HEIDELBERG, Germany — Even though they have been doing their jobs for 100 years, many people don’t really know what Army chaplain assistants do.
“Many people think that a chaplain assistant just types up the Sunday bulletin and opens the chapel for services. Or some may think that chaplain assistants are like lay ministers,” said Sgt. Maj. Pamela Neal, senior chaplain assistant for U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army. “A chaplain assistant job is so much more than that of a mere secretary. And a chaplain assistant job isn’t about religion as much as people may think.”
The official Military Occupation Specialty of chaplain assistant was established by War Department General Orders No. 253 on Dec. 28, 1909, which read in part: “One enlisted man will be detailed on special duty, by the commanding officer of any organization to which a chaplain is assigned for duty, for the purpose of assisting the chaplain in the performance of his official duties.”
Although high moral character was required, there were no other prerequisites or religious preferences specified. The MOS continued to evolve as a unique occupational specialty. In 1974, the Army began bringing chaplain assistants and chaplains together to form Unit Ministry Teams, which are embedded at the battalion level throughout all branches of the active and Reserve components.
Today’s chaplain assistants provide a wide array of support services.
“One part of our job is that we take care of all the logistics and details so that the chaplain can do what he does best – fulfilling the religious needs of the commander and community,” said Sgt. Bob Hazel, NCO in charge for the USAREUR and Seventh Army Chaplains Office.
Then, there’s also interaction with Soldiers. Helping to assess a unit’s needs is considered a vital and continual part of the chaplain assistant’s job. To do that they must be active participants in the unit’s training and events.
“Chaplain assistants don’t just sit in the office all day. They have to integrate into the unit, interacting with the Soldiers so they can effectively assess the unit climate, providing critical feedback to the chaplain and senior enlisted leadership,” Sergeant Major Neal said. “Chaplain assistants are out there running ranges, leading (physical training), working in the motor pool – they are out there, wherever their Soldiers are, doing what their Soldiers do.”
Getting out among the Soldiers is a major plus for Staff Sgt. Dennis Volz, chaplain assistant NCO in charge with the recently reflagged 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Heavy) in Baumholder, Germany.
“With all the deployments and such, Soldiers undergo so much stress and anxiety. I’m someone they can relate to, having experienced the same things they have. So often an enlisted Soldier will have a problem but won’t feel comfortable talking to an officer, yet will confide in me,” Sergeant Volz said.
Sergeant Volz recalled an incident during that deployment when a young Soldier came into the unit’s chapel late one night.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to help someone who otherwise might have just struggled with the problem by himself,” he said. “He was in obvious physical pain, needing treatment, but I could tell there was something else wrong. He confided in me that he was really worried because he was unable to reach his wife. Having gone through that same thing, I was able to put him in touch with the right people who were able to help him to ultimately get in touch with his family.”
As the backbone and “eyes and ears” of the UMT, the chaplain assistant has one more function that’s critical to the team’s success – ensuring the safety of the chaplain during military operations. Army chaplains are noncombatants who do not carry or use weapons, so the chaplain assistant provides security for the UMT in tactical situations.
“Chaplains often have to go into hostile areas, so it’s absolutely critical that chaplain assistants master their warrior tasks and drills and maximize their combative training to effectively coordinate security for the unit ministry team so the mission is accomplished,” Sergeant Major Neal said.
Chaplain assistants have been proving their skills in combat even longer than the Army has had an official job title for them. Chaplain assistant Calvin Titus earned the Medal of Honor in 1902 during the Boxer Rebellion in China.
Cpl. Greene Strother, a chaplain assistant with the 11th Infantry Regiment, earned the Distinguished Service Cross for capturing 14 prisoners and their machine guns in Vieville, France, in 1918. Chaplain assistant Al Tribuani was just starting a career as a professional boxer when his National Guard unit got orders to fight with Patton’s 90th Infantry Division in Europe, where he earned the Bronze Star for valor during the Battle of the Bulge. And eight chaplain assistants gave their lives during the Vietnam War.
More than 400 chaplain assistants are currently deployed to military operations around the world. Because there will always be a need to tend to the religious needs of Soldiers and to provide a wide range of religious services, and because demands for those services increase during times of conflict, their numbers Army-wide are expected to grow.
“Chaplain assistants will always be in demand to ensure the success of the chaplain and the unit ministry team and to provide religious support and other vital services to the command and the Soldiers,” Sergeant Major Neal said.
Pfc. Charnell Lowther, a chaplain assistant with the 24th Military Intelligence Battalion in Wiesbaden, Germany, fresh out of her initial training at the Army’s Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, S.C., said she “absolutely loves” the job.
“I did do my research before I joined (the Army) and decided that being a chaplain assistant would allow me to develop lots of job skills, and at the same time, be able to help people,” Private Lowther said.
And Sergeant Volz agreed, adding that he chose to be a chaplain assistant as a way for him to serve his faith and his country.
“My recruiter had no idea about what a chaplain assistant did,” he said, laughing. “But he did put me in touch with actual chaplain assistants so I could find out.”
But being a chaplain assistant isn’t for everyone. Because of the field they serve and the high visibility of their positions, they are expected to lead by example.
“Even though religious background or preferences have no bearing on being a chaplain assistant,” Sergeant Major Neal said, “chaplain assistants do need to have strong moral standards and ethics. They are held to a higher standard.”