By Alan Feiler, APG NewsFebruary 10, 2014
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - Spc. Billy Jack Pardue likes to tell an amusing anecdote. It's about an evening when he was having dinner with a priest and a rabbi who were sharing a timeworn joke about a priest and a rabbi having dinner.
"That really happened! The priest said, 'When are you going to eat a pork chop?' and the rabbi said, 'At your wedding!'" said Pardue, grinning from ear to ear. "They both knew the same joke and were saying it to each other."
Levity aside, ecumenical and cultural knowledge and respect are hallmarks of Pardue's job. Based at the Main Post Chapel, he is one of three APG Garrison chaplain assistants. There are also four chaplain assistants serving CECOM, RDECOM, the 20th Support Command, ATEC and the 22nd Chemical Battalion.
A native of Checotah, Okla., Pardue, who joined the Army in 2006 and has been a chaplain assistant for six years, does not discuss his own religious views. They are not pertinent to the job, he emphasized.
"You can be anything to do this job," Pardue said. "There are no faith requirements whatsoever. We are everything. You're just here to support all of the faiths. I appreciate anyone's journey, whatever their faith."
Chaplain assistants provide full-time religious and spiritual support to Army installations and units around the world. Nearly 105 years ago, the Army created the position by authorizing selected soldiers to function in such a capacity. "One enlisted man will be detailed on special duty, by the commanding officer of any organization to which a chaplain is assigned for duty, for the purpose of assisting the chaplain in the performance of his official duties," states War Department General No. 253.
That sums up the job, according to Pardue, who serves throughout APG North (Aberdeen) and APG South (Edgewood). He and his colleagues are responsible for any logistical need or directive issued by an Army chaplain. That involves the planning or execution of programming, as well as the setting up of different faith-based activities, services or ceremonies.
In other words, a chaplain assistant may one day find himself or herself setting up for a Catholic mass, the next day running to a supermarket to buy kosher food, and then another day be turning around the cross in the chapel to ensure that it is displayed in a manner conducive to a Protestant service. Maintaining the tithing practices and policies of myriad faiths is also part of the mandate.
In no way, shape or form does being a chaplain assistant mean leading or participating in services, Pardue said. "My main concern is making sure that the chaplain is being the chaplain," he said. "If the chaplain says, 'I want to provide a program,' we make it happen. We've done prayer breakfasts all over, so that means driving over the chairs and checking on fire codes. I've ordered Bibles, Korans, Torahs and literature for other faiths. We maintain buildings and equipment, start programs from scratch and help all kinds of people from a broad spectrum."
More than 300 chaplain assistants serve in the military at 75 installations around the globe. Chaplain assistant training is provided for eight weeks in Fort Jackson, Ga.
In combat situations, chaplain assistants have the added responsibility of ensuring the 24/7 safety of chaplains, who are prohibited from carrying firearms, even in warzones. "The running joke is that it's faith and firepower," Pardue said. "We're the security for the chaplain."
While Pardue has worked with spiritual leaders from all of the normative religious groups, he has also coordinated with some of the less mainstream outfits. "Nordic Pagans, Wiccans -- everything," he said. "If people have a need, we support them, as long as they're not violent or destructive. Criteria has to be met."
On rare occasions, life-and-death situations do crop up in his position, Pardue said. Not long ago, he and a chaplain rushed to a scene on post where a Soldier was deemed a suicide risk. While the chaplain defused the situation with spiritual instruction, Pardue dealt with first responders and handled all of the other physical logistics.
"That's our job," he said. "We always say we?'re here to nurture the living, care for the dying and honor the dead."
Pardue became a chaplain assistant during his first year in the Army, while serving in South Korea. His first chaplain was a rabbi; needless to say, Pardue didn't know a lot of Jews growing up in rural Oklahoma.
"I was shipped to MOS [Military Occupational Specialty] school, and the [Military Entrance Processing Station] showed us a list and said, You can have this or this or this,' and chaplain assistant was on the list," he said. "I've always been interested in theology, of any faith. So I took it."
Even though his military service ends in a little more than four months, Pardue, who plans to remain living near APG, said he has thoroughly enjoyed his work as a chaplain assistant.
"I like the mission, the community outreach and helping people," he said. "You learn a lot, and it's great to see how it all works here. We have chaplains from just about every group, and there are no faith disagreements. I've enjoyed it. It's always something fun and interesting."