Chaplains and doctors in the military are both special staff officers to the unit commander. Chaplains are de facto and de jure non-combatants under the Geneva Convention, while doctors can be combatants but their primary responsibilities are to heal, not to kill. As such, chaplains and doctors in the military should work closely together, and often do. Medicine involves all aspects of man, body, soul and spirit, and the religious work of the chaplain does the same. In Iraq I worked very closely with our Task Force chaplain, LTC Alvin Sykes. We shared a tent, along with LTC Alfonso Franqui, our Task Force chemical officer.
The US Army has had chaplains since 29 July 1775 and today there are over 3,000 chaplains in uniform representing over 140 different religious organizations. The role of chaplains in the US military is to meet the spiritual, and the some extent the behavioral health needs, of their soldiers. In a typical Army battalion there are 500-700 soldiers, one chaplain and one chaplain’s assistant. Those two people, called the Unit Ministry Team (UMT), are responsible for religious services, counseling, funerals, and a host of other duties. In Iraq and Afghanistan chaplains worked with local religious leaders to seek common ground to promote peace and prosperity.
Christian chaplains have another mission which is to make disciples for Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20). Sometimes there is tension between these roles, making the job of the chaplain difficult. Non-Christian chaplains also sometimes feel conflict between their personal beliefs and their military duties.
Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been characterized by traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder and behavioral health problems, chaplains have been asked to assist with behavioral health testing and treatment.
Several years ago there was an effort to eliminate chaplains and their physical and spiritual work from the US military. That effort failed. Now that we have seen over 10 years of continuous war and watched chaplains minister to soldiers, marines and other warriors fractured in body and soul by combat, their valiant efforts and vital contributions have again become obvious. The chaplain is an important part of the American military team. Doctors do well to partner with them.