MILFORD, Mass. – It started as a conversation between three Episcopalian ministers, two of whom have served in the United States military during wartime, the other the son of a career Air Force officer.
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Paul Minor, the full time support chaplain for the Massachusetts National Guard, had been discussing with The Reverend David Sullivan, a Vietnam Veteran who is the diocese outreach coordinator for the military, and The Very Reverend Jep Streit, dean, St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, ways the diocese can support the possible needs of present and former Servicemembers and their families. This is nothing new; for years military chaplains have reached out to their civilian counterparts. A Guardsman may see a military chaplain once a month if they drill at the same location; if there is not a chaplain present, it may be months before a Guardsman may see a chaplain. If the Servicemember has an issue, his local minister (or his diocese) now has a contact.
Somehow their Bishop heard of the meeting.
“I’m interested in how the Episcopalian Church in Eastern Massachusetts can best respond to the Guard and the needs of people (Servicemembers) coming back who have been deployed,” said Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Massachusetts.
After some logistical coordination, Bishop Shaw, Sullivan and Streit, visited the Massachusetts National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters, here, Mar. 8, to learn about the programs the Guard has for its Servicemembers and to see how the Diocese can help.
In the course of nearly five hours the ministers spent with the Guard a wide variety of topics were discussed. Some of the topics were to be expected; the extra stress a military family has when their Servicemember deploys overseas, to the issues that arise when the Servicemember returns home.
Other topics, while familiar to Servicemembers, were new to the ministers; the steps the military is taking to preventing/combating sexual assault/harassment to suicide prevention and promoting diversity in the force.
Some topics were unique to the Guard; there were some cases where Guardsmen, mobilized for the natural disasters that struck the state last year, were sent to other parts of the state and had to leave their families to deal the same disaster-related issues.
One topic that was addressed was the shortage of chaplains in the military.
“We need chaplains,” said Minor, “We need chaplains from mainline denominations (Lutherans, Presbyterians …).”
Ideally, the military would like have chaplains from all religious denominations. This would allow the troops be able to attend a service lead by an ordained minister of their faith. In some cases a Servicemembers who are deployed will “pick someone” to act as a lay leader to conduct services if a minister of their faith is not available.
Minor also mentioned the uniqueness of the types of issues a military chaplain can face that his civilian counterpart does not have to deal with.
One major difference is that a military chaplain’s “flock” is all Servicemembers, not just the ones in their denomination.
Minor explained to Shaw that a Jewish Soldier had approached him looking for a small pocket sized prayer book. The Soldier had been issued one at his mobilization station when he deployed. After two tours in Iraq the prayer book was “worse for wear” and the Soldier was looking for a replacement.
While this appeared to be an easy request, it wasn’t.
Minor looked in the military supply system for prayer book and couldn’t find it. There were “Prayer Books for Jewish Personnel,” but they were too large. There were prayer books of the right size, but of other religions. After much research and phone calls Minor found it; the book had been filed under the title: “Jewish book for personnel” and place the order.
The ministers left the meeting looking at the duties of the military chaplain and the Guard in a new light. Bishop Shaw said while he looked forward to working with the Guard in the future, he was impressed with what he saw.
“The thing that I’ve learned and is heartening to me,” said Bishop Shaw, “is how much the Guard cares about its people … and the programs and how sophisticated the programs are for caring for people.”