You don't know what you don't know about the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps

By Sgt. 1st Class Timothy F. Seppala, Senior Religious Affairs Noncommissioned Officer-in-Charge , 94th Army Air and Missile Defense CommandAugust 17, 2016

You don't know what you don't know about the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps
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JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii - I am choosing to write about some of the lesser-known aspects of the chaplain corps, things that seasoned chaplains and religious affairs specialists (chaplain assistants) are intimately familiar with, but seem to escape the knowledge and experience of the Soldiers we work with on a daily basis.

The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps has a rich history that begins with the Continental Congress giving chaplains official recognition on July 29, 1775, adding chaplains to the ranks a month after the creation of the Army itself and almost a year before the birth of our nation in 1776. Since then chaplains have been involved in every campaign that the U.S. Army has fought. The corps has grown and changed much throughout the years. One of the biggest changes was the introduction of an "official" chaplain assistant on Dec. 28, 1909. However, Soldiers had been helping and assisting chaplains with their many duties and the conduct of worship services before this time. Many of these Soldiers and noncommissioned officers were those with either a musical ability or a certain proclivity for religion. The chaplain corps continued to evolve from those early days into what you see today, with chaplains and chaplain assistants serving at every staff-level from battalion to the Department of the Army.

Now that we got a brief history of the corps out of the way, we can start focusing on some of the lesser-known facts about the chaplain corps. In order to make it a little easier to follow, I'll break it down into things about chaplains, things about chaplain assistants, and things about both.


Chaplains are unique officers within their units, right away in their careers they are assigned to a battalion staff and many times receive the rank of captain either upon entry into active duty or shortly thereafter. The reason for this is the education required for them to serve as chaplains. Every chaplain must have a Master's of Divinity degree and have an ecclesiastical endorsement by a religious group. What this means is that before chaplains are allowed on active duty they must first be educated, trained, and recognized as a religious leader for some type of church or faith group. Different groups have different requirements for endorsing a chaplain, some require a certain amount of experience working in a civilian setting before granting the endorsement. This means that very often the chaplain is the oldest and most educated officer in the battalion, but not necessarily the most experienced in military matters.

Another aspect that sets chaplains apart is that they will never be commanders. They do hold rank and the authority granted by that rank, but they will never have command authority. This goes back to the separation of church and state and is specified in Title X of the U.S. Code. The highest ranking chaplain is a major general, but even wearing two stars does not give him the authority to authorize leave or impose UCMJ. That leads me into another point, the proper title for any chaplain regardless of rank is "chaplain". Not captain, major, colonel, or general, simply chaplain. If written it is reflected as CH followed by the rank in parenthesis. For instance, if the chaplain's rank is colonel, it is written CH (Col.).

The last one that I will touch on in regards to chaplains is their non-combatant status. Most already know that chaplains do not carry weapons, even so, you would be amazed at how many times in my career I have been told "make sure the chaplain is at the range, we don't have a qualification on him". The chaplain's non-combatant status is not just relegated to firing a weapon, chaplains are not allowed to direct combat operations. What that means is that a chaplain is not allowed to order Soldiers to attack an objective or direct defensive operations, even if they are the only remaining commissioned officer.

Chaplain Assistants

Like our officer counterparts, chaplain assistants are also quite misunderstood within the greater enlisted structure. The name itself "chaplain assistant" feeds quite well into the misunderstanding, which is why it is in the process of being changed to Religious Affairs Specialist. I say that the name is in the process of changing because although the name has been updated in AR 165-1 (Army Chaplain Corps Activities), other regulations and doctrine need to be updated before the change can fully take place. For the purpose of this article, I will continue using our ambiguous, but recognizable name of chaplain assistant.

I think the best way for me to explain some of the qualities that make the chaplain assistant unique is to dispel some of the more prevalent myths. First off, we are not the chaplain's body guard. I know that may bruise the ego of some of my more insecure colleagues, but it is true. To be more accurate, we coordinate security for the team, which does include the chaplain assistant, but in most situations is not exclusively the chaplain assistant. Next comes one of my favorite misconceptions - we are the chaplain's secretary or aide. Not true. I can honestly say that in my sixteen years as a chaplain assistant I have never managed the schedule or calendar for a chaplain. It is true that a lot of the time chaplain assistants will draft memorandums, standard operating procedures, and the section's input into military orders, but that does not make the chaplain assistant any more of a secretary than a platoon sergeant is. The last myth that I will mention is that chaplain assistants are "assistant chaplains". This one is simply not true. Sure, some chaplain assistants aspire to become a chaplain, but the truth is that the Soldiers who make up the enlisted portion of the chaplain corps join for a vast variety of reasons and there is no requirement for the chaplain assistant to have any specific religious training or belief.

Since I think I have successfully dispelled some of the myths surrounding the chaplain assistant, it is time to answer the question I have been asked more times, than I can count - "What do you do?" My reply to this question is usually something along the lines of "a little bit of everything, and a whole lot of nothing", a comical but not entirely untrue statement. Chaplain assistants manage every aspect of what makes religious support work in a unit and in a garrison. Chaplain assistants are somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades. We manage equipment and facilities, we account for all the financial intakes and expenditures of a chapel community, and we manage personnel. Chaplain assistants are the only Soldiers who starts their career as a battalion staff section noncommissioned officer in charge (NCOIC). You read that right, the brand new chaplain assistant in your battalion with the rank of private is the bona fide section NCOIC. As we go up in the ranks our responsibilities, as well as our sphere of influence, expand exponentially. At the brigade-level, our primary purpose is the training and management of the battalion unit ministry teams. Notice I did not say just battalion chaplain assistants. However, the primary job of a chaplain assistant is reflected in the new name of religious affairs specialist. You see, religious affairs is a Joint-term that can be fully explained in Joint Publication 1-05. Religious affairs specialists analyze the multiple aspects of religion and their effect on military operations. We do still assist the chaplain with religious support to the unit. I could go on about all the little nuances and responsibilities of a chaplain assistant, but for the sake of the article I think I will leave things here.

The Chaplain Section

The chaplain section is commonly known as the unit ministry team or UMT. This designation is only accurate at the brigade and battalion level, at levels above brigade it is known as the chaplain section. One of the unique things about the chaplain section is the structure. The first assignment on active duty for both chaplains and chaplain assistants is at the battalion level, which places two inexperienced people together and tells them to make it work. Most commissioned officers are paired up with senior NCOs early on in their careers, which allows them to learn and be mentored by an experienced NCO, but that brand new chaplain (captain) has a private as his or her teammate to learn with, and lead.

The chaplain section is a full-fledged staff section that is not subordinate to any other staff section and is responsible for and required to produce their own portion of unit operation orders, tactical and garrison standard operating procedures, and to participate in various meetings and working groups along with the staff. A lot of times this fails to happen for a plethora of reasons. Sometimes the reason is driven by a commander who wants his chaplain to "go see the troops" or an executive officer who does not think that the UMT has anything pertinent to add. It can also be caused by a UMT who is unable to effectively balance their religious advisement and religious support roles. Personally, I think it is because they and their command teams simply do not realize what their true capabilities are.

Hopefully this article has enlightened you somewhat to what exactly chaplains and chaplain assistants do. This article was never meant to be all-inclusive of the duties and responsibilities inherent in our roles within the unit. If nothing else I hope you now have a better understanding of who we are and I encourage you to go ahead and talk to your chaplain section to find out more. As I close this article I want to leave you with one more "did you know", this is one more thing that separates the chaplain corps as a whole from almost all other support branches: the Army Chaplain Corps has a total of eight Medal of Honor recipients. Seven chaplains: John M. Whitehead, Francis B. Hall, James Hill, Milton L. Haney, Emil J. Kapaun, Charles J. Watters, Angelo J. Liteky, and one chaplain assistant: Calvin P. Titus have all earned our nation's highest honor. Not too bad for a "soft skill" corps!

"Pro Deo Et Patria"