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Chaplain shortage severe for Army

The hardest part of Army Chaplain Lt. Col. Ran Dolinger's job is the long hours, which is partly why the Army Chaplain Corps now has about 520 vacancies, its most severe shortage in history.

"I go everywhere my troops go," said Col. Dolinger, who during his 21 years of service has been sent to Bosnia and Korea and whose most recent deployment to Iraq was from November to December last year.

The 48-year-old who also serves as pastor at the Fort Belvoir chapel and as spokesman for the U.S. Army's Office of the Chief of Chaplains in Arlington, calls his line of work "a blessed misery."

"When I see the atrocities of man toward man, it shows me the need for God," he said.

The Army Reserve and the Army National Guard have about 440 openings, while the Army has 80 vacancies. Col. Dolinger said it is more difficult to recruit chaplains into the reserves than into active duty.

"A lot of churches don't want their senior [chief executive officer] to be gone," he said. "They say one weekend a month, well, ministers are usually pretty busy then -- that's prime time. You can guarantee if a person comes into the reserves, in time they're going to be deployed."

The Army Chaplain Corps, which includes the Army, the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard, has about 2,600 chaplains and the most vacancies among the branches of the U.S. military, Col. Dolinger said.

The Navy Chaplain Corps, which has about 1,000 active-duty and reserve chaplains and serves the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines, has 29 vacancies, a Navy spokesman said.

Information about the Air Force Chaplain Service was not available.

The Army Chaplain Corps always has assigned fewer positions than what the Department of Defense has authorized, but the current shortage is the most severe, said Chaplain Lt. Col. Ken Lawson of the U.S. Army Chaplain School at Fort Jackson, S.C.

Since the Revolutionary War, the number of chaplains has increased during times of conflict and decreased during times of peace until the numbers stabilized after the Vietnam War, Col. Lawson said.

The Army went from having hundreds of chaplains during the Revolutionary War to one between the war's end and the War of 1812, he said.

The Chief of Chaplains has the authority to transfer a chaplain from a unit stationed at home to one that is being deployed, said Chaplain Lt. Col. Ken Beale, who's in charge of chaplain recruitment for the Army and Army Reserve.

"We're grateful that our Chief of Chaplains is not going to allow our men and women of uniform to be in harm's way without the presence of a chaplain, but that means that our active-duty chaplains and existing reserve chaplains are being rotated 'into theater' more than might be desired," Col. Beale said, using a common term for deployment.

Chaplain candidates must meet the same physical requirements as other troops and must be endorsed by a recognized denomination or faith-based group.

They must be 21 to 42 years old and have a master's or seminary degree. Many seminarians, whether preparing for civilian ministry or the chaplaincy, are second-career students, which limits the pool of potential chaplains.

Despite the three-year shortage, the Army and the Army Reserve has celebrated two consecutive years of record-breaking chaplain recruitment, closing the gap between authorized and assigned positions, Col. Beale said.

The Army and the Army Reserve recruited an all-time high of 231 chaplains in fiscal 2005, and 291 recruits in fiscal 2006, he said.

"To have done that in the midst of the [Iraq] war -- a protracted war with no end in sight -- is rather remarkable," Col. Beale said. "I praise God that the Lord is calling these men and women to this form of ministry."

He credits the recent recruiting successes to post-September 11 patriotism.

To attract chaplains, the Army Reserve is offering $10,000 signing bonuses for first-time officers. The Army National Guard has similar incentives, such as student loan repayment and college scholarships.

The Army doesn't offer sign-up incentives since there isn't much of a shortage of active-duty chaplains.

Chaplain candidate Chris Dolinger, Col. Dolinger's nephew, felt called to the military as he watched news reports when the U.S. first went to war with Iraq in 2003. The 24-year-old was an undergraduate at Bethel College, an evangelical Christian school in Indiana.

"That's when I first felt like I could really go and make a difference," said Chris Dolinger, who is pursuing a master's degree from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. "I see a need in the Army especially for help and guidance and counseling. I'm hoping to offer that as an Army chaplain."

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