“One of the highest honors that I could ever think of as a pastor in uniform is to lay another soldier to rest,” said Lt. Col. Keith Croom, the senior Army chaplain at Arlington. “Day after day, it is a tiresome job, and yet it is the most important ministry that I have ever been part of.”
As the nation prepared to observe Memorial Day, almost 30 chaplains from the Military District of Washington gathered Tuesday in between funerals. In front of the Old Post Chapel at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, they had a 30-minute window in which they talked not about death, but about the outstanding service of Croom and two other chaplains on the “cemetery team” at Arlington who will soon be transferred to new assignments.
Nearby, a hip-high stone wall is the only marker separating the chapel and the cemetery, a symbol of the vanishingly thin line between the military and its duty to those who serve.
“The chaplain is where the soldier is able to get connected to God in an ungodly place,” said Army Lt. Col. Judy Rowland, deputy command chaplain for the military district, who pulled “duty” this week. That’s shorthand for notification duty, or being on the three-member team that knocks on a door and informs a relative when a service member has died.
“We are bringing them to the Lord,” said Rowland, who also has served as a chaplain at West Point. “We are out there to bring peace in the middle of chaos.”
More than 4,477 service members have died since the start of the Iraq war, according to the Defense Department. An additional 1,888 have died during the war in Afghanistan. About 800 of those veterans are buried at Arlington. About 6,900 people are buried there annually.
Whether they are performing burial services at Arlington, notifying families when soldiers are killed or supporting soldiers as they recover from injuries, several hundred military chaplains are in the region to help.
“It does take a toll. We do feel empathy to the people we minister to. At the same time, it is the zenith of honor and privilege,” said Col. Steven L. Berry, command chaplain for the Military District of Washington.
On Thursday, Army Chief of Chaplains Maj. Gen. Donald Rutherford led a procession to Chaplains Hill to join others in placing tiny flags on the burial places of scores of military clergy. The gesture was part of “Flags In,” in which members of the military place flags on more than 220,000 soldier graves.
“Every chaplain that goes out with his unit goes into harm’s way,” said Rutherford, who was wounded by shrapnel from an improvised explosive device when he was in Iraq in 2004. He had a guard, but chaplains aren’t allowed to carry weapons.