FORT POLK, La. -- Editor's note: This is the last of three articles on resources available to commanders on Fort Polk. The first two stories, which covered the Inspector General and Staff Judge Advocate, appeared in the Jan. 29 and Feb. 5 issues of "The Guardian."
There are 1,650 chaplains in the active-duty Army. Each brigade and battalion on Fort Polk is assigned a chaplain. The role of the chaplain is as crucial as it is unique. According to Chap. (Col.) David Darbyshire, command chaplain, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk, "chaplains ensure the free exercise of religion for Soldiers and serve as advisors to the commander on issues of religion, morals and morale."
While those tasks sound simple enough, Army chaplains juggle a multitude of responsibilities. Chaplains provide marriage and career counseling for Soldiers in their units, marriage retreats and outings for single Soldiers. They perform marriages, baptisms and are the primary instructors for unit-level suicide prevention and intervention. Chaplains deploy with their units and provide comprehensive religious support to Soldiers and their Families during deployment. They conduct Sunday morning services in garrison and worship services in the field while the unit is training. They assist in next-of-kin notification, accompanying the casualty notification officer to provide pastoral care to the Family and help them deal with tragic news.
Chaplains serve on the staff at brigade and battalion levels, and are also available to assist company commanders. In an advisory role, chaplains answer leaders' questions about religious accommodation: If Soldiers have special religious needs and the commander does not know how to support them, the chaplain can provide information. If a commander has a question about what Muslims believe, the chaplain can do a study and conduct research for the commander.
"Chaplains don't tell the commander how to fight, but they can help him understand nuances of religion, like how religious holidays might come to play on the battlefield," said Darbyshire. "Chaplains advise, commanders decide."
Darbyshire said his role is the same, but at a higher level. "I advise the command on the same issues, provide resources and mentor young chaplains, supporting them with policy and guidance that they need to do their jobs."
Each chaplain comes from their own denominational background. "All Protestant Christian denominations are represented on active duty, as are Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams," said Darbyshire. "Chaplains are tasked with either performing or providing for Soldiers' religious needs. They may not be able to perform a certain ministry for a Soldier, but they can provide it by hooking that Soldier up with a chaplain who can." If that support is unavailable on post, chaplains work with religious leaders in the local community to help the Soldier.
In the field, the battalion chaplain is a key player in the unit's health and mission accomplishment. "Soldiers appreciate it when the chaplain is out there with them - sharing heartache, available to answer tough questions, able to listen - chaplains give guidance and spiritual encouragement in the midst of some of the toughest times of their life," Darbyshire said.
Darbyshire is excited about the future of Army chaplaincy. He has seen growth on several levels since he joined the corps, and beams when asked about today's young chaplains. "I think the chaplain corps has improved exponentially in terms of their integration in the unit," he said. "Chaplains have grown in their ability to understand the battlefield. Today's chaplains are able to leverage technology to gain information and disseminate it. They are bright young people and understand our young Soldiers.
"Chaplains must have two years of pastoral experience and a two-year Masters of Divinity at seminary and bachelors degree. They are all answerable to their denomination for their own faith and to the Army for ministering to a broad range of people that are entrusted to their care. They walk a fine line and do it very well, given how explosive religion and religious topics can be."
The Army would be incomplete without the Chaplain Corps. "Every chaplain does three things: nurture the living, care for the wounded (physically and spiritually) and honor the dead," Darbyshire said.
"I would hate to think what the Army would be like without the Chaplain Corps. What if all of the positive spiritual emphasis in the world was removed in a moment' What would the world look like' It would be ugly," he said.
Darbyshire explained the chaplain's role in football terms: "Chaplains are like a field goal kicker on a professional football team. You can play every game without a field goal kicker. You can win a lot of games. But I don't believe you could win a Super Bowl without a great field goal kicker. You may not need the chaplain all the time, he may not be front and center all the time, but when a Soldier dies, all eyes turn to the chaplain. Bad things don't happen all the time, but when they do, you want a great chaplain on your team."