News Story

Mormon Chaplains Serve Soldiers of All Faiths

A chaplain in the military services of the United States demonstrates extraordinary flexibility. From dealing with routine paperwork to challenging counseling, from early morning physical training to afternoon weddings and funerals, the day of a chaplain usually includes 24-hour availability to the members of their battalion.

In a single day, Lt. Col. Steven Merrill, a U.S. Air Force chaplain presently deployed in Kuwait, exercises, studies, counsels, prepares sermons and somehow finds time to eat and sleep.

Merrill is also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and one of a handful of Church members currently serving as chaplains.

Merrill presently serves as an integral part of the support team assigned to APOD, the Kuwait location responsible for briefings with all military personnel both arriving and departing Iraq. “That’s between 40,000 and 50,000 troops a year,” Merrill explained. “Then I have an assignment to counsel with the emergency leave personnel (military granted home travel in personal crises) — that’s about 50 in any given day, but I only have that job one day a week.”

Counseling, for Merrill, is broad based. “I have an opportunity to serve soldiers regardless of their faith backgrounds. We have a joint operation here, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and leaders from the services in Korea and Australia, people from many lands and from every walk of life, all trying to get the job done.”

Counseling is not the only responsibility in a chaplain’s day. His workday includes responsibility for all the religious worship services in the area, a greater challenge in a war zone.

Capt. J. Nathan Kline, an Army chaplain based in Iraq, holds worship services in an “armor chapel,” a military tent designated for church meetings. “The chapel is humble,” Kline noted, “but it fulfills its function. We are blessed to have it.”

For the deployed military, the meeting location is insignificant; it’s the opportunity to gather and receive encouragement from the chaplain that counts.

Chaplains also serve on military bases throughout the world and sometimes in their hometowns as advisors to a local unit of the National Guard.

Capt. Gaylan Springer, a full-time instructor in the educational system of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, teaches religion to teenagers in Delta, Utah, but one weekend each month meets with the 2/222 Field Artillery Battalion based in Cedar City, Utah.

Springer assumed a lesser chaplain role after his unit returned from full-time deployment. “When people are back at home, they rely on their own religious leaders, their families and friends for support,” he offered, “but I still have responsibility to support the commander in maintaining the welfare of the troops. At home, the concerns are different; reconnecting with the familiar hometown setting can sometimes be as challenging as leaving or serving on deployment.”

Despite the rigors and ongoing demands of the job, a chaplain comes to his assignments well prepared. Chaplains are required by the U.S. Department of Defense to complete graduate studies in theology or related subjects, serve two years in a postgraduate ministerial assignment and then receive an endorsement from their sponsoring faith group.

Frank Clawson, director of military relations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, described the overall purposes of the chaplaincy. “A chaplain is responsible to teach values, to build moral character in individuals and help in broadening personal understanding of integrity, loyalty and honor — those core values that are so critical in life.”

A chaplain hopes to instill such values in soldiers, values that will sustain individuals who may come to question circumstances in their lives.

Chaplain Merrill, for example, recently provided resources and support to a 20-year-old soldier under his watch. “The young man lost his single mother and became the sole guardian of his three teenage sisters,” the chaplain reported. “There was no other immediate family support, no extended family; these girls were alone with their brother deployed. It is an extremely challenging circumstance, and he came to me, but maybe that’s why we have chaplains. I truly felt I was of service.”

Service in the chaplaincy can be defined in numerous ways. Kline claims the responsibility of battalion barber. “I just gave 27 haircuts,” he noted. Merrill, on the other hand, owns the title of the “number-1, over-50 pingpong player in Ali Al Salen.” Such activities offer a break from the normal routines and stresses of the service.

Clawson cautions “that a chaplain can’t be everything to everyone.” His examples of faith and encouragement, however, support his fellow soldiers regardless of location or assignment.

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