- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2014

Chaplains are the unsung heroes of the American warrior

“For God and country.” This is the motto of American military chaplains. It is such a simple phrase, but it carries profound implications for what it means to be a chaplain in the U.S. military.

What is the role of a military chaplain? Technically, chaplains exist to enable and support the free exercise of religion for service members and their families. The ability to freely practice and live one’s religious beliefs is a fundamental right that is burdened by military service, thus necessitating chaplains. The full importance of chaplains as religious leaders in the military, though, cannot be encapsulated in a definition. They are an invaluable pillar in the way they serve.

The role of a chaplain is inherently religious. As the makeup of our service members has expanded, the chaplaincy has expanded with it to include representatives reflecting the many faith traditions of our troops, including Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu. When a religious leader becomes a military chaplain, he pledges to equally serve all members of the armed forces, regardless of religious belief. Chaplains faithfully carry out this sacred duty each and every day.

Few examples more perfectly capture the heart and soul of military chaplains than the story of the chaplains who served aboard the USAT Dorchester. Four chaplains were serving on the ship: Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi; Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister; and Lt. John P. Washington, a Catholic priest. As one service member from the Dorchester recounted, “When the four chaplains came together and were seen together, and telling jokes together, sitting together at dinner and all, it really shocked the men on the ship because in their hometowns they didn’t see much of that.”

On Feb. 2, 1943, as the Dorchester was traveling from Newfoundland to Greenland, the ship was struck by a German torpedo. The initial blast killed and seriously wounded dozens of men. The ship would sink in 20 minutes. Of 900 passengers, only 230 would survive.

Amid the chaos, the four chaplains quickly set to work, calming the men and tending to the wounded. Witnesses remembered the chaplains preaching, praying and encouraging. They passed out life jackets to the passengers, giving up their own life jackets when the supply ran out.

Concerned about the cold, Petty Officer John Mahoney tried to re-enter his cabin, telling Rabbi Goode that he had forgotten gloves. Rabbi Goode said he had two pairs and gave him a set. Looking back, however, Petty Officer Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode had given up his only pair.

Survivors remember seeing the four chaplains, arms linked, praying together as the ship sank below the icy water. One man recalled, “When I got into the lifeboat, I turned around and I saw a sight that will never leave me. Around the outside railing were little red lights, and they were dotted all around the framing. They looked like a Christmas tree, and each light represented a soldier — a human being.” Another remembered, “They linked arms, and then they joined in singing hymns, each of them in a different language … And they were humming these songs while the ship went down.”

All four chaplains were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. In 1960, Congress created the Chaplain’s Medal of Honor for the four chaplains, “in recognition of the extraordinary heroism displayed by them when they sacrificed their lives in the sinking of the troop transport Dorchester in the North Atlantic in 1943 by giving up their life preservers to other men aboard such transport.”

This is but one of countless stories of the sacrifices that our military chaplains have made for our service members. Military chaplains fill a crucial religious need that exists uniquely in the realm of military service — a need that is imperative to the well-being and operational readiness of the troops. Their religious guidance and selfless service are crucial pillars to the health and success of our service members. Chaplains truly serve both God and country in the most quiet but noble of ways.

Tuesday marks the 239th birthday of the Army chaplain corps, which was created by the Continental Congress at the behest of Gen. George Washington to fulfill the religious needs of his soldiers. The Navy chaplain corps was founded soon after, on Nov. 28, 1775, and the Air Force corps was formed on May 10, 1949. As we celebrate this anniversary, let us recommit to supporting our military chaplains, as they support the religious needs of our troops.

Rep. Doug Collins, Georgia Republican, is a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve and served a combat tour in Iraq. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican, is founder and co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.