I am the battalion chaplain for the 101st Special Troops Battalion, 101st Division Sustainment Brigade. My Unit Ministry Team (UMT) is one of many from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) that deployed with their units to the field for three weeks this November, partaking in the Division Training Density (DTD). Across the Division, UMTs are providing world class religious support to their units. My brigade is responsible for providing logistical support to all brigades in the 101st Airborne Division during this 21 day field training exercise.
These three weeks in the woods have provided awesome opportunities to minister to soldiers. For some, this is their first time in a field environment. I am blessed as a chaplain to help soldiers connect with their faith and find a sense of hope and purpose in their training.
Field worship services
One of the best parts of my job has been to provide worship services in the field. Field services in an austere environment are typically simple. The music, if there is any, is usually sung a cappella. During this exercise my brigade has been co-located with the 101st Airborne Division band, which provided incredible music for the Christian worship services I officiated. This proved to be a powerful field worship experience few will ever enjoy.
There is something very holy about worshipping in a field environment. Soldiers are cut off from civilization, and they have an opportunity to connect totally with God. Soldiers arrive dirty and maybe a little upset from living and sleeping in the woods, and then they put down their weapon for thirty minutes and focus purely on worship. They praise God through song, feel inspired through the sermon, and gratefully partake of communion, which is administered from the back of a Humvee.
I am a Christian chaplain, and my job is greater than my own denomination; I am charged to provide for the free exercise of religion—all religions—in the Army. The Army has 219 recognized faith groups. The UMT advises the command on how to perform or provide religious support to all soldiers. During this rotation in the field, I have conducted Christian worship services, coordinated for soldiers to attend Jewish and Muslim services in the field, and coordinated for Catholic mass and confession. It is inspiring to watch soldiers eagerly rush to worship when opportunity strikes. Field worship services enable them to find peace and comfort that sustain them during their time in the field.
Religious support in LSCO
The Army finds itself preparing to fight a significantly different war than the one it has faced over the past 20 years. Large Scale Combat Operations (LSCO) are challenging military planners to think in new and innovative ways. LSCO will also change the way chaplains provide comprehensive religious support. The purpose of the Division Training Density is to test Army systems in a LSCO environment.
As a chaplain contemplating religious support in LSCO, I think about the heroic example of Chaplain (Capt.) Emil Kapaun. CH Kapaun bravely risked his life in the Korean War to rescue soldiers on the battlefield. He also provided spiritual inspiration to soldiers in captivity while he was a prisoner of war. CH Kapaun epitomized selfless service. He moved to his soldiers in harm’s way, and he gave them comfort and hope in the darkness.
I want to provide some measure of that same comfort and hope as soldiers think about LSCO today. A big part of that is preparing soldiers’ souls for the realities and adversity of a 21st century LSCO event. The training I have led is designed to strengthen the spirit. It deals with some big questions: Are soldiers spiritually ready to confront mass casualties and deal with death? Are they grounded in their faith so they can find hope in time of war? Are they connected closely to their loved ones, so they can carry that love with them onto the battlefield?
To help nurture soldiers’ souls, chaplains across the division are utilizing a Spiritual Readiness Assessment (SRA) to determine the spiritual readiness of soldiers and measure how individual and unit spiritual health might need to improve. In this assessment, soldiers explore deep questions of life, what happens when we die, what they are willing to die for, and whether they are ready to take life in combat. For many soldiers, this is the first time they consider the uncomfortable realities of life and death. The SRA forces them to confront life’s hardest questions, in order to help them get spiritually fit. I’ve never seen soldiers give me such undivided attention as when I give this assessment. They are grateful for the training that compels them to connect with their spirituality. Personally, this has been a humbling experience, as I must also grapple with these questions.
When I give the SRA, I clarify that spirituality is a broadly defined term. My spirituality is not necessarily your spirituality. Rather, spirituality gets defined and expressed in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes that is connected to religion. Other times it is not. But every one of us is spiritual, in some way. Army regulation defines spirituality as, “One’s purpose, core values, beliefs, identity, and life vision” (AR 350-53, Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness). We all possess each of those things in our constitution. When soldiers are deeply rooted in their spirituality, their souls are strong and resilient, and ready for war.
It remains an honor to be a chaplain in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). This is the legendary division that saw soldiers bravely jump out of airplanes behind enemy lines in World War II to defeat Nazi Germany, and during the Vietnam War they charged up Hamburger Hill. Today a new generation of soldiers stand ready to confront and destroy evil. They are trained and ready physically, and Army chaplains prepare them spiritually, to fight and win our nation’s wars.
Chaplain (Capt.) Roger Gordon is the Battalion Chaplain for the 101st Special Troops Battalion in the 101st Division Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). He holds a Masters of Divinity (MDiv) degree from Boston University School of Theology, where he graduated summa cum laude. He completed the Chaplain Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Jackson.