This year's celebration of Women's History Month has a deeper meaning for female chaplains in the armed forces as it serves as the 40th anniversary of women in military chaplaincy.
During the last 40 years, female chaplains' have overcome differences in religious beliefs in their pursuit of equality and have assumed various leadership positions.
"My first duty station, the commander of the unit I was going to did not want a female chaplain because he didn't believe women should be ordained into the chaplaincy," said Chaplain (Maj.) Kristi Pappas, Fort Belvoir Soldier and Family support chaplain, who has served for about 22 years. "When they did a rotation and swapped me out with a new incoming chaplain … that commander didn't want to let me go. I had won him over."
Dianna Pohlman became the first female chaplain in the military when she joined the Navy in 1973. Since that time, women chaplains have served at all levels of leadership in their respective services. Leadership from the different military branches celebrated women chaplaincy by opening a new exhibit, themed "Celebrating 40 Years of Women Chaplains: A Courageous Journey of Faith and Service" at the Military Service For America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., March 4. The year-long exhibit will highlight women chaplains' long history of service in the military.
Pappas' contribution to this history started in 1991 when she joined the Army as the 31st female chaplain in the Army. She wanted to help young Soldiers and Families. Pappas, a United Methodist member, said she experienced the initial challenges of dealing with Soldiers of different faith groups when she first joined.
"One of the challenges of being a female chaplain is that the Army recognizes our endorsements, but sometimes servicemembers or leadership doesn't because they come out of denominations that do not ordain women or that aren't used to women in ministry," Pappas said. "I've never had an issue with a Catholic commander, because they're used to nuns. Women do ministry in that faith."
Pappas' childhood helped her overcome challenges as she grew up around various faith groups such as Judaism and Lutheranism. Her background expanded her knowledge of different faiths and made it easier to communicate with people.
"It's given me a broader base," Pappas said of her upbringing. "It's made it easier to transition into the chaplaincy."
The experience for Pappas and other female chaplains improved throughout Pappas' 22 years of service, she said. Pappas has carried titles such as installation chaplain and she's deployed with multiple units. She's set to retire May 31 and hopes she made an impact on Soldiers and Families.
"We're given special entry into people's lives," Pappas said. "It's an honor and a privilege to work with Soldiers and their Families."
Pappas' contribution to women in military chaplaincy is coming to an end, but history will continue to write itself thanks to Soldiers such as Chaplain (Capt.) Rabbi Heather Borshof, Installation Troop Support Chaplain. Borshof arrived at Fort Belvoir, her first duty station, in April 2011.
She is a member of the Reform Movement in Judaism, which allows women to serve as Rabbis. Sometimes she has to explain this to people but she's never been treated poorly or differently because of her faith or gender, she said.
"It's been wonderful," Borshof said of her time on post. "An overall positive experience with the Jewish community and with the battalion and all the Soldiers I've had the opportunity to work with."
During her career, Borshof's goal is to serve Soldiers and Families of all faiths to the best of her abilities. Borshof is appreciative of the female Soldiers who served before her and she's eager to write her own history in the military chaplaincy.
"I've been fortunate enough to be able to pursue the path that I wanted to pursue both within my denomination and faith," Borshof said. "In doing this, I appreciate those who came before me and worked really hard to make this path so I could be a part of it as well."