Chief of Chaplains
Maj . Gen. Donald P. Rutherford takes the oath as chief of Army chaplains July 22, 2011.

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 28, 2011) -- The Army Chaplain Corps is marking its 236th anniversary July 29 with a new chief, peak numbers and unprecedented diversity.

Maj. Gen. Donald P. Rutherford became chief of chaplains last week, taking the helm of more than 2,900 chaplains from 130 different faith groups -- including about 1,200 chaplains in the Army Reserve and National Guard.

Recently, the Army signed the Chaplain Corps' first Hindu chaplain and now has two Buddhist chaplains. Since 2001, six Muslim chaplains have joined the force. There are also six Orthodox chaplains and 10 Jewish chaplains on active duty. In addition, 66 female chaplains minister to Soldiers, as well as 147 African-American chaplains.

"As our country and our Army has become more diverse, so has the Chaplain Corps," said Chaplain Lt. Col. Carleton Birch, strategic communications director for the chief of chaplains.

Since the start of the War on Terror, Birch said, the Chaplain Corps has grown significantly in force structure.

"After 9/11, leadership from all over the Army realized the importance that chaplains play," Birch said.

Units which never had chaplains before realized the importance of the ministry and commanders requested chaplains before deploying, he explained.

The Chaplain Corps has also seen an influx of recruits since the war on terror began, and Birch said there has specifically been an increase in prior-service chaplain candidates.

"Many get serious about their faith while they're on active duty," Birch said. They return from a deployment, he explained, with a call to the ministry.

Six years ago, the Reserve Components of the Army were short 600 chaplains, Birch said. That gap has since closed by half, and he said the Chaplain Corps is on track to be full-up by 2014.

There's still a significant shortage of Catholic chaplains, though, Birch admitted. There are only 99 Catholic chaplains on active duty, and many of these are retiree recalls or nearing retirement. While about 20 percent of Soldiers are Catholic, less than six percent of chaplains are. Birch said the shortage corresponds to a dearth of priests worldwide.

The new chief of Army chaplains, a Catholic priest himself, is determined to convince Catholic bishops that allowing priests to serve Soldiers for a period of time will return them to parishes with a wealth of soul-building training and experiences they wouldn't get at the local level.

This is not the first time in the history of the Chaplain Corps that it has been short Catholic priests. During the Civil War, 150 years ago, there was a shortage of Catholic priests to minister to the many Irish-American Soldiers in the Union Army. In 1862, there were only 22 priests out of 472 military chaplains.

While some challenges remain constant, Birch said, all chaplains continue to minister to and counsel Soldiers as they have done since the Revolutionary War.

"For 236 years, the Chaplain Corps has steadfastly supported Soldiers and Families during peace and in war, answering a second call -- that of service to the nation," said Secretary of the Army John McHugh in a statement for the Chaplaincy birthday.

The Chaplain Corps was born with Gen. George Washington's general order stating: "The honorable Continental Congress, having been pleased to allow a chaplain to each regiment, with the pay of thirty-three dollars and one third per month -- the colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure chaplains accordingly."

Chaplains ministered to the troops even before that, however. The grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson -- the Rev. William Emerson -- became the first recognized chaplain of the American Army as he ministered to Soldiers on the battlefield of Lexington and Concord, Mass., April 19, 1775.

Today, chaplains are ministering to Soldiers in combat zones from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond.

"Every unit authorized a chaplain will go downrange with a chaplain," Birch said, adding that's been the policy of the Chaplain Corps since 9/11.

"The stress of 10 years of combat ensures that chaplains will have a lot of work in years to come," Birch said.

The war on terror has also seen a surge on the home front of chaplains ministering to married couples to help them cope with the effects of multiple deployments. The "Strong Bonds" program has pre-deployment relationship training and post-deployment weekend sessions for couples. It now also has programs for singles and offers some weekend training sessions for entire families.

This year Birch said commanders will conduct more than 5,000 events as part of the Strong Bonds program.

"Through initiatives such as Strong Bonds, the Chaplain Corps has directly and positively impacted the resilience of our Families," McHugh said. "Throughout their history, chaplains have served alongside combat Soldiers, enduring hardships and bearing burdens, but remaining Army Strong for those they serve."

Page last updated Thu July 28th, 2011 at 00:00