By Don KramerDecember 8, 2006
It's not your father's chaplain's corps any more. Chaplains from 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division who deployed from Fort Lewis last June are serving shoulder to shoulder with infantry Soldiers, even participating in combat patrols. Their primary mode of transportation in-theater has become the Stryker vehicle.
In response to the reports from Operation Iraqi Freedom, training for chaplains and their assistants in the 4th Brigade, 2nd Inf. Div. has taken a sharply tactical turn. The brigade received deployment orders to OIF a week ago from the Department of Defense.
Fourth Brigade chaplains went to North Fort last week to learn dismounted infantry skills as well as the characteristics of the Army's workhorse urban fighting vehicle. The field problem was designed as a subset to Cascadian Commitment, the brigade's final field training exercise before certification at the National Training Center.
In the three-station field exercise, chaplains first learned how to mount, dismount and tactically deploy out of a Stryker. In the second phase, the chaplains' Strykers encountered improvised explosive devices. Assistants suppressed enemy fire while chaplains administered first aid to wounded Soldiers near the source of the ambush. The final training phase required conduct of a dismounted patrol to a mock village and reaction to another ambush. Under heavy fire, they were again required to perform first aid for more severely wounded casualties and even administer last rights. The 4th Bde. chaplain, Maj. Scott Riedel, has combined his experience in two other deployments with current information from 3rd Bde. units and a network of friends "downrange" to produce a realistic training experience. He said the exercise brought together lessons from 18 months of training, including recent medical classes and the emergency medical ministry course.
"This is a combination of everything they've done," Riedel said. "This is going to be the most hands-on training they've done. My goal in this exercise is I want them to be able to move together, chaplain and chaplain's assistant, and take orders from the squad leader they're going to be going with."
"We make (the medical tasks) as real as possible," said Capt. Tim Orcutt of C Company, 202nd Support Battalion. "We try to stress them physically and mentally. These guys are going to be really prepared because they went through the Stryker first responder program. It teaches them not only about their equipment and their new IFAK (Improved First Aid Kit), but they got extras, like classes on shock, massive bleeding, head injuries."
Thanks to the use of paintball guns, it was also the most realistic combat training the chaplains have undergone. "There was a point when ... paint ball pellets were hitting a piece of metal right by my head," said Chaplain (Capt.) Dave Ward of 2-1 Cavalry Squadron after a 10-minute fire fight at a mock village. "It was a very real effect. Trying to put a tourniquet on a guy and keep my head away because I know it's going to get taken off or hit with a paint ball."
Ward's role was to minister to the injured and dying, while his assistant, Pvt. 2 Jeffrey Berres, focused on keeping the chaplain alive. The pair form a religious support team, one of seven in the brigade. "A chaplain cannot carry a weapon in combat," said Riedel's assistant, Sgt. Benjamin Decker. "In a garrison environment, we act as a team; we do a lot of admin work. We do a lot of programs like career breakfasts, counseling, suicide prevention. But in a combat environment, I work basically as a bodyguard for the chaplain. We make sure we keep them safe so they can do what they need to do. I cover down and make sure I keep my chaplain safe."
As a result, the seven-week advanced individual training for 56Ms, chaplains' assistants, has taken on more of a combat orientation, Decker said.
The battlefield is especially dangerous for chaplains since the enemy doesn't recognize religious icons as symbols worn by non-combatants. "They shoot at anyone they think is American," said the 4th Bde. chaplain.
Miraculously, Riedel said no chaplains have yet been killed in the current conflict. Only one has been wounded seriously - a Catholic priest was injured in an IED blast and remains in a Veterans Administration hospital.
"We're in convoys, just like everybody else," Riedel said. "When I went down there we had a soft-skin vehicle. I had no up-armor; I had no doors on my Humvee. I had no weapon.
"All the chaplains are the primary drivers in Humvees," he said. "We got shot at. I had rounds going over my foot, RPGs, everything." Despite the dangers, Riedel said the brigade RSTs are dedicated because they know how important their mission is to the troops.
"If Soldiers know God is with them, they're going to function," he said. "If they think they're alone, they're not."
(Don Kramer writes for the Northwest Guardian.) "