CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait--Army Reserve Maj. Eric Hughes, deployed here and serving as the 1st Theater Sustainment Command's operational command post family life chaplain, was reluctant to follow his vocation.
"Chaplains can specialize in various areas, one is being an instructor, another is hospital ministry work, and the third is mental health and the family life chaplaincy," said Hughes, who deployed with the Indianapolis-based 310th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) whose Soldiers staff the 1st TSC-OCP.
To become a family life chaplain, an Army chaplain must earn a master's degree in counseling or social work or in family therapy, he said.
Although it is not required by the Army, Hughes secured his counseling license and works as a counselor for the Veteran Center in Pontiac, Michigan.
Hughes said he belongs to the Evangelical Free Church, which is the denomination that sanctioned him to be an Army chaplain.
"The best way to describe them is a bunch of Lutherans turned Baptist," he said. "There is agreement in the majors and grace in the minors."
Beetham made to call
Army Reserve Lt. Col. David Beetham, the 1st TSC-OCP command chaplain, said he met Hughes, when the two men took their Captains Career Course together.
"Right away, I saw something special in him," Beetham said. "He's really a great guy, a faithful guy and very strong administratively--I could not believe how efficient and how knowledgeable he was."
The two bonded during the course, he said.
"We became really good friends back then--kept in touch once in a while throughout the years," he said.
Beetham, who is organic to the 310th ESC, said he already knew that Hughes had become a family life chaplain, so when he heard Hughes transferred from the National Guard to the Army Reserve, he picked up the phone. "I called him right away and said: 'Do you want to go on this deployment with me?"
An awkward call to ministry
Hughes said his calling to the ministry came while he was deployed in 2005-2006 to Bagram, Afghanistan, as a Kansas Air National Guard staff sergeant and munitions technician assigned to A-10 Thunderbolts and AC-130s. "We were at the old Russian ammunition point. We had a single runway--it was old school back then."
It was a calling he had hoped to avoid, he said.
"I grew up a pastor's kid, so I had a lot of respect for it and also not wanting to do it as the same time," he said.
The actual moment of his vocation came while he was praying for the other airmen on the Bagram deployment with him. Hughes said, "It was very much more praying and less doing--the entirety of my being was pushed to go do something about what I was praying about."
Hughes said his next step was to talk it over with his father.
"I called my dad up after I got home--it was very weird back then,” he said. “I hopped on a C-130 and six days later, all of a sudden, you're back in the states--I called my dad up and told him: 'I'm pretty sure God wants me to be a chaplain.'"
His father had no objection in the least, Hughes said. "He was like: 'Oh, let me call up the old seminaries, see if they're any good.' Here I am today, 13 years later."
It was not all that simple. Before he entered seminary, he devoted himself to a thorough discernment, he said.
"It was a moment, and then, I doubted myself," he said. "Gosh, I have met so many people who shouldn't be in ministry, and I wanted to make sure it wasn't me."
Hughes is also conscious of the burden of becoming a representative of Christianity, which he said was responsible for more good in the world than any other institution in the world, despite mistakes made along the way.
"The Church is full of broken human beings," he said. "When they failed, they absolutely failed and that is something you step into."
"I spent about two years contemplating and praying and asking other people their opinion about it," the major said.
At that time, he kept asking the same questions to himself and others, "Did I make this sensation up? Do they see pastoral qualities in me? I wanted to take it seriously, because I am of the opinion that if God exists, God is someone who should be taken seriously--and to me: God exists."
Hughes said the other half of his reluctance was what he knew about the life of a minister.
"We are by our very nature--preachers--there is a pain that comes along with ministry," he said. "It's a lonely type of profession and calling and people look at you differently, and in some cases rightly so. We should set an example, and that can be a pretty lonely existence."
Caring for Soldiers, leaders
Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Willie Smith, master religious affairs noncommissioned officer, works with Hughes, and in April participated in a training the major led for chaplains and enlisted religious services specialists from across Camp Arifjan.
"Each month a unit ministry team is responsible for different training and in April, the training was for senior leader care," he said.
Hughes said he is all about integrated learning. "Get 'em up, get 'em involved, make it fun and once their guard is down--at that point they are ready to begin the process of learning and exchanges of ideas."
Smith said Hughes used ice breaking games and teams in breakout sessions in addition to his instruction on how chaplains and their staff can recognize when a senior leader needs their engagement.
"Senior leaders are often thinking about their troops, you know, making sure Soldiers are taken care of --people in the formation, but generally, they are not looking inwardly at themselves," he said.
Hughes said one of the core competencies of Army chaplains and religious affairs specialists is their ability to advise commanders and senior leaders.
"Some of the time it can be prophetic, so to speak. You can stand on a hill, you can make your stand--and you may not get to the next OER," he said. The OER is the Officer Evaluation Report.
"We do try to keep it in the realm of spiritual fitness," he said.
The major said it is incumbent upon the chaplain to speak to the commander about the well-being of the Soldiers, but also the well-being of the commander.
The three top reasons senior leaders put off their own self-care are they do not want to show weakness, they consider it an indulgence, and they do not have the time.
"We can push the body beyond its limits for a period of time, and then we reach a point where if we push further, we're either going to lose somebody to an accident or become ineffective to the point you are spinning your wheels,” he said.
Family Life Chaplaincy
Hughes said being a family life counselor adds another dimension to just being the chaplain. "One of the key functions of the 7 Kilo, additional skill identifier, family life chaplain, is to provide a more comprehensive counseling service to those who request it.
It is a combination of theology and psychology, and there is complete confidentiality, he said.
Beetham said family life chaplains bring unique qualifications to their ministry.
"They're trained extensively in relationships and the science behind relationships and how to really let people understand the dynamics of a relationship," he said.
The colonel said he appreciates that Hughes agreed to deploy as the 1st TSC-OCP family life chaplain.
"He has a gift to let people trust him," he said. "He is very relationally and he can really help them understand: 'This is going on right now and this is how it's affecting your relationship.'"
Beetham said, "He's probably one of the best counselors I have ever met."