'We are right in the trenches with our Soldiers'
October 11, 2012
There's a reason why Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Leon Kircher wears the combat action badge, airborne and air assault pins on his uniform. And it has more to do with his Soldiers than with his own accomplishments.
Kircher wants Soldiers to know -- with one glimpse at those pins -- that this chaplain walks in the same boots worn by Soldiers.
Kircher firmly believes it's difficult for a minister to connect with their parishioners if they haven't been through similar life experiences. So, too, does he believe it is difficult for an Army chaplain to relate to the trials, fears and challenges that Soldiers face if they haven't faced those same types of experiences.
"Chaplains go where Soldiers go," he said. "We are right there in the trenches with our Soldiers."
So, all during his Army chaplain career, Kircher has taken the same risks of the Soldiers he ministers to. When Soldiers were jumping out of airplanes, he wanted to jump, too. When they were facing enemy fire, he wanted to be there with them. When they took up arms, he wanted to be close enough to understand what it was like to fight in theater.
"You have to know what the Soldiers are going through if you are going to minister to them. You have to be able to identify with your Soldiers, and you do that by sharing their experience. Shared experiences matter to the Soldier. Those experiences draw them together, bind them together. And, as their chaplain, you can use those experiences to bind yourself to them and to earn their respect," Kircher, the chaplain for the Aviation and Missile Command, said.
He shared that philosophy as the training execution director for the Army's Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, S.C. During three years in that position, he ensured that instructors and students had the supplies and resources for the day-to-day operations of the school's training events.
"We simulated a lot of the stressful kinds of situations that chaplains find themselves in," Kircher said. "You can never be fully prepared for a dangerous situation until it happens. But preparing for it with simulated training let's you know what you are made of. That training can test your mettle."
As part of the chaplain training program, Soldiers learned how to conduct military religious ceremonies, including funerals; lived through nighttime simulations of improvised explosive devices attacks and gas attacks; discussed experiences with family members who have lost loved ones; and experienced being on an Army aircraft as the chaplain charged with bringing the bodies of fallen Soldiers home to their loved ones.
"We brought as much realism into the classroom as we could to show chaplains what is happening now with our Soldiers," Kircher said.
About 12,500 chaplain candidates who went through the chaplain's career course while Kircher was assigned there. Training was also provided for chaplain's assistants, senior chaplains and Reserve chaplains. Kircher received an Army Meritorious Service Medal for his work at the school, which was presented to him recently by AMCOM commander Maj. Gen. Lynn Collyar at an AMCOM town hall.
"It's a very high visibility job," Kircher said of his work at the chaplain's school. "You are definitely under the microscope. Some of those in training are just off the streets as civilians.
Some are prior military. They represent over 150 denominations that the Army recognizes, including the Jewish faith, Muslim faith and Buddhism. As a school representative, you have to ensure that you don't step on any of the faiths represented in the classroom.
"When they came to us, we trained them to be Soldiers first and then to be chaplains. It was basic training for chaplains. And it never stopped. One class would graduate and another would start."
In his 40 years of military service, Kircher has done a lot of counseling and preaching. Twenty-seven of those years have been on active duty with the other 13 years with the Pennsylvania National Guard's 28th Infantry Division, known as the Bloody Bucket Division for the deaths sustained by the division during the World War II's Battle of the Bulge.
Kircher, native of Scranton, Pa., first joined the Army in 1973, enlisting in a military police battalion at Fort Meade, Md. He was assigned to West Berlin, Ga., where he helped to guard one of the gates -- the infamous Checkpoint Charlie -- going into East Berlin.
"Soldiers wanted to go into East Berlin just for the experience of being in East Berlin," Kircher said. "They had to wear Class A uniforms. Our job was to keep Soldiers out of trouble. We were making sure they didn't do anything crazy in East Berlin. Soldiers would trade for stuff with the East German Army and the Russians."
While in Berlin, Kircher felt a strong calling to the ministry, a calling that he'd heard faintly all his life.
"I just wanted to be a pastor," he said. "My mom took all six of us kids to church every Sunday no matter what when I was growing up. I just wanted to be part of the faith."
He left the regular Army for the National Guard so that he could attend college and then seminary at Drew University in New Jersey. He was ordained as a Methodist minister, and served in two Pennsylvania churches and as a Guard chaplain's assistant from 1976-89. In 1982, he became a chaplain candidate in the Guard.
"As a minister, I loved the interaction with people, and I really liked preaching. I had a good time preaching," he said. "As a military chaplain, I liked being responsible for a church filled with every denomination in the world."
In 1989, he returned to the active Army, and was assigned to oversee the work of 89 chaplains at Fort Bliss, Texas, who were serving Soldiers in the 3rd Battalion, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment (Patriot Missile).
"Nine months later we were in Desert Storm. We were deployed full scale with divisions fighting the war," Kircher said. "At Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), we shot 66 Patriots and became known as the Scud Buster Battalion.
"When it started, we thought Scuds were landing in our compound. But the explosions were the Patriots taking off. Nobody had been that close to them when they were fired. We had always been a mile away. Now, we were right there less than a football field away, and there were very large explosions when the Patriots were fired and pieces of Scuds flying all over the place. We hit every single Scud fired at us."
Some of those hits made contact just with the Scud warhead, with the Scud rocket itself falling to the ground.
"After a night of explosions and pieces of medal falling down on us, we'd come out of our bunkers the next day and find Scud parts. Some were completely intact with just the warhead gone," Kircher said.
"That first night of the attacks, we were diving into our bunkers with our chemical suits on. I looked up in the sky and I could see as clear as day, and it looked like falling stars. Those were the Scud missiles."
Serving Soldiers in theater is much different that providing them with services at peacetime, he said. In war, everyone is busy and focused on the mission, and the chaplain is consumed with supporting the commander's mission, providing comfort to those suffering and dealing with the unit's losses. In peacetime, the chaplain is also supporting the commander's mission, but a lot of time is spent in counseling Soldiers through rocky marriages, family problems or other personal issues.
After Desert Storm, Kircher deployed two more times to Saudi Arabia with the Patriot unit, and then he was assigned to Fort Clayton, Panama. But though the assignment did give him a reprieve from war that allowed him some down time with his wife and two daughters, Kircher also made it a priority to attend airborne school at Fort Benning, Ga.
"I got my airborne wings on my 40th birthday. I was older than anybody else there," he said. "I've done more than 100 jumps. It's very dangerous. Every jump could be your last jump. I made most of my jumps in my 40s."
In 1999, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division (air assault), "Screaming Eagles," as the 2nd Brigade chaplain. Again, to be closer to his Soldiers, Kircher attended air assault school at age 43.
"I was in an air assault unit so I wanted to be air assault," he said. "It mattered if I was going to be part of the band of brothers. We had shared experiences, shared dangers."
He then was promoted to be the division's deputy chaplain, and was deployed at the age of 47 with the division and its leader -- Gen. David Petraeus -- to Iraq. A few months later, in 2003, he was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade, "Sky Soldiers." The brigade made the Army's last official combat jump into northern Iraq, opening a northern front in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Kircher also served as the chaplain of the Fort Benning infantry training brigade before his assignment at the chaplain's school. While at Fort Benning, Kircher supervised chaplains who served 65,000 Soldiers in five battalions.
"A chaplain serves everybody in their unit, regardless of their faith," he said. "As a chaplain, I'm responsible for the Soldier's spiritual welfare, no matter what that welfare looks like."
Through the years, he has served at close to 1,000 Soldier funerals. He has dealt with the hardships of a Soldier's life and with his own issues related to post traumatic stress disorder. He has counseled Soldiers and their families through tragic times, celebrated with Soldiers and their families during the good times, and hoped that he has made a difference to the Soldiers who have looked to him for assurance and peace.
"A good chaplain is a firm believer in their faith," he said. "He has a solid faith and knows what he believes. He stands up for what's right and he's a good Soldier. A chaplain has to keep the right balance between being a Soldier and being a chaplain.
"Chaplains have direct access to the commander. They have to be able to tell the commander when something is wrong, even if the commander doesn't want to hear it. I've been chased out of many commanders' offices because they didn't like what I said."
At AMCOM, Kircher's main focus is providing instruction in suicide prevention awareness. He also counsels both Soldiers and civilians, and supports the commander's initiatives.
"I want to give Soldiers and civilians hope and encouragement," said Kircher, who will retire in 2013. "I'm glad I chose to be an Army chaplain and to lead other Army chaplains in their ministry. I've enjoyed training men and women of faith on how to be a Soldier at the same time. As a chaplain, you've got to learn your job as a Soldier and you've got to remain strong in your faith."
Kircher said chaplains are drawn to the Army for the same reasons of other Soldiers.
"It's about being part of history. It's a sense of duty," he said.
"And chaplains have to have the same kind of strength of any Soldier. It's that inner strength that gets you through tough times. It's something outside of ourselves and something deeper inside ourselves that makes Soldiers continue in their service despite the troubles along the way."