1. Archive

From the pulpit to the trenches

The Rev. David Fuller's fellow chaplains in the Florida National Guard used to enjoy his calls. They would talk about summer camp and their families, or trade counseling advice.

But by late December, as the nation edged toward war with Iraq, the phone calls from Fuller turned bittersweet. Fuller is the Guard's state chaplain. It's his job to contact chaplains whose battalions have been pegged to serve, to tell them that they will be deployed. For battalions without assigned chaplains, Fuller chooses someone to go with them.

About half of Florida's National Guard chaplains are already gone. They are not full-time chaplains. Most are church pastors forced to leave their families, as well as hundreds or thousands of congregants, behind: Capts. Tony Clark and Luis Lopez, both from Orlando, Major Ron Leggett from Fort Lauderdale; Lt. Col. Jim Fogle-Miller from Winter Haven.

Only six chaplains remain, Fuller said last week. Chaplains in other military branches are in the same boat. A number of them throughout the state, and the nation, stand on alert for possible deployment.

Fuller, who is also pastor at St. Andrew's United Methodist Church in Brandon, expects he'll be making more calls soon. He has prayed about it, but still the task won't be easy. He knows their spouses, he says, and their kids.

"The first two or three who got the call just thought their buddy David was calling."

Then they heard the seriousness in Fuller's tone.

"You have been, and continue to be, one of the finest, most committed chaplains I know," he'd tell them. "It is because of those skills that you have been called."

Silence on the other end.

"I have a unit that needs a chaplain."

When most Americans hear about deployed troops, they think of the officers and soldiers, the Marines, sailors and pilots who make serving America their full-time jobs. But with many battalions goes a man or woman of the cloth.

The chaplains have to meet similar requirements as lay soldiers. They attend annual training sessions and must pass the same physical fitness tests so they can keep up with troops. In war, they don fatigues, eat in mess halls, live in barracks. They go where the troops go. If a military unit is patrolling a dangerous border, the group's chaplain is there, too. The difference is that chaplains are not allowed to carry weapons. Armed military act as chaplain assistants and escorts. "Their job is to get the chaplain around on the battlefield and to protect them," said Lt. Col. Ryan Yantis, a spokesman for the U.S. Army.

Within the Army, 2,440 chaplains work in full-time active duty or part-time as Army Reserve or Army National Guard chaplains. So far, 283 of them have been deployed to work overseas. Some additional chaplains have been asked to work special jobs within the United States, filling vacancies for those sent away.

Rather than ammunition, those who are deployed pack copies of the Bible, the Torah and the Koran, communion wafers, chalices and ceremonial crosses. Their duties are to counsel, maintain good morale and protect the rights of soldiers to worship as they please. They act as liaisons for Jews ordered to stand guard on the Sabbath or Muslims whose supervisors don't understand their need to pray five times a day.

A chaplain was one of the first soldiers to jump from a plane during "Operation Just Cause," the 1989 invasion of Panama, Yantis said from his office at the Pentagon.

"They go where their congregants are," he said. "They are out there showing the soldiers that they are not alone. It's a ministry of presence. They have to be out there."

Last month, Fuller called the Rev. Jim Fogle-Miller, a National Guard chaplain and co-pastor for St. John's United Methodist Church in Winter Haven. Fuller gave Fogle-Miller a heads-up that he might be needed. A day or so later, Fogle-Miller and his wife, the Rev. Beth Fogle-Miller, came home to a message on their answering machine from a general.

Before they called him back, Mrs. Fogle-Miller said, "I knew."

She listened to her husband's end of the conversation. "They were checking his availability," she said. But the bottom line was that he was needed and he was going.

"It's kind of like your momma asking you to clean up your room," she said. "You may not want to, but you do it."

That was Feb. 2, a Sunday.

The Fogle-Millers called church leaders and, by Monday, St. John's had rallied a slew of volunteers to call St. John's 650 members.

On Tuesday, members put together farewell booklets filled with well wishes and Scripture for Fogle-Miller, another church member who was also deployed that week and a third who had already gone. Fogle-Miller squeezed in one last baptism. And, that night, the congregation ate beef tips and noodles and offered hugs and handshakes during a fellowship sendoff.

On Wednesday, the Fogle-Millers traveled to St. Augustine, where he completed necessary paperwork.

Thursday, he was gone. Final destination: Kuwait. His assignment is said to be at least a year.

From his e-mail messages, the 52-year-old lieutenant colonel seems to be doing fine, Mrs. Fogle-Miller said. He is coordinating 10 other chaplains and counseling soldiers. He stays in "open bay barracks," she says, not quite sure what that means. He eats in a mess hall and there is a Subway, a Hardee's and a KFC nearby _ "long lines, though."

As co-pastors, the Fogle-Millers split their church duties in half. He preached one Sunday; she preached the next. He oversaw the trustees; she handled half the counseling. The same was true at home. He made breakfast _ usually oatmeal or French toast _ she handled dinner. They made sure at least one of them was home at night with their daughter, Carlene, who will be 12 next month.

Now, Beth Fogle-Miller is doing all the preaching. She teaches the Wednesday night Bible study her husband used to handle. In the past 1{ months, she has had to delegate some of her husband's responsibilities to church leaders, so she can be home with Carlene. During the announcement portion of Sunday service, she tells members about his e-mail messages and reassures them that he's okay.

But it's a huge adjustment. "All of a sudden," she said, "I'm a single parent and I'm the sole pastor."

And breakfast?

She can't do her husband's French toast, so she settles for a quick egg sandwich.

"Actually, I've lost four or five pounds."

Other chaplains in the area are preparing for the experience, which means letting church members know they may be in for a long pastorless haul.

The Rev. James B. Johnson, 49, is a lieutenant colonel with the Air Force Reserve and the pastor at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Inverness. He has told his 3,000-member congregation he may be leaving. "We're praying for peace," he said.

The Rev. Thomas Weitzel, director of communications for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, recently asked churches and clergy for the names of Lutherans who have been deployed. He received dozens of e-mail messages with multiple names on them, including a couple of clergy. Last week, he said the names would become a prayer list to be posted on the ELCA's Web site so Lutherans would remember them on bended knee.

The Rev. Christopher Thompson wrote a letter to his parishioners at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg. Lt. Col. Thompson, with the Air Force Reserve, got a call several months ago when the military began sending chaplains overseas. He oversees a congregation of 1,000 members and was asked if he was in an ideal position to leave. Thompson said he wasn't, and that settled it. The next call, Thompson said, may not be voluntary.

Of the nation's 279 Air Force Reserve chaplains, fewer than a dozen have been activated. "However, if a war plan is activated, we would see a significant increase in the number of chaplains and chaplain assistants activated and mobilized," said Col. Richard A. Johnson, who handles Reserve chaplains from the personnel center in Denver.

Chaplains could be stationed overseas or given domestic assignments.

From Thompson's note in his church newsletter:

Please in your hearts and minds pray for peace. I do understand that if called I will serve because I knew that over 21 years ago when I raised my right hand and solemnly swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, and if necessary I will do that.

One of the fears for me is of course my family and leaving my friends here at St. Thomas'. As of right now the young men and women that are being called to active duty realize that they are being called to active duty for no less than one year with the possibility of two. I do have, in my letter of agreement with the church, a plan of action if I would be called to active duty.

Thompson and his wife, Mary Jo, have three adult children and live in a house owned by the church. When he became pastor at St. Thomas' nearly seven years ago, Thompson and church leaders discussed what might happen if he were ever deployed: The military will pay his salary. He is guaranteed his position as rector, claim to the rectory and health insurance paid by the church for up to six months. After that, senior warden Russell Ball and Bishop John Lipscomb of the Diocese of Southwest Florida could opt to replace him.

Thompson said it might be in the church's best interests to find another pastor at some point. But both Ball and Lipscomb _ himself a retired National Guard chaplain who served domestically for six months during Desert Storm _ said that won't happen.

"We wouldn't replace him," said Lipscomb, who considers Thompson a personal friend. "I would hope that we would do everything possible to sustain his current situation . . . I have a very strong sense that the church has a responsibility to support our chaplains and to support our people in uniform during this time of crisis."

The war with Iraq puts chaplains in an interesting position. Their religious denominations support the work they do. But unlike their reactions to any war in recent history, the religious community has staunchly denounced pre-emptive strikes against Iraq without support from the United Nations Security Council. The Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist Church, to which President Bush belongs, have all spoken formally and boldly against this war.

And the issue has not escaped chaplains.

Johnson says his duties as a chaplain are the same as his duties as a pastor _ to support people. Whether or not the nation should go to war is a political decision that the actual soldiers he would serve had no say in.

"I look at it as, I'm supporting them," Johnson said. "It's very difficult for them and they need that spiritual care. The decision about war and all that was made by others."

Is this war justified? "Being a good Episcopalian, I'd say there are people on both sides," Thompson said. "I'm really torn. There's a part of me that says, "Yes, absolutely, evil has to be stopped.' Another part of me says, "Give peace a chance'."

Thompson comes from military roots. His grandfather served in World War I, his uncle in World War II, his dad in Korea. He always felt the urge to follow in their footsteps, but knew his first calling was to the ministry. Then, one day a friend asked if Thompson might like being a chaplain.

It was the best of both worlds. Thompson could minister for the Lord, while serving his country.

Today, Thompson says, he is uncertain about what is to come. He doesn't want to leave his wife, children or his parish. He doesn't want innocent people to die. But he believes God willed him to be a military chaplain. As a member of the Air Force, one of his earthly bosses is the president of the United States.

"I will follow where my president leads me," Thompson said. "If I had the inability to follow my president, I'd have to resign my post as an officer."

If the phone rings and he is deployed, Thompson said, his first call will be to his wife, his second call will be to the bishop and the third to St. Thomas' senior warden.