this before. But as I was growing up, I suffered this type of abuse. Sometimes it’s sexual abuse, sometimes it’s verbal and physical abuse. And they’re literally hundreds and thousands of those kinds of stories that I’ve sat through. Many, many of them are more painful than you can imagine.

You can think of military chaplaincy as the world’s largest youth ministry--dealing with all the trials of late adolescence.

CAMPBELL: Think about it. The majority of the enlisted personnel are 18 to 20. Most of them are right out of high school.

Cynthia Campbell is now president of McCormick Seminary in Hyde Park. Earlier in her career, she taught at a seminary near Fort Hood, Texas where she worked with military chaplains.

CAMPBELL: So this period of time is a very significant time of person maturation. Finding yourself. Cementing your identity. Who am I going to be? What am I going to be like? A lot of us experience this in college. And for many people, you experience this in the military.

Campbell says there is a tension inherent in military chaplaincy. Especially for Christians, it is difficulty to preach a gospel of love and forgiveness to women and men waging war.

CAMPBELL: I would hope that a chaplain is always there to help people find a sense of God’s presence. And that nothing in life or in death can separate them from God’s love.

SHEER: Easter service was right after we took over an area in the Corengal Valley. I remember doing services in full body armor.

Chaplain Brian Sheer accompanied Marine ground forces in Afghanistan in the spring of 2002.

SHEER: So we built a little chapel and had service out there. And did service on the radio for people who were a little further out and couldn’t be there. What do you say in a sermon on Easter Sunday in Afghanistan? I shared the life-giving gospel. He is risen. He is risen indeed. And I show that there’s hope in life and in eternity afterwards.

That message of hope in life is an especially difficult one during active military combat.

SHEER: In one day we lost 27 people when one of our helicopters went down. Some of them I knew personally, and close.

It was devastating--the worst day of U-S casualities since Vietnam. Sheer says in a situation like that, there’s little a chaplain can do besides suffer alongside and show compassion for the troops.

SHEER: Suffering, to me, that’s a part of my doctrine. Christ said, In me you will have peace. But in this world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.

CHOIR: I am New England’s Pride and Joy

One of the ways sailors at the Great Lakes Navel Station stay in good cheer is by joining the station’s choir, which sings at church services and other official ceremonies. Among them is Chris Whimmer, who’s come a long way since he entered the military three years ago. Now, he works as a chaplain’s assistant and is, in fact, considering seminary.

WHIMMER: My command chaplain is trying to stress the issue. Come, on drop your packet. Drop you packet. I have another year and a half of enlistment. Who knows what God’s calling is.

If he does mail off his application packet, Whimmer says it will be in large part because of the pastoral care and kindness a chaplain showed him when he was young and scared and grieving the loss of his dad. I’m Jason DeRose, Chicago Public Radio.

MUSIC: The Navy Hymn

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