Croom believes that as strongly as ever, after 22 years of ministering and serving tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. He has been sworn at by dying soldiers and steeped in calamity and sorrow. He ministers to service members of all faiths, and to those of none at all.
“We have to understand that people don’t have to agree with any faith. They have a right not to practice, and I need to be okay with that,” he said. “I’ve had a guy say, ‘I don’t believe in your God,’ and [he] died right in front of me.”
Croom, 45, a native of Florence, S.C., also recalled a 2004 incident in a combat support hospital in a part of Iraq known as Dogwood.
“It was 12 miles outside of Baghdad. A staff sergeant came in. One of his arms and both legs were gone,” he said. “He was burned and not going to make it. I looked at his dog tags and it read ‘NONRELPREF,’ ” which stands for “no religious preference.”
The staff sergeant asked Croom how he could trust God. The two talked — chaplains aren’t allowed to proselytize, but they can share their religious perspectives — and the man asked Croom to change the designation on his dog tags. He died minutes later.
Being a military chaplain is usually a career. To apply to become a chaplain, one generally must have a master of divinity and four years of experience as a pastor. If selected, there is additional training, making the average age of a military chaplain about 10 years older than a regular soldier of the same rank.
“The role of the chaplain has never changed,” Croom said. “The motto is ‘to nurture the living, care for the wounded and bury the dead.’ This is what the Lord wants me to do. This is what I am supposed to do.”
In time, the chaplains will get their own burial. If they so choose, they can be laid to rest on Chaplains Hill, where scores of their predecessors have been buried, or honored in monuments dating to as early as 1926.
But the 30 minutes allotted for the chaplains at Tuesday’s awards ceremony — Rowland called it “self-care” for those who counsel but are too rarely counseled themselves — was over.
We’ve got to get out of here, someone said. It’s time to bury the retired Navy captain.
It was shortly after noon, and several more services with full military honors were scheduled.