The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Where did God go on the battlefield?

A soldier in Afghanistan offers some glimpses of military life today — and, to his dismay, there seems to be a distressing lack of faith:

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” the cliché goes. It’s hard to imagine a soldier facing death who doesn’t believe in God. Maybe soldiers need hope; maybe they need the promise of an afterlife to face death. And when this friendly little aphorism was coined, it was probably true.


Now, religion is political. Polls in the MilitaryTimes seem to back up the religiosity of the Armed Forces. So you’d be forgiven if you viewed that the battlefield was also a religious place — every base loaded with a friendly chaplain, every troop in a foxhole silently speaking to God and every platoon doubling as a prayer group.

Because you’d be wrong.

About a week after arriving at the Korangal Outpost — after being in Afghanistan a month — the First Sergeant announced that the chaplain had shown up. He would be holding a (nondenominational) Christian service later that night. I expected a big crowd. When I told my men this news, they groaned.

About 10 minutes before the ceremony, I trudged up the hill, through three feet of snow, from our hooch to the service. I wore the usual kit for winter — ACU pants, a brown T-shirt, a black fleece jacket, an IBA (Improved Ballistic Armor) and a helmet — I carried a Bible in my cargo pocket…


…Our chapel was the Dining Facility, which for us meant an olive-drab tent and wood benches, freezing cold in the wintertime. The tent had the Army version of indoor lighting, which was floodlights aimed awkwardly at the ceiling, running off the diesel generator outside — the only sound on an otherwise silent FOB.

As I entered, I thought for a moment I was in the wrong place. It was empty, save for two other soldiers. Then I saw the chaplain…

…The service itself was awkward. The chaplain had gotten used to conducting these small ceremonies, and he tried to move past the empty silence. We sat there, and he gave his sermon. We each fought the cold, listening, watching our breath and shivering. I can’t remember what he spoke about. No matter what it was, I enjoyed it. Though I was confident I’d survive Afghanistan, I was terrified I would fail in leadership. The fear didn’t leave for about eight months. Chaplains help assuage such fears.

After the speech, we took communion. We ate the bread and drank the juice, and the ceremony ended. As I walked back down the hill, I was still shaking my head in disbelief. Where was everyone?

Read the rest.

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Mary Olarte

posted November 5, 2010 at 11:42 pm

I made the mistake of going to a nondenominational bible study once—nondenominational does not mean multidenominational and nondenominational Christians do not consider Catholics to be Christians.

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posted November 6, 2010 at 12:46 am

That’s sad…I am sorry to hear that…
I have a priest chaplain friend who did 2 tours in Iraq and tells a very different story though…he feels desperately needed. There is apparently a great shortage of RC priests in the military.

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posted November 6, 2010 at 12:55 am

The requirement to be non-denominational, and politically correct, has the military chaplaincy presenting a milque-toast form of Christianity. As a result, I practically never went to church during my Marine Corps career. I wasn’t a Catholic then, but I don’t remember there being many R.C. Priest chaplains. I carried my pocket Bible oftentimes when I was on deployment.

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posted November 6, 2010 at 8:59 am

As a Paratrooper whose completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m not sure the issue is a lack of faith in God among Soldiers, but rather the constant tempo of combat, which wears a man down after two or three 12-15 month tours in the same combat zone. I personally found Eastern Afghanistan particularly hard, given the mountains, cold, and isolation. After a while you tend to want to literally retreat into your Chu. However, Eka’s is also right, as I saw many Soldiers who attended mass when I was posted in Baghdad and Kandahar. I can also state, as a Soldier of 26 years, I never saw an Army Chaplain (Rabbi, Priest, Minister, or Imam) who did not in good faith, attempt to minister to our Catholic Soldier’s needs. The same can be said of the Army approximately 90 Priests. One of the reason I still have so much faith in the institution of the Army. None-the-less, the lack of RC priests is distressing. As we Catholics need to encourage our young men to consider the priesthood as a calling.

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Deacon Norb

posted November 7, 2010 at 8:57 am

Paratrooper82 — many thanks for your insights here!
The lack of Roman Catholics priests serving as Chaplains in our military services is a long and old — and very complicated — story.
–The only chaplains EVER awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor were Roman Catholic Priests: in fact there were two of them and both served in Vietnam.
–Currently, I am closer to the Air Force than the Army. The last time I saw any statistics on this, the Air Force had a 200+ shortage of Catholic Priests working as Chaplains. These are FUNDED slots reserved for Roman Catholic Priests and are not assignable to other denominations.
–I also have heard that the Air Force once had an experimental program where they recruited Roman Catholic priests who were foreign nationals to serve as military chaplains. The local bishop of that priest obviously had to approve AND the individual priest-applicant had to be bi-cultural and able to speak American Idiom English fluently but once accepted as a military chaplain and officially on-duty, their application for naturalization as a U.S. citizen would be fast-tracked. The first few recruited into this program were from India and Ireland.
One reason I am vitally interested here is that I have a son-in-law who has already been scheduled for his third rotation into the South-West Asia area.

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Deacon Norb

posted November 7, 2010 at 9:02 am

My apologies to all — I forgot to include the proper web-link!

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