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CLERGY on DUTY : Chaplains Answer the Call on Air, Land, Sea

April 14, 1990|RUSSELL CHANDLER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

When President Bush watched U.S. soldiers performing war games in the Mojave Desert recently, he warned them that despite plans to scale back forces in Europe and Asia, America must remain "prepared to fight."

"God bless you . . . and now, back to war," he told the Ft. Irwin troops as they paused briefly in their simulated battle between the United States and a Red Army brigade.

The President's remarks were reminiscent of another line: "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!" immortalized at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Chaplain Howell M. Forgy shouted the encouragement to a chain of men loading guns aboard the cruiser New Orleans.

The tradition of the U.S. military chaplain walking a fine line, upholding the principles of religion and peace in organizations geared to the rigors of war, dates to the Civil War, when Army chaplains ministered to soldiers on the battlefield.

And it continues today. In the latest U.S. military skirmish in Panama, chaplains from the 7th Infantry Division at Ft. Ord and the 82nd Airborne Division from Ft. Bragg, N.C.--testing their mettle in the throes of battle after a long period of peace--went along with the troops.

"The airborne chaplains parachuted right down with them," said Lt. Col. Dean Ruddle, chaplain recruiter for the 6th Army.

Lt. Col. John Wells, division chaplain for the 7th Infantry, compared the experience to Vietnam and said it was the first time since 1968 that chaplains and chaplains' assistants were deployed as a unit to a combat situation.

"I'm pretty proud of our division," he said of the 16 chaplains under him. "Battalion chaplains were as close to the front lines as possible . . . giving a spiritual presence and a calmness prior to battle."

The need for chaplains will decrease accordingly if U.S. troop strength and military installations are reduced decisively, as proposed by the Defense Department. More than 100 military installations around the world have been proposed for elimination or consolidation because of the relaxing of tensions in Eastern Europe.

But military chaplains are not now an endangered species. In fact, military recruiters predict that a shortage of Roman Catholic chaplains will continue for the foreseeable future. And despite the changing atmosphere, events such as the U.S. invasion of Panama could happen again.

So far, only the Navy has indicated plans to slightly reduce its chaplain corps--from a present 1,138 to 1,116 by 1994. The Navy also supplies the Marines and Coast Guard with chaplains. Spokesmen for the Army and Air Force said it is too early to tell what cuts, if any, the military reductions will mean for their chaplains.

Nearly 12,000 military chaplains and assistants of 162 faiths serve 3.8 million members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, National Guard and reserves and their families, in addition to military veterans. Leaders of these ministers in uniform agree that their work and religious ideals are neither inconsistent nor compromised.

"It's tough to talk about the peace of Jesus while working on an ammunition ship," conceded Rear Adm. Alvin B. Koeneman, Navy chief of chaplains. "But sailors live in that situation. Someone needs to be there to live the contradiction with them and wrestle with it."

Added Maj. Gen. Norris Einertson, Army chief of chaplains: "My parishioners (Army personnel) are contributing to peace in a troubled world. The military's first function is to keep the peace, not make war."

And Lt. Col. Walter H. Quandt, senior chaplain at George Air Force Base near Barstow, said: "No one in the military wants war, but we are asked by our country to be ready."

Readiness for the Army means looking for a few more good men--352, to be exact--to become Roman Catholic chaplains, as well as several more rabbis, both male and female. Despite plans to slightly reduce its overall chaplain corps in four years, the Navy would like 15 more Jewish chaplains and 20 Catholic priests. The Air Force needs 30 more Roman Catholic and two Eastern Orthodox priests.

The military doesn't yet have a Buddhist chaplain, but that is expected soon. Two years ago, the Defense Department for the first time authorized the Buddhist chaplaincy. And when he is commissioned, the Rev. Hiroshi Abiko, who serves the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple in Northern California, will become the first official U.S. military chaplain of his faith.

Because quotas for military chaplains roughly follow the percentages of personnel identifying with each faith group, the Roman Catholic Church, representing from one-fourth to one-third of military personnel, requires the single largest number of chaplains. But, according to Archbishop Joseph T. Ryan, who heads the nation's Archdiocese for the Military Services, the Catholic share of the chaplain corps is only 13%, with a current total of 681 chaplains on active duty.

The shortage of Catholic chaplains is especially acute in the Army, where the ratio of active-duty priests to Catholic personnel is about 1 to 2,500.

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