Post Magazine: "In the Hands of God"

Kristin Henderson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 1, 2006; 1:00 PM

For U.S. military chaplains in Iraq, the constant battle is the fear, loneliness and tedium that can test a soldier's faith and morale.

Kristin Henderson, whose story about the Army chaplains at Forward Operating Base Diamondback near Mosul appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine , was  online Monday, May 1, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments.

Kristin Henderson, who is married to a Navy chaplain, is the author of "While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront."


Kristin Henderson: Hello everybody -- I'm looking forward to a good discussion here, so let's get to it.


Centreville, Va: I think the title of your article was completely misleading. It seems the ulterior motive was to portray the intolerance of one Pentecostal chaplain from Tennessee. If you wanted to write about how important chaplains are to our brave soldiers on the front-lines against this war on insurgency then you should have done so. It's an appropriate and important topic. To exert so much energy and lust in quoting the embarrasing statements of one man convinced me that this article was more of a cowardly attack against evangelicals then the importance of the topic you were supposed to write about.Oh - BTW, I'm Jewish.Brian from Fairfax

Kristin Henderson: Brian, if I could have I would have given even more space to the part of the story devoted to Chaplain Deason (who's Southern Baptist, by the way), if only to even more fully capture the nuances of his struggle with the mosque issue. Many people, from many different religious backgrounds, struggle with how to interact with other faiths. As I pointed out in the article, Chaplain Deason has no problem facilitating the practice of many different religions within his chapel. The soldiers I spoke with all said he did not force his religion on them. The Jewish soldier in his unit said he'd be perfectly comfortable going to Chaplain Deason for counseling if he needed it. The important thing about Chaplain Deason's story, is that in the end he concluded that supporting the mosque was the right thing to do. I think the process by which he arrived at that conclusion is instructive.

Kristin Henderson: ...


Springfield, Va: I'm constantly amazed at the way the Army does things, and how misguided some soldiers are. While reading the article in yesterday's magazine, I was surprised at the depiction of the first sergeant glaring at the chaplain's assistant appalled at the idea that an enlisted man would be sharing a room with an officer. That is not a true reflection of life in Iraq/Kuwait. As a Captain in the Army Reserve, I was required to be housed in the same tent with 7 of the soldiers that I commanded. Later I shared quarters with 2 other officers and 4 other soldiers from different units. For regular units, this is both bad for leadership, discipline and morale. On the other hand, it makes no sense for a Chaplain's Assistant to be separated from his/her Chaplain in a combat zone.

Kristin Henderson: That's an interesting point. Undoubtedly attitudes on this issue vary from soldier to soldier and unit to unit. The chain of command in Deason's unit believed that Deason's protection was the responsibility of the entire team, not just Bailey, so that may have factored into the 1st SGT's attitude. Bailey and Deason did bunk together in a tent in Kuwait, and I know my husband, a Navy chaplain, shared a tent with his assistant when he was in Afghanistan with the Marines.


Virgina: I was surprised to read at the end of your story that you're married to a chaplain. I thought like priest, chaplains cannot marry?

Kristin Henderson: Roman Catholic priests don't marry, but there are no such restrictions on military chaplains, who come from a wide variety of faith communities. Whether or not they marry is up to them and their faith community, not the military. Roman Catholic priests, like Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, are celibate whether they're in military or civilian ministry.


Washington, D.C.: During Desert Storm, all Jewish symbols were removed. Jewish rabbis used the "Christian" cross as a cover. Is this use in this war now?

Kristin Henderson: Jewish chaplains wear a pair of tablets on their collar rather than a cross, and as far as I know they don't take them off just because they're in a Muslim country. I spent time with the young Jewish soldier who led Friday prayers on Diamondback, and he said he wore his yarmulke under his military cover (cap), just to play it safe.


Fallujah, Iraq: My father sent me a copy of the article.

I am a Catholic chaplain serving with the Marines on my second year of activation from the Reserves. (Was deployed with the 26th MEU, then 2d Marine Division, and now 1st MEF Headquarters Group.)

The article could not be more dead on. I thank you for an insightful and well-written piece.

If only more journalists would come over (as it appears you did) and see what is going on here on the ground, the fuller story would get out.

One additional comment: all the support from all the groups and organizations and churches that is almost overwhelming. Americans are wonderfully generous.

Thanks again.

Kristin Henderson: I was there in December, and one of the things I observed were the care packages from churches back in the States, piled up in the chaplains' offices. One church provided Christmas stockings stuffed with goodies. A soldier dressed up as Santa and handed them out on Christmas Eve, posing for photo ops with other soldiers, including a number of Muslim Albanian soldiers. To paraphrase Chaplain Morehouse, it was good to see everyone "playing nicely."


Silver Spring, Md: I thought this was a fantastic article and showed thoughtful, concerned chaplains and chaplain assistants struggling to help other soldiers and at times struggling with their own faith. It put a real human face on people who sometimes you don't get to see that part of.Question: I know in World War II, Catholic chaplains would give "general absolution" to groups of soldiers about to go into major combat operations. Did you see any evidence of this practice in Iraq?

Kristin Henderson: Chaplains frequently pray with units about to go out on missions or into combat, but the nature of the prayer depends on the chaplain. I believe all the service branches now require that public prayers be inclusive, not excluding any religion. Since absolution is only practiced by certain Christian denominations, including Roman Catholics, I would guess that it would be offered separately to soldiers of that faith. But that's just a guess.


Minneapolis, Minn: The Chaplain's Assistants I know from Vietnam service didn't carry weapons, to the best of my knowledge. Do you know if this is a policy change, and when it came about?

As a retired military person, I appreciate the 'learning curve' experiences you shared on the chaplains and their assistants, those educational moments that weren't always delivered in a kind and gentle way, to teach them about customs and surviving in a combat zone.

Kristin Henderson: Since most Americans haven't been to a war zone, we're all learning, like Deason and Bailey, what's involved. I deployed with them to Kuwait and then on to Iraq. It was educational for me as well as them, and I hope for readers, too.


La Jonquera, Spain: When I was a boy my father, a US Army colonel, used to take me to the military museum in Fort Knox KY where we were stationed. There was painting in the museum of the "Four Chaplains" who gave their lifejackets to soldiers when the troop ship they were on was sunk in the north Atlantic in WWII. I still remember that painting 45 years later. I was so moved by it (I was only 10 years old). Men from four different religions who gave their lives so others might live. Are you familiar with this event? What do you think about it? Do you know where this painting might be? I recently called the George Patton museum in Fort Knox and they knew nothing about it.

Thank you.

Kristin Henderson: That true story is pretty well known and a Google search might help you locate the painting. Those four chaplains certainly represent the best of what being a chaplain is all about. But even in less dramatic circumstances, like day to day counseling, chaplains can make a real difference in the lives of service members and their families. Not all chaplains are created equal, however. My advice to those in the military community is to keep trying until you find the chaplain who's right for you. I know of a Marine who went to his chaplain for counseling. The first thing the chaplain said, while staring at the tatoos on the Marine's forearm, was, "Are you a Christian?" These were tatoos that were the eqivalent of "Mom." Just the fact that he had tatoos apparently bothered this chaplain. The Marine thanked him for his time, walked out, and found another chaplain.


Fallujah, Iraq: To respond to the General Absolution question: atthis point in OIF there is not the immediate situation nor demand for such, but even where there would be such a need, all it does is postpone, not remove, the individual confession of sins.

After Desert Storm many a Catholic chaplain was hearing confessions in Kuwait of service members who had received General Absolution prior to battle.

Any other related questions can find answers at a website that supports the Military Archdiocese:

Kristin Henderson: Thanks for providing that information.


Everytown, USA: My Grandfather served as a military Chaplain for over 60 years. He used to pass out pocket sized, mossy-oak colored bibles to "his men" in each of the four wars in which he served. During the Normandy D-Day 60th Anniversary, he was too ill to travel and participate, so my father went in his place. To honor his father, he placed one of those camouflaged bibles on Omaha beach. The son of another veteran, who was there participating in the events, saw the bible and remembered the story HIS father used to tell of the military Chaplain who used to pass out the camouflaged bibles. He picked it up, took it home, and proceeded to relay his experience to an author who was writing a book about Chaplain vets. The author was writing my grandfather's autobiography.

The actions of our military Chaplain's transcend just the wars they serve. They provide current and future military families with peace and comfort that cannot be measured.

Kristin Henderson: That's quite a story!


Alexandria, Va: Fight Rabbis is a great book about Jewish chaplains.

Kristin Henderson: Thanks for the recommendation...


Virginia: I was surprised to read that Catholics made up a large segment of the military. In the U.S. protestants is the other way around. do you have more statistics?

Kristin Henderson: Well, another interesting statistic is that the third largest group, after Roman Catholics and Baptists, are those who specify "No Religious Affiliation." The numbers according this 2005 survey of 1.3 million active duty personnel are Roman Catholics: 295,324... All Baptists (there are a number of Baptist denominations): 227,263... NRA: 112,166.


Fallujah, Iraq: I'm back.

The role of Chaplain's Assistants (Army) or Religious Program Specialists (Navy/Marine Corps) is to be the secretary, driver, sacristan, and bodyguard to their chaplain.

They recieve specific training in force protection, and in the case of the Navy/Marine Corps, they carry both a pistol and a rifle.

The CAs and RPs are the unsung heroes of the pastoral ministry going on in Iraq, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and elsewere.


Kristin Henderson: Thanks again.


Virginia: Can you tell us more about your book?

Kristin Henderson: It tells the stories of the families left behind when we send our military to war -- the emotional phases they go through during the deployment, the effects on children and marriages, and the challenges they face when combat veterans come home.


Philadelphia, Pa: I want to thank you for your artical it was very helpful. There was a time when I considered doing this myself. I'm a minister here state side who has considered the chaplincy program...though after reading this detailed account I'm not so sure that is what God is calling me to do. I will pray for you and for all those chapliins over there, and that His Will be done in our our lives...thanks again

Kristin Henderson: It's not for everyone. As an example, Chaplain Grimenstein says he felt led to join the chaplaincy because in his civilian parish, he was tired of listening to arguments about the color of the carpet in the chancel. He describes taking care of soldiers and their families as a much more energetic ministry. The way he sees it, he's helping people who are wrestling with profound questions, often literally involving life and death. That's not to say the same sort of issues aren't part of civilian ministry. But chaplains, since they share a work space with their "parishioners," are generally more directly involved in the lives of the people they serve, which chaplains like Grimenstein find more satisfying.


Herndon, Va: Where have the chaplains been when they were REALLY needed? (Don't tell me they didn't know.) While 50,000+ Iraqi civilians were killed, while young Iraqi men were swept out of their homes, off streets and imprisoned without recourse to ANY rights, while they were tortured, while the Geneva Convention and Human Rights were mocked? God's work? Have any chaplains encouraged any soldiers to obey the law and suffer the wrath of superiors? Shameful war, shameful results, shameful to invoke God's name on behalf of this barbaric, UnChrisian enterprise. I recommend chaplains re-read Matthew until they "get it." "When will they ever learn?" How about giving us just ONE chaplain story that involves some REAL Christian courage? Until then, I consider "military chaplain" the most egregious oxymoron. Blessings to you on your quest for peace.

Kristin Henderson: Thanks for reminding us that there is human need in every corner of a war zone. But just because religious leaders are needed in the areas you describe doesn't mean they're not also needed in chapels, hospitals, and Humvees as well, or that their work there is less important.


Kristin Henderson: Religion and war are two subjects that raise a lot of questions -- thanks for raising some of them here, for those of you who sent along helpful information, thanks for that, too!


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