Praying for Priests

The Army struggles to find non-Protestant clergy to serve soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brig. Gen. Douglas Carver, the Army's deputy chief of chaplains, tells a story from his Pentagon office about an incident in Iraq. A soldier was mortally wounded by an improvised explosive device, and as four members of his unit were carrying him to a helicopter, the dying soldier started to sing a hymn. "As he got weaker from the loss of blood, finally, he quit. It was just a whisper, and one of the guys [carrying] the stretcher began singing," Carver says. "And before they got to the chopper, all four of the stretcher bearers were humming or singing this song over this soldier."

Such moments illustrate the need for spiritual solace and guidance on the battlefield, Carver says. But with the Army fighting two wars over great distances in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the military is discovering it doesn't have enough priests to provide a calming presence and to listen to all its soldiers. Inevitably, in the Army, all operations boil down to logistics.

For the chaplaincy, that means providing at least one preacher per battalion of 500 to 600 soldiers. While the chaplaincy can meet the need in terms of raw numbers and is well staffed with Protestant clergy, the Army is struggling to meet the demands of Catholics, Jews and Muslims. "We do have some faith groups that are in high demand, and we don't have many of them," Carver says. "It is such a vast area, if you look at Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of the dangers on the road, we have to fly our priests around and cover lots of soldiers."

The problem is most acute for Roman Catholics in the Army. They make up about 25 percent of the force, according to Col. Philip Hill, a Catholic Army priest. But the Catholic share of priests in the chaplaincy is not even 10 percent. The military's shortage of priests mirrors a larger nationwide problem within the Catholic Church. That shortage makes it difficult for the Army to recruit priests, because the service must seek permission from bishops (Protestant ministers can join the Army on their own volition), says Army chaplain Lt. Col. Ran Dolinger.

With the difficulty facing dioceses across the nation, bishops are even more reluctant to give up priests for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hill says.

In addition to a national recruitment effort targeting bishops inside the United States, Army chaplains play a complicated shuffling game in Iraq and Afghanistan to try to match non-Protestant religious leaders with members of their faith. The service has only seven active-duty rabbis and six Muslim imams, Carver says. In sheer numbers, that's enough to serve the Army's population of Jews and Muslims. The problem is that those soldiers are spread over a wide territory.

"If you look at the demographics, we have no shortage in certain areas," Hill says. "But if we look at the geographics, we realize we could use another 50 or 60 rabbis and put them all over the place."

The challenge is greatest during religious holidays. To compensate, the Army flies rabbis and priests to central locations so soldiers can travel from around Iraq and Afghanistan for holiday ceremonies. The Army also has been known to borrow priests from other services. "We triage our spiritual, religious care," Carver says. "We say that we nurture the living, we care for the wounded and we honor the dead."

With that in mind, the Army positions chaplains near medical field units to care for the dying and to be on hand for soldiers who request last rites. Clergy of any denomination carry prayers for all religions, so they can deliver the right prayer in an emergency.

"The wounded and dying, that would be my priority," Carver says. "A chaplain is the last face a soldier might see before they die."

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