FORT RILEY, Kan. -- Throughout history chaplains have joined soldiers on the battlefield. In some cases, they were leading the charge, other times they were there to provide support to the warfighter.

When America was still in its infancy, George Washington initiated the Chaplaincy Corps.

"Washington was not kicking off a revolution without a chaplaincy," Fort Riley Senior Chaplain Shmuel Felzenberg said. "It was a foundational requirement of his. It was a combat factor in his calculations that he could not, would not initiate without."

Felzenberg, staff and families from Fort Riley's Chaplaincy Corps and Religious Services Unit gathered July 19 at Moon Lake to recognize the role chaplains have had in the U.S. Army for 243 years.

From the start, however, America's chaplaincy was different than others in history.
"There were often religious leaders leading the Army," 1st Infantry Division Deputy Division Chap. (Maj.) David Johnston said. "It was a sign that God was on their side, God was with them. Our Army is a little different. We are not a religious Army going out fighting religious wars."

Rather, the role of the U.S. Army Chaplaincy is to serve the Soldiers' constitutional right to worship as they see fit.

Being able to worship gives them strength to carry out their mission and helps them cope with grief, loss and trauma.
The message the chaplains deliver is not that God is leading the troops to victory, rather "there is nowhere you can go that you will be forsaken," Johnston said. "Even in the most God forsaken place, there is that presence there."

One of the roles of the chaplaincy is to advise the command how religion pertains to operations. Johnston recalled his first deployment to Iraq in 2006. He asked an Imam chaplain, who was also a friend, to speak about the Muslim religion.

"I brought him in to teach my commanding staff about Islam so that they could hear, not perhaps a skewed perspective from me, but they could understand it from an Imam and hear about it and question him," he said. "A lot of it is an education process that chaplains, as religious leaders, bring to help prevent that feeling of a religious war."

While America may have a strong Judeo-Christian background, many scholars agree we are living in "a post-Christian nation," Johnston said.

As a secular nation, comprised of many religious denominations, the key to ministering in an interfaith setting is to remember the Constitution.

"The key in the Constitution is the right to free exercise," Felzenberg said. "It goes without saying that for the founding fathers as a whole, freedom of religion was perhaps one of the singular, quintessential, overriding emphases behind the founding of our nation. It is right at the beginning of the most foundational rights that we have. So regardless of any one Founding Father's religious affiliation, or how they parsed their different interpretations, I think there was a common overriding belief in the importance of the freedom of religion."

Today, just as through history, the foundation of the Chaplaincy Corps is rooted in its motto, "Pro Deo et Patria," which means, "For God and Country," regardless of what religious beliefs any individual holds.

'We appreciate our brothers and sisters in uniform and acknowledge our differences," Felzenberg said. "We realize that the green that surrounds us and the red of the blood that beats within us -- our nation and our loyalties unite us. That is where the focus has to be."