The National Catholic Review
John J. McLain
A chaplain explains why he served.
Image

Editor’s note. In response to readers’ queries about the publication of advertisements in America for military chaplaincies, the editors invited articles about pastoral ministry to U.S. troops from John J. McLain, S.J., and Tom Cornell.

Should priests be military chaplains? Before I address that question directly, let me give you some idea of what being a chaplain was like as I experienced it. This true story may present a more convincing case for the chaplaincy than any argument.

• • •

Late in the afternoon the Afghan sun was blazing in its usual merciless fashion. I was halfway through an ice-cold shower when I heard the call come over the radio, which hung with the rest of my gear on a nail pounded into the side of the makeshift shower stall.

“Desert Rat 54 to the Operations Center, now!

Whatever it was, I knew it would not be good, not when the voice on the other end sounded so agitated. It was rare that I heard my call sign on the network, let alone in such an urgent tone. I dressed in a blur, still shrugging into my equipment vest and started running with my boots unlaced. As I arrived at the Ops Center, the assistant operations officer, a good friend, met me at the door. It had been his voice on the radio.

“You need to get to the Med Center. There’s been an accident, we have at least two guys down. We still don’t know exactly what happened, something with demolitions. And it sounds pretty bad. They need you there now, right now!”

Sprinting across the compound to the Med Center, I arrived just as a Humvee came to a screeching halt in front of it. I grabbed one end of a stretcher strapped across the back of the huge vehicle. A Special Forces medic had been crouched down beside the man, working on him while the vehicle made the five-minute drive from the range to our camp. I immediately recognized the wounded soldier as a Special Forces engineer.

Art (not his real name) was pretty well known to me. He was thuggish, one of the toughest Long Island Irish-Catholics I had ever met. In an earlier era, as a second-generation Irish-American, he might have been a cop in New York, walking his beat, knowing every inhabitant of every tenement building, alternately offering up generous helpings of advice and assistance, along with liberal applications of his nightstick to those he could not reach by more civilized methods. No angel; just another sinner with good intentions most of the time and a heart of gold for the people he cared most about. That was Art. That was the man on the stretcher in front of me, the man whose arm, I now realized, ended just below the elbow in a bandaged stump with an expanding bloodstain.

The next hours were a blur of activity and confusion. Two other men had been wounded in an accidental explosion on the range, though their injuries were much less serious. I prayed and recorded information while the medic and the battalion surgeon stabilized Art. A Medevac helicopter was inbound. As we prepared to load the stretcher back on board the Humvee to the landing zone, I leaned over him. Tears streamed down his face. Never, ever, in all my life, have I seen a human being so filled with fear. Not of dying, but of how different his life would be from this moment on.

Leaning close, I said, “Art, do you want me to stay with you?” Through his tears, he nodded and said, “Yes. Don’t leave.”

That was that. After we loaded the wounded onto the Medevac, the crew chief tried to stop me from getting on the helicopter. He had too many people already. Plucking the cross sewn to my collar from under my body armor, I showed it to him, walked past him and jumped on to the helicopter. I was not leaving my charge.

For the rest of that day and into the night, I stayed in the emergency room of the field hospital where we had landed, while Art was further stabilized and prepared for surgery. I told the doctor in charge that I had promised Art I would stay with him. He allowed me to scrub in, pray with and for the surgical team in the operating room and anoint Art before they began the surgery to clean up his stump. I stayed through the whole procedure, though that was not what I had in mind when I climbed aboard the helicopter.

Why the Military Needs Chaplains

I have discovered that things in this world are rarely as I expect them to be, and even less frequently are they what I want them to be. But this is the world God created me to inhabit and in which God called me to minister. Here the kingdom of God has been and is being proclaimed, and it is in this world that I have tried to help people find God.

To my mind, there are four compelling reasons why priests should take up the role of military chaplain.

First, Christ is present on the battlefield. The priest chaplain points as much as possible to Christ’s presence, witnesses to it by his own presence with those in the military, attests to it in preaching and praying, in listening and counseling, and offers Christ’s real presence through the sacraments. Christ’s presence also manifests itself through myriad acts of compassion even on the battlefield, which the chaplain sees, articulates, gathers up and passes on.

On one occasion, as one of our medics treated the grandson of an old Afghan man in a tiny mountain valley far from anywhere, I asked him what he thought of having American soldiers in the valley. He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment and he replied: “There are some in the valley who say you are infidels. They say we should have nothing to do with you, that we should drive you from the valley. But I know only what I have seen. And what I have seen is that the Americans treat people with more compassion than many who would call themselves Muslim.”

Second, even in the midst of what some Catholics (and others) might judge to be “an unjust war,” a chaplain ministers to those who need God. Without condemning or condoning a particular war effort, the chaplain ministers to everyone engaged in it.

Pedro Arrupe, S.J., wrestled for a long time with a similar question, and he gradually arrived at the following reasoning:

 

Should we give spiritual help to the guerrillas in Latin America? No, you say? Well, I cannot say no. Perhaps in the past I have. But they are human beings, souls who are suffering. If you have a wounded person, even if he is a guerrilla you have to help him. That is the meaning of being the Good Samaritan. Is this political? People say so. But no, I am being a priest now. I am helping this poor person. I don’t care if he is a guerrilla, a religious or a non-Catholic. He is a poor person. He is the poor person who is suffering.

 

Third, the task of the chaplain is to help others find God, and the meaning that only God can provide, in a context where it is difficult to remember even that one is human. Persons in the military must work their way through ethical decisions in the midst of the chaos and violence that can call out the worst in human nature and threaten to dehumanize those embroiled in it. Frequently a chaplain’s work is the source of a word or deed of compassion that calls good people back to themselves and helps them to remember, in the midst of horror, bloodshed and rage, who they really are and who they want to become.

The chaplain reminds those in combat, those about to engage in it, and those who have returned from it, that they can choose to observe moral standards; that they must do their best, for example, to distinguish between civilians and combatants. The chaplain, who is often older than many of the recruits, knows from experience that life goes on after military service is over. Consequently, the priest helps young people in the military to comport themselves in such a way that they can live with themselves later. In wartime, too, people can show compassion and engage in camaraderie, acts the chaplain can help people to recall and reflect on.

Fourth, a chaplain offers God’s abundant comfort and compassion to the suffering. The priest tends to the fearful, the sick, the lonely, the wounded and the dying. He also brings stability into an explosive environment because he celebrates the most stable sacrament of all—the love of Christ that never fails and never ends.

John J. McLain, S.J., a former chaplain for the U.S. Army’s Special Forces who served in Afghanistan from 2002-3 and was awarded the Purple Heart, now works in secondary education.

Comments

JEFFRY KORGEN MR | 11/23/2008 - 4:10pm
Kudos to America for this special issue on millitary chaplaincy. Any priest who feels the call to minister among people living in poverty should consider a few years of millitary chaplaincy. There are an awful lot of poor people serving in our armed forces.
KRISTEEN BRUUN MS | 11/20/2008 - 9:59pm
I can't believe you illustrated this article with the famous postage stamp without telling its story. Surely not every reader will recognize it. In 1943, during World War II, the USS Dorchester was attacked and sunk. Four chaplains, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, helped to get as many men as possible into lifeboats. Eventually the four gave away their own life jackets to others and prayed with those who would most likely not survive. At last sight, the four were gathered in a circle with their arms around each other as the ship went down. This kind of heroism characterizes the chaplain corps. My son served as a Marine, and found the presence of the chaplain consoling and strengthening.
Edison Woods | 11/7/2008 - 4:26pm
Saint Augustine pointed out in the fourth century that God is every where including hell. And of course, God is needed every where but surely most of all on the battle field. Those who think otherwise do not know him or his servants.
ED BECKETT | 11/7/2008 - 2:36pm
Jack, Thanks for your service and your perspective. It is a welcome and consoling reminder of how the Ignatian charism of "helping souls" goes on in the most unlikely of places. I hope your work in the classroom is as fruitful. All the best, Ed