FORT BUCHANAN, Puerto Rico -- Army Reserve unit ministry teams from the 1st Mission Support Command (MSC) and subordinate units gathered for their annual Unit Ministry Team (UMT) training at Fort Buchanan, P.R. February 7-9.
"The purpose of this UMT training is to bring together all of our 1st MSC ministry teams and allow them to develop communications among the members of different UMTs," said Col. Edward Grice, 1st MSC Command Chaplain. "This also allows them to enhance their training so that they can be more efficient working with their commander and talking to Soldiers and their family members."
The 1st MSC UMTs have traveled in the past for this annual training but kept it local over the last few years. As part of this three-day training event, they received an in-depth look into what the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains is focusing on: deepening the identity of Chaplains and Chaplain Assistants.
"We have to establish our identity as the Chaplain Corps, and how we lead such a multi-cultural and diverse group like the Army is a challenge," said Col. Steven Cruys, Deputy Command Chaplain, U.S. Army Reserve Command (USARC).
"That is why the Chief of Chaplains has made it our number one priority for both chaplains and chaplain assistants," he continued. "We have to be able to define who we are and why we do what we do, because those both feed into how we can best serve our Soldiers and their families in the Army Reserve."
It may be easier to define and deepen the identity of Chaplains because they have a pastoral side. This is not the case for Chaplain Assistants.
"When we talk about their [Chaplain Assistants] identity, we are going to continue to develop what it means to feed their identity," said Cruys.
"This is a work in progress and there is a struggle to identify who we are, and the bigger challenge is finding out how we put this into practice. I think a lot of us who have been doing this for a long time may have a strong identity, but we also have to recognize that people change, time changes, and culture changes. If we don't change, we can become irrelevant and then we are not helpful to the people that we are trying to serve: Soldiers and their families.
"Part of our jobs as chaplains is to teach our command team what services we can provide and what our role is. Our
identity is critical for everything we do."
Cruys recognizes a need for Chaplain Assistants to continue evolving as senior leaders. Because of this, they will soon undergo a title change from Chaplain Assistant to Religious Affairs Specialist. Cruys commented that the change was necessary to get in line with the joint environment.
"This new title gets us in line with the joint force where we serve more and more, but I think it also directly ties in with identity evolution," he said.
Many Army Reserve chaplains do not serve in a church outside of their scheduled Battle Assemblies. This is part of the challenge when trying to deepen the identity of chaplains as they are not able to get their pastoral formation outside of the Army Reserve.
1st Lt. Farlin Reynoso, 35th Signal Battalion Chaplain, spoke about his experience while working with chaplains at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
"I could see the difference between Chaplains that had a pastoral background and those that did not," said Reynoso. "It was evident when the pastoral side was not developed. It takes years for the pastoral experience to show through, and in our case, we need to be connected to keep developing and strengthen our identity as pastors."
When asked what Chaplains could do to increase or deepen their identity, Pvt. 1st Class Melanie Collazo, Chaplain Assistant for 393rd Combat Support Sustainment Battalion, mentioned that they need to focus on getting to know the lower enlisted Soldiers more.
"During Battle Assembly, I speak with Soldiers and they tell me they are not comfortable talking with the Chaplain," said Collazo. "I think if Chaplains spent more time getting to know the Soldiers it would make it easier for them to seek help and talk to them because they don't always know what we do."
Deepening the identity of Chaplain Assistants is also needed, according to Collazo.
"I've had Soldiers ask me what it is that I do because they just don't know," she said. "Sometimes they think we are only around to give out candy."
One way to deepen identity is to intentionally plan ministry regularly.
"Chaplains were trained that they need to come up with a plan of what their Chaplain Assistant needs to do during BA weekend," said Maj. Mark East, Deputy Command Chaplain for the 1st MSC. "When someone comes up to you and asks what you are doing, you can pull out your list and say, 'this is what my chaplain told me to do.'"
East emphasized that the unit commander owns the Religious Support Plan for his or her unit, and therefore must approve it.
Chaplain assistants are exempt from additional duties because their duties include additional duties that have them working nights, weekends and holidays.
"This doesn't mean that when there are down time and unit is doing something like post beautification, you sit back and say you don't have to participate," said Master Sgt. Jimmy Silva, Master Chaplain Assistant Noncommissioned Officer at USARC. "This is how you develop that relationship with Soldiers. This is the perfect place to minister and build that relationship with your Soldiers."
Cruys shared a story of when he was deployed and his chaplain assistant was asked to help clean port-a-johns by his company First Sergeant. Cruys asked his assistant if he had the time to help and if he did, then he should.
"As an NCO if you have time to do it, then you should," said Cruys. "It shows that you are a team player and one day you are going to need something from that First Sergeant. This is how we get along, and this is part of identity formation too because you will learn as the NCO, you will interact with a bunch of Soldiers in your unit that you never interacted before at least in a supervisory capacity. This allows you to have a better understanding and relationship with all those Soldiers that work with you on that detail."
East noted that Chaplain Assistants perform a special function within their units.
"Making sure your assistants are known throughout the command is important," said East. "Even if you are an E-3, you should be given the courtesy of NCOIC of your section. It is ok for your chaplain assistant to represent you as a chaplain. Everyone can see you and understand what you are doing. That is part of getting your head right about your identity."
The chaplain assistant role goes beyond the ministry. Chaplains are non-combatants, which means they do not carry weapons in combat. They were given this designation after World War II so that they would be able to continue offering religious support even if they were prisoners of war. Their Chaplain Assistants, however, carry weapons and are required to qualify on them regularly.
Part of deepening the identity of Chaplain Assistants includes not acting within the Chaplain's identity.
"I want to embed in our Chaplain Assistants the importance of understanding their role," said Silva. "There is a separation of the Chaplain and the role of the Chaplain Assistant, and throughout the years, they have been embedded. Chaplain Assistants are getting in trouble because they are acting as Chaplains. Some Chaplains do not understand that separation of the roles as to Chaplain Assistants, are the combat arms and we are here to protect them. That is our first position, not to just do ministry."
Sometimes, however, Chaplain Assistants find themselves in a situation where they have no Chaplain in their unit.
"There are a lot of 56Ms (Chaplain Assistant) that don't have a chaplain, so they have to try and figure things out on their own," said Silva. "Because of their beliefs, their faith, and their love, they sometimes lose that insight of where they belong."
Identity within the Chaplain Corps is vital to the overall ministry to the units they support.
"Deepening the Chaplain Identity is a way to help chaplains and chaplain assistants realize that our identity as unit ministry teams is critical and an important part of the special staff," said Grice. "The commander and the whole unit will always be able to identify the Chaplain and the Chaplain Assistant and understand what our roles are."