Nearly 15,000 Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) deployed to the field for three weeks this November, participating in the Division Training Density (DTD). Supporting these Soldiers were their chaplains and religious affairs specialists, which make up the Unit Ministry Team (UMT). Across the Division, these UMTs provided world class religious support to their units.
Specifically, the 101st Division Sustainment Brigade UMTs worked round the clock to minister to their Soldiers. The Sustainment Brigade was responsible for providing logistical support to all the brigades in the 101st Airborne Division during this 21 day field training.
These three weeks in the woods provided awesome opportunities for UMTs to minister to Soldiers. For many Soldiers, this was their first time in a field environment. The chaplains in the brigade each have a calling to help Soldiers connect with their faith. As Chaplain (Maj.) Andy Jenks explained, “Let there be no doubt: a chaplain requires a call from God to provide religious support in the United States Army.” The chaplains leaned on their call to help Soldiers find a sense of hope and purpose in their field training.
Field worship services
One of the highlights for the Sustainment Brigade chaplains during these three weeks was 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 the Sustainment Brigade was co-located with the 101st Airborne Division band, which provided incredible music for the Christian worship services that the chaplains 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.
After attending a field worship service, Staff Sgt. Tacuma Hopewell said, “I needed that message. Sometimes we don’t realize we need encouragement, but we do. That message was definitely good news.” Speaking of how the sermon helped him persevere, he said the message “allowed me to shift my focus to being thankful.”
All of the Sustainment Brigade chaplains are Christian, however their jobs are greater than their own denomination; they are charged to provide for the free exercise of religion—all religions—in the Army.
The Army has 219 recognized faith groups. UMTs advise their commands on how to perform or provide religious support to all Soldiers.
During this field rotation, Sustainment Brigade chaplains conducted Christian worship services, coordinated for Soldiers to attend Jewish and Muslim services in the field, and coordinated for Catholic mass and confession.
For these chaplains, it was inspiring to watch Soldiers eagerly rush to worship when opportunity striked. Field worship services enabled the Soldiers to find peace and comfort that sustained them in a chaotic and austere environment.
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 was to test Army systems in a LSCO environment.
Chaplains planning religious support in LSCO often look to the heroic example of CH (Capt.) Emil Kapaun. Chaplain 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. Chaplain Kapaun epitomized selfless service. He moved to his Soldiers in harm’s way, and he gave them comfort and hope in the darkness.
Most chaplains 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.
Not only chaplains, but commanders also care deeply about ensuring Soldiers are ready in every way for LSCO.
As Col. Peter L. Gilbert, commander of the 101st Division Sustainment Brigade explained, “The potential for high casualty rates in a LSCO fight will force commanders and chaplains to rethink how we mentally and spiritually prepare Soldiers for combat.”
The Sustainment Brigade chaplains led training for their units that is designed to strengthen the spirit. This training 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.
Soldiers typically are grateful for the training that compels them to connect with their spirituality. It is a humbling experience for the chaplains as well, as they must also grapple with these questions.
When the SRA is administered, chaplains clarify that spirituality is a broadly defined term. One person’s spirituality is not necessarily another person’s 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 everyone 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.
The Sustainment Brigade chaplains feel honored to serve in the 101st Airborne Division.
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.