Darnell Strick wouldn't miss a Sunday at his local church for anything. To Army Sgt. Strick, 21, "church" is the Gospel service at Fort Myer's Post Chapel.
To Lt. Karen Hall, the Bolling Air Force Base chapel is "my home away from home," a place where colleagues can "see me in a different light."
After 14 years of retirement, Army Col. Ralph Whitt and his wife continue attending religious services on military installations because "we feel more comfortable with people of our background."
Every weekend up to 10,000 metropolitan Washington residents like Strick, Hall and the Whitts pour into military chapels, drawn by the religious services offered by the armed services. According to military chaplains, the number of the area's approximately 300,000 active duty and retired military personnel and their families who attend military chapels regularly is on the rise. Some estimate an increase as high as 20 percent over the last five years.
"I can say this is a service I call mine," said Master Sgt. Samuel Overton, 38, who has been in the military 20 years but began attending services at Andrews Air Force Base two years ago. "People are friendlier here and I really enjoy their the chaplains' sermons."
Chaplains attribute the recent growth to their efforts to make their congregations more like civilian congregations. Many have added parish councils which give worshipers a voice in decision-making. In response to the growing black and Spanish-speaking populations in the military, some installations have added Gospel services and masses in Spanish.
The introduction of such offerings has been a godsend for people like Strick who previously car-pooled to area congregations looking for a "comfortable" church. He finds the 1 p.m. Gospel service at Fort Myer, where he is now a regular, "more open . . . a place where you can say your hallelujahs and amens."
Military congregations are much like those in civilian communities. There are the expected prayers, hymns, sermon, and usually a collection. During the week, people flock to chapels for religious education, choir practice, Bible studies and singles and youth groups.
Yet a certain military flavor prevails. For instance, chaplains are also commissioned officers; services don't take place at 9 a.m. but "zero nine hundred hours." And offerings support religious education, special events and charities only, because expenses like the chaplain's salary and repairs to the leaky roof are paid for by Uncle Sam.
Chapels often have names like Main, Post and Memorial Chapel, or in the case of Andrews Air Force Base, simply chapels One, Two and Three. Some have earned nicknames such as "Fort God" at Andrews or "Old Cav" at Fort Meade, named for the cavalry which used to worship there.
Members of diverse Protestant denominations such as Lutherans and Baptists worship in ecumenical or "general Protestant" services. Roman Catholics, Jews and sometimes Episcopalians have separate services.
To accommodate all faiths, most chapels are equipped with removable religious symbols so that Jewish congregations needn't worship in the midst of Christian symbols or Protestants amid the statues and crucifix common to Catholic worship.
Even counseling takes on a different dimension in the military, chaplains say.
"If I was having a problem getting transferred, I'd go to my commanding officer and if he couldn't help I'd go to a chaplain," said one GI. "He would understand and would know who to go to for help."
"We can get things done for people that civilian clergy can't," agreed Chaplain Leo Stanis, a Navy commander at Andrews. "In counseling, many people come to us for some type of assistance that can be accomplished only by going through the ranks. Chaplains know how to do that.
"Maybe a woman's husband is overseas and she lives on base and her stove breaks. She might call us to find out how to get it fixed, or maybe somebody dies in the family and she doesn't know how to reach her husband . . . . Maybe her check doesn't arrive in time and she can't buy food. We can help her."
Some installations run informal support groups to ease potential family problems such as transiency, according Col. William A. Martin, a chaplain at Fort Myer. "For some there's an uncertainty about not knowing when your husband is going to be gone . . . not knowing what the world situation is that might change our lives very quickly," said Martin.
"For people who need the security of putting down roots, that's very unnerving," said Martin. "Others love the adventure."
Young enlistees away from home for the first time looking to "sow their wild oats" often seek a chaplain's counsel, according to Stanis. "They have some thoughts on how to live and want to test life on their own. We discuss that very openly."
Transiency, as much a part of military life as uniforms, means "congregations are always in a state of flux," said Lt. Col. Theodore J. Wilson, senior Protestant chaplain at Bolling Air Force Base. "You're always rebuilding . . . ."
To help his revolving congregation get to know one another more quickly, Stanis takes photographs of members and posts them on the church bulletin board.
Although his Protestant worship service is filled to overflowing every Sunday, Stanis tries to attract the often elusive young, single enlisted man to worship by issuing a standing challenge to play one-on-one basketball or pool. If Stanis wins (and he usually does), the loser must attend the worship service of his choice for two weeks. If he loses, Stanis, 54, gives the winner a T-shirt.
"The main purpose is to bring young people to know the Lord and have fun doing it," said Stanis. "This is one way to communicate to the young people."
Of course, a substantial number of military personnel and their families belong to area civilian churches and synagogues, and members of some religions like Moslems and Seventh-day Adventists have to go off base to find services.
Sometimes people become so comfortable with the general Protestant services that, like Whitt, they continue attending long after retirement. "We tried civilian churches but didn't feel comfortable," said Whitt, who serves on the parish council.
One-third of Stanis' congregation is retired and up to one-half of those who worship at some services at Fort Myer are retired, according to chaplains. "We speak a different nomenclature and they prefer that," said Stanis.
Many chaplains, like Stanis, view retirees as a stabilizing influence on congregations. "They act as ushers and lay readers, they organize the picnics, they're more solid . . . the others can leave at any time, but they're going to be here tomorrow and that lends an added stability. And, "they're used to it and they like it."
And being a part of the military structure, chaplains find it easier to mingle with their congregations on a daily basis, Wilson said. "We're identified more with the entire community here . . . it's easier for them to see one of us on the street and say, 'Chaplain, I have a problem I'd like to discuss with you.' "
But there's also a painful side, according to Stanis. In civilian life, it is often the family who informs the clergyman of a death or illness but in the military it is usually the other way around.
Whenever Navy personnel from his base are injured or killed, Stanis and an officer must inform the family. Therefore, the sight of a chaplain on the doorstep sometimes triggers fear, he said.
Recently when Stanis and an officer approached the home of a naval pilot who'd been killed, "the minute the wife opened the door and saw us it dawned on her. She started to scream and cry," said Stanis. "She said 'Don't tell me!' We had to open the screen door and let ourselves in so we could go and embrace her and comfort her."
"Sometimes I water with tears," said Stanis. "Yet in order to help the person I can't become so emotionally involved that I'm not helpful."
During the Vietnam war, Stanis said, routine calling on families became such a source of anxiety to some wives that he temporarily stopped the practice.
To chaplain Martin the saddest aspect of military congregations is "You don't have that experience of baptizing babies and then marrying them and later burying their grandparents. Your congregation is constantly changing, so you try to make every sermon you give the best sermon you ever preached, because next Sunday they might not be there. You just hope you made a difference in their lives."