Family life chaplains bridge the gap
October 6, 2009
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany - A famous quote, from English poet John Donne, says, "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of a continent, a part of a main."
Similarly, no Soldier comes to the Army without a host of past experiences and some version of a family or network of friendships.
The sacrifices made in order to complete the mission are shared. As a military involved in a prolonged conflict, the biggest challenge the Army faces is developing the resiliency of their Soldiers and loved ones.
"It is very evident that relationships are under an immense amount of stress," said Chaplain (Maj.) Darin Nielsen, 1st Armored Division family life chaplain.
A division family life chaplain focuses on training battalion and brigade unit ministry teams on how to widen the unit's scope to minister and help Soldiers and their families.
Nielsen has been an active Army chaplain for more than 14 years and has a master's degree in marriage and family counseling. Later this winter, 1st AD will deploy to Iraq for the third time, it will be the first time the division will have a family life chaplain in theater.
"Military life is stressful," said Nielsen. "Obviously, with a war going on and people being separated for long periods of time, many of whom go through traumatic events, we really need our counseling skills now more than ever."
The Army recognized the importance of counseling skills in the chaplaincy and selected chaplains with eight years of active duty service to enter a master's degree program that focuses specifically on counseling.
"Sixty percent of our job is counseling," said Nielsen. "It's not just teaching and preaching but considering the whole person, and that means not just the spiritual."
While deployed, some of Nielsen's responsibilities will be to provide training specific to issues that face Soldiers and their families and to train other chaplains. During his time in garrison, he oversees the funding and running of the Strong Bonds retreat program.
The program is designed to help build positive relationship skills and connect participants to community health and support resources.
"Many couples have been apart longer than they have been together," said Nielsen. "I talked to a first sergeant the other day, and he said that after each deployment it gets harder to come back together. I feel that is very telling."
Whether deployed or in garrison, the chaplaincy remains a Soldier asset that is sometimes underutilized.
There are still Soldiers who think the chaplain only mentors on religious matters, said Sgt. Michael Lee, a 1st AD chaplain assistant.
"We are about meeting the Soldier's needs. Getting to the core," Lee said.
Lee works directly with Nielsen to achieve the family life mission and will provide security for the chaplain while deployed. This will be the first deployment for Lee, who said his biggest goal is to bring peace and stability to the Soldiers.
"Soldier-to-Soldier, I will tell them that it's important to stay the course and that when times get hard there is a safe place for them to come," Lee said.
In the end, the success of the Army relies on a network of support systems to keep Soldiers mission-capable.
"The more we work on the full person, the better off we are going to be in this war," said Nielsen. "And it's a marathon; we really have to take care of ourselves and each other."