This reflection piece was written by U.S. Army Chaplain (Captain) Mel Baars O’Malley, for Women’s Equality Day, on August 26.
Imagine my shock when, a few days after graduating from a seminary where over half my classmates were women, I arrived at Fort Jackson, S.C., for the Army Chaplain Corps’ version of basic training. Of the more than 150 future chaplains in my basic class, most came from religious traditions very different from mine. Only four of us were women.
Any anxiety I felt on my arrival was confirmed hours later when my new classmates and I boarded buses to travel to the Central Issue Facility to secure our gear.
“What are you doing here?” one of the other aspiring shepherds asked me. “Women aren’t supposed to be chaplains.”
This was my first experience of outright resistance. In those early days of my service in the Army Chaplaincy, I found myself in “the wilderness.” I confess that my attitude toward my new colleagues was far from loving. Pride is a powerful emotion. How could I embrace people who didn’t embrace me? In this sea of seemingly unfriendly colleagues, I felt alone in my lifeboat. I soon realized, however, that unless I found a way to become a part of the group, I would quickly sink.
The Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course (CHBOLC) was exactly 40 days long. Looking back, I see that even the number of days was significant. Like my Israelite faith ancestors who spent 40 years in the wilderness, I complained a lot. I buried my head in the sand, refusing to see the manna that God was providing despite my ingratitude.
However shocked I was at the initial resistance of some of my new colleagues, that is not the end of the story. Our time in training taught us new ways to be in relationship with one another, especially with those whose beliefs were dissimilar. With imaginations reshaped by our collective Army experience, my peers and I became more willing to embrace each other, for the good of the Chaplain Corps and for the good of the soldiers we would serve across the Army.
The night before we graduated CHBOLC, my squad went to a local Chili’s restaurant to celebrate. As we broke bread together, I realized that my attitude toward my companions had changed. Yes, some of them still disagreed with me about almost everything theological. Yet because of our time together, we now shared more than our disagreements. We now knew one another intimately, and that knowledge helped us to transcend our differences.
During that evening’s meal, one of my colleagues, a chaplain who had been one of the class’ most vocal opponents of women in ministry, told me about the imminent birth of his first child, a daughter, and about his excitement and fear about the prospect of becoming a father. He showed me his daughter’s ultrasound photo and, with tears in his eyes, confessed that he hoped she might one day be like me – in his words, “strong and sure, a willing servant of God.”
I don’t know if that chaplain had changed his mind about women in ministry, in general, but that wasn’t as important to me. Our relationship mattered more, because of the mutual love we shared for one another, and the ways that we were committed to supporting one another as servants of God and as soldiers. In our role as chaplains, the Army had room for both of us.
Even now, years later, it would be disingenuous for me to say that I never meet resistance in my role as a female Army chaplain. I still have interactions with peers that discourage me, but I have learned through these struggles that opportunities for growth are plentiful, for me and for my colleagues. After ten years as an Army chaplain, I am aware that this diverse environment continues to sharpen me, perhaps even more than if I were surrounded with similar minded colleagues.
I’ve been challenged to reflect on the opportunities for service I’ve enjoyed as a female in the Army Chaplain Corps, as we celebrate this month’s 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Securing voting rights for women was not an easy path for those who advocated women’s suffrage. Yet, through the resistance, those pioneers persisted in their commitment to women’s equality. These same qualities of dogged dedication to equality, not just for women but for everyone, are what makes the Army so agile today. No matter our backgrounds, the Army experience shapes us all into people who see beyond our differences, in order to put others before ourselves. In the Chaplain Corps’ case, that means working together for God and Country, to care for everyone in the Army family, regardless of anything that may distinguish us from one another, including our theology.
As an Army chaplain, I am used to having colleagues who disagree with me. But our differences are not the end of our collective story. After time spent working together, experiencing and supporting one another in the throes of ministry, mutuality and care rise above our differences. But our differences are actually important, because the Army must ensure that soldiers from every religious background can practice their faith traditions, and be led by capable chaplains who can create the appropriate sanctuaries to meet their needs.
It is in the military chaplaincy, perhaps more than anywhere else in the religious world, where people from every theological background are thrown together and, because of the values in our Constitution, find a healthy way forward. We learn to do that through our training, and by working together as a single team to put the mission of caring for soldiers first – always. That includes soldiers of all faith traditions, as well as soldiers of no faith tradition at all.
Currently, I am the only female Army chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery. One of my greatest honors is conducting funerals for women veterans from the Second World War, and celebrating their stories of courage. Those women traded their home-bound safety for passage over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, to support the Allied war effort in far-flung places around the world. They cared for the wounded from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, including prisoners of war, and they did it with no end date on their tours of duty. If and when they came home, they were given a simple choice – continue to serve or leave the military to start families. Post WWII, there was no option for women to do both. Every time I have a hard day or meet resistance, I consider the strength these women embodied, whether they served a few years or made the Army their careers. I am able to serve today, because I stand on the shoulders of my heroic female predecessors in uniform.
For the frustrating moments I have had as a female Army chaplain, I am strangely grateful. Just as the eye cannot say to the hand, or the head to the feet, “I have no need of you,” I have learned how much I, too, need all my Army chaplain colleagues, even those with whom I may have theological or other differences.
My chaplain partners have made me more capable of becoming all things to all people, which is what chaplaincy is really about. That takes arms stretched wide, reaching out to our farthest bounds, to welcome all, and to ensure that not even one is left behind or unattended.
In order to meet the needs of America’s diverse sons and daughters who serve our nation with the willingness to sacrifice their lives, it’s going to take the whole body – every last one of us.
For God and Country – Pro Deo et Patria!