Only the hoofs of horses clopping across pavement could be heard as the Old Guard of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment pulled a black caisson carrying a flag-draped casket into Arlington National Cemetery.
In a somber ceremony that is repeated as many as 30 times daily, a retired Navy captain was the latest arrival at the garden of stone. Presiding are Army, Navy and Air Force chaplains who perform a service both wrenching and rewarding.
“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.
Croom, one of those being honored by his colleagues, is on his way to the Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg, NC., where he will minister to the Green Berets. A veteran of more than 100 jumps out of planes, he jokes about pastoring men known for “kicking in doors” while he carries a Bible instead of a weapon.
“To live out my faith is the ultimate,” said Croom, a Southern Baptist. “To be around other soldiers, with all my mistakes and bumps and bruises. It doesn’t get any better.”
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.