Military service members are all familiar with chaplains, the qualified religious leaders who serve troops and their families, but they are somehow still shrouded in mystery.
If you ever get the chance to talk to one, especially someone with a few deployments under their belt, you’ll start to get an appreciation for what they offer to troops (also, the more I talk to chaplains, the more combat ghost stories I hear…but I’ll just sort through that on my own time…).
Here are seven fascinating facts about chaplains:
U.S. Army chaplain Capt. Thomas Watson, left, and Spc. Timothy Gilbert arrive at Hunter Army Air Field in Savannah, Ga., Jan. 17, 2010 after returning from a nearly year-long deployment in Iraq.
(DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Brian E. Christiansen, U.S. Air Force/Released)
1. Chaplains don’t fight in combat
Chaplains are in the military — but they do not fight in combat. Chaplains are non-combatants as defined by the Geneva Convention. Chaplains may not be deliberately or indiscriminately attacked and, unless their retention by the enemy is required to provide for the religious needs of prisoners of war, chaplains must not become POWs. And if they are captured, they must be repatriated at the earliest opportunity.
But that doesn’t mean chaplains have never seen combat…which leads us to…
U.S. Air Force Capt. Norman Jones, a chaplain with the 20th Fighter Wing, prays over a draped casket during a simulated ramp ceremony as part of Patriot Warrior 2014 at Fort McCoy, Wis., May 10, 2014.
(DoD photo by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen, U.S. Air Force/Released)
2. Despite non-combatant status, many have been killed
419 American chaplains have died in the line of duty, including Confederate chaplains during the Civil War.
Father Emmeran Bliemel, a Catholic priest serving in the Confederate Army, became the first American chaplain to die on the field of battle. He was administering last rites to soldiers during the Battle of Jonesborough during the Civil War when he was killed in action by cannon fire.
In 2010, Army Chaplain Dale Goetz was killed in Afghanistan, becoming the first chaplain to die in combat since the Vietnam War.In 2004, however, Army Chaplain Henry Timothy Vakoc was severely injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq and he died from his wounds five years later.
3. Nine chaplains have been awarded the Medal of Honor
Nine chaplains have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
Four served during the Civil War, one served during World War II, one served during the Korean War, and three served during the Vietnam War.
U.S. Army Chaplain Maj. Carl Phillips, assigned to the U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden, leads worship with a hymn during the garrison’s Easter sunrise service, April 1, 2018, in Wiesbaden, Germany.
(U.S. Army photo by William B. King)
4. They represent 200+ denominations
Chaplains in the military represent more than 200 different denominations.
Denominations recognized by the Pentagon include many variations of the major religions of the world — including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — but Chaplains provide care for people of all faiths.
U.S. Army Capt. Demetrius Walton, a chaplain with the 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, navigates a confidence course at Fort Dix, N.J., March 26, 2012.
(DoD photo by Sgt. Peter Berardi, U.S. Army/Released)
5. They hold rank, but not command
In the United States, service members have a constitutional right under the first amendment to engage in religious worship. While chaplains are commissioned officers and can obtain the rank of major general or rear admiral, they will never hold command.
And even though they hold rank, the proper title for any chaplain is, in fact, “chaplain.” Not “major.” Not “general.” Not “captain.” Chaplain.
View of the judges’ panel during testimony at the Nuremberg Trials, Nuremberg, Germany.
(United States Army Signal Corps photographer – Harvard Law School Library, Harvard University)
6. They served during Nuremberg trials
Two U.S. Army chaplains ministered to the Nazis on trial in Nuremberg. The Allies didn’t trust Wermacht chaplains to counsel war criminals like Hermann Goering, one of the most powerful figures in the Nazi party, or Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the man responsible for the Nazi extermination camp system, so they sent their own chaplains.
Within the Nuremberg jail, Chaplains Henry Gerecke and Sixtus O’Connor created a 169-square-foot chapel and honored their duty to offer the nazis a chance to return from the darkness and into the light.
7. One is being considered for sainthood
Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun moved from foxhole to foxhole under direct fire to provide aide and reassurance to soldiers fighting in the Battle of Unsan. He recovered wounded men and dragged them to safety or he dug trenches to shield them from enemy fire. He was captured and tortured by the Chinese, but even then he continued to resist and provide comfort to his fellow prisoners. He died in captivity on May 23, 1951.
He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary heroism, patriotism, and selfless service.