- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

FORT JACKSON, S.C. — The sounds of gunfire echo through the forest of this Army training base, as small clusters of soldiers in combat gear kneel in the dirt, their darkly painted faces bowed in prayer.

“Your flock is here. Let us pray to the Lord,” calls out Chaplain Maj. Ira Houck, instructing his chaplain trainees to begin their so-called shotgun services.

With bloody conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere still brewing, instructors at the Army’s Chaplain Center and School say they want to train men and women who can minister to soldiers of every faith — and who understand combat.

“We have to help [trainees] help soldiers who must deal with the stress of battle,” said Maj. Scott Sterling, a Baptist chaplain whose unit lost four soldiers in Iraq last year.

At the culmination of 13 weeks of training at the school, chaplain trainees participate in a three-day, three-night field exercise to practice what they have learned.

“We try to pick scenarios that are as realistic as possible. This one is taken from events that happened to my soldiers in Iraq last year,” Maj. Sterling said during a recent outing.

On the first day of the exercise, trainees have 15 minutes to prepare remarks designed to comfort soldiers heading out on dangerous convoy duty. They also conduct religious services in the field and practice comforting the wounded and consoling soldiers traumatized by battle.

As the trainees formed small prayer groups under the pines, stanzas from “Amazing Grace,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “Rock of Ages” began to muffle the sound of far-off rifles.

One soldier, drenched in sweat from the midday heat, read passages from his camouflaged paperback Bible. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,” he called out.

Lt. Stacie Kervin offered a sermon based on Matthew 5:13: “Ye are the salt of the earth.” She advised soldiers that salt has powers for taste, healing and preserving and that Christians must remember that their lives and their actions are like salt. “Let your salt, your example, always affect other people,” she said.

Maj. Sterling, who offered the group an immediate critique, lauded their choice of hymns and religious texts but said the sermon needed work.

“That’s a fine Sunday school lesson, but it doesn’t say much to soldiers who are about to go on this mission,” he said. “Remember, you are comforting soldiers who may be of a whole spectrum of beliefs. … They may be thinking, ‘Is our cause just? Is this the right thing to do?’ Keep in mind what is relevant for these guys going into harm’s way.”

Lt. Kervin, a member of the Coalition of Spirit-Filled Churches, said she would rework her remarks. “I was focused on how to do a quick sermon, not the combat,” she said.

About 40 percent of this class of 85 trainees will go on to serve in the active-duty Army, and there is a good chance that many will see duty in Afghanistan or Iraq, the instructors say. Some will return to pursue additional religious training, while others will enter the reserves. The school graduates about 160 chaplains a year.

With 1,350 chaplains in the Army, the service is always on the lookout for more priests, ministers, rabbis and imams to tend to soldiers and their families, said Chaplain Col. Paul Vicalvi, a member of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., who heads the school.

Col. Vicalvi said Army congregations seem used to the idea of hearing from chaplains of many faiths.

“I’ve shared pulpits with many different theologies, but somehow we can preach our own faith and not have any difficulty,” he said.

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