Daniel Middlebrooks spent years counseling distraught and stressed-out soldiers, so the retired Army chaplain knows a thing or two about emotional issues.
Now after 20 years of hopping from one Army base to another, Middlebrooks is swapping his camouflage and combat boots for street clothes and hoping to settle into a second career as a civilian chaplain.
The retired major returned to his hometown two months ago. He's aiming to apply his skills to the civilian world where relationship and financial troubles are more the norm.
While the differences might seem vast, Middlebrooks says that many stresses evident in the Army play out in civilian life, including relationships.
"There's a parallel not necessarily between the environments that cause stress, but in the stress itself and people's internal coping mechanism to deal with stress," he says.
"My desire to take those 20-plus years of military principles, and those principles as a chaplain, and impress them upon the corporate world," he continued. "If they can help to win wars, believe me they can help our companies and employees win their daily battles."
Along with a cellphone number, his business card reads, "Chaplain of Plant City, FL."
So far, Middlebrooks has offered his services to TECO, Brandon Regional Hospital and Plant City Fire Rescue, among others.
Brandon Regional Hospital politely declined, saying it already operates a chaplaincy program for patients and hospital staff. TECO said it hasn't yet considered Middlebrooks' offer. Plant City Fire Rescue was the most receptive.
"He definitely has a great demeanor for the job and understands people and understands their needs," assistant fire Chief Eugene Shuler said. "I felt a spirit about him that he'd be right for the job."
While no decision has been made, the department is moving toward appointing Middlebrooks to the post, which would be voluntary like that of Plant City's police chaplain.
From there, Middlebrooks is hoping to branch out to corporations and hospitals. He also works part-time at Hopewell Baptist Church, filling in on Sundays until the Plant City church can find a permanent pastor.
"Usually the word chaplain scares people, but a lot of corporations have chaplains. Tyson Chicken and Coca-Cola have corporate chaplains," he said. "It's not about religion as much as it's about a relationships and building and strengthening relationships."
Chaplains are common at police and fire departments. Both Tampa and Hillsborough Fire Rescue have chaplaincy programs.
Unlike ministers who proselytize, chaplains focus more on listening and lending support regardless of religious affiliation. If necessary, they can make referrals to psychologists and other experts.
Some chaplains ride with police and firefighters to know them better and provide on-the-job counseling. They can even be called to perform weddings and baptisms.
"The bottom line is we provide spiritual encouragement and support to the officers and support staff of the department," Jeff Howell, the city's police chaplain, said.
Middlebrooks, 46, who has the close-cropped hair and bearing of a military officer, says his move to become a chaplain, like his retirement from the Army, stemmed from a religious calling.
"My calling is not necessarily to be a pastor of a church but to be a chaplain to a community," he said.
The son of a Baptist deacon, Middlebrooks was infused with religion early on. He joined the Army to become a physical therapist but after a year felt the calling to help soldiers in their emotional and spiritual struggles.
He attended the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and became a National Guard chaplain in 1995. Two years later, he returned to active duty in the Army and served at numerous bases, including in Iraq. It was during a deployment at Ibn Sina Hospital in Baghdad in 2009 when he learned about bridging differences through common bonds.
While stationed there he got word his older brother, Michael, died of a heart attack. He attended the funeral, returned to the hospital, and a few days later got a call that an Iraqi policeman wounded in car bombing was being brought in.
As Middlebrooks entered the ICU, he met the man's brother. A translator told the man his brother was going to die.
"This man had a brother that was dying and I had a brother who had died," he said. "Though we could not speak the same language we could shed the same tears. We stood there and I cried with him as his brother died. That was when I finally gave myself permission to cry for my own brother.
"Common ground is so important," he said. "When you find common ground, you can find that people aren't much different."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.