QATAR - In three countries in two combatant commands during holiday troop visits, the National Guard's senior chaplain found colleagues offering inspiration to deployed troops and insight to commanders.

Army Brig. Gen. Kenneth Brandt, National Guard Bureau chaplain, assessed the issues facing chaplains in theater at a time when the National Guard seeks more chaplains to fill this key role supporting troops at home and overseas.

About 83 percent of Army National Guard positions across the 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia are filled.

Chaplains represent a fraction of 1 percent of the component's end strength, yet this small group - there are just 75 full-time Army Guard chaplains and 700 traditional or part-time chaplains across the nation - racked up impressive measures of productivity in the 2018 fiscal year, Brandt said. For example, Army Guard chaplains provided:

* Worship services to 100,000 troops.
* 45,000 counseling sessions with individual troops.
* 1,800 suicidal ideation interventions.
* More than 1,800 funerals - most for active duty families in communities not served by nearby active
duty installations.
* Relationship workshops to more than 9,000 Soldiers and family members.

"It's the spirit of the service member that helps us do things we thought we never could," Brandt said, paraphrasing Gen. George Marshall.

Faith plays a key role in motivating behavior, Brandt said. "We sell hope."

Notably, chaplains don't care what particular expression of faith individual service members have. "We are not here to convert," Brandt said. "We are here to support."

On the Army Guard side, about 49 percent of soldiers say they are Protestant, 35 percent express no religious preference, 15 percent are Catholic and 1 percent other faith traditions.

"If I can't perform a service, I'll find someone to take care of it," Brandt said. "We want people to be able to serve their country and practice their faith at the same time."

Brandt accompanied Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, on visits to troops serving in Kuwait, Djibouti and Qatar over the long Thanksgiving holiday. In dozens of visits with individual units, Brandt sought out chaplains, assessing issues facing them and their troops.

"A lot of life is as good as you choose to make it," said Army Capt. Joshua Van Vlack, a chaplain supporting Oregon National Guard troops on missions in Qatar.

Van Vlack, who serves as pastor for a Conservative Baptist Association congregation of 30 to 40 people in Lyons, Oregon, in his civilian life, said part of his vocation is reframing issues troops face so they are better able to navigate them.

He knows the challenges troops face because he's serving right alongside them. When he counsels a troop, he said his goal is to help them identify and embrace the positive opportunities that come with deployments.

Just as deployments can bring challenges such as family separation, concern about civilian careers on hold or adjusting to different cultures, deployments also offer time for increased personal reflection, distance learning during downtime, and a chance for soldiers to be in the best shape of their lives. When he encounters a troop who's struggling, Van Vlack highlights these opportunities.

Van Vlack enlisted at 17, served as a combat engineer and infantryman and planned to be an infantry officer but felt called to change paths and fulfill the chaplain role.

This role includes upholding the Constitutional guarantee of ensuring the free exercise of religion for all troops; providing pastoral care and counseling; and advising the commander.

"It's a great opportunity," Van Vlack says. He counts working alongside very experienced active duty chaplains, engaging with soldiers and the broadening of his cultural knowledge in Qatar among the opportunities he is gaining from his deployment.

"A commander should value the fact a chaplain is his or her eyes and ears," Brandt said. "The chaplain is one of those who can speak truth to leadership. A chaplain should be honest giving feedback."

Meeting one-on-one with chaplains during his trip, Brandt emphasized the importance of building trust in two directions - with troops and with the commander.

The chaplain is the one person troops can tell anything in confidence. And a chaplain is one of the people most well-equipped to alert commanders to issues, without identifying individual troops.

"It is a critical role that upholds an American tradition rooted in our Constitution and provides vital support to troops and leaders," Brandt said. "We need more people of faith with the emotional intelligence to navigate this complex task to step up and volunteer to serve."