- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

FORT BRAGG, N.C.

They look like the other soldiers, but the Army’s airborne chaplains are noncombatants who carry camo-covered Bibles instead of weapons when it’s time to leap from aircraft onto the battlefield.

Chaplains were authorized for the Army by the Continental Congress in 1775, making the Army Chaplains Corps the oldest in the American military. Today, chaplains are paired with well-armed enlisted soldiers in a Unit Ministry Team, or UMT, as they walk a line between the military and a supreme being.

On Monday, about 50 chaplains and their assistants from airborne units jumped from the ramps of C-130 aircraft with 350 other soldiers at a sandy drop zone deep inside the huge Fort Bragg post. Many of the other chaplains based at Bragg didn’t make the jump because they were deployed or preparing to deploy.

“Soldiers regardless of their faith background have a deep respect for the UMT — the chaplain and chaplain’s assistant — because they see them as their pastors on the battlefield,” Sgt. Maj. Stephen Stott, 44, the senior chaplain’s assistant for the 18th Airborne Corps, said last week.

Sgt. Stott said chaplain teams spend much of their time prior to a deployment preparing soldiers for the harsh reality of military life.

Across the Army, there are 2,600 active-duty chaplains and assistants and the same number of National Guard and reserve members, said Lt. Col. Randall Dolinger at the Army’s Office of Chief of Chaplains. The number includes Special Operations, but the service doesn’t talk about them, he said.

No chaplains have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, but one was severely wounded. More than 200 denominations have had chaplains in the Army, but Protestants are the most prevalent.

The daily life of a chaplain in a combat zone can be dangerous: Lt. Col. Jerry Powell, a nondenominational minister from Kansas City, Mo., was ambushed while riding in a convoy to conduct a memorial service in Iraq for a member of the civilian police force in Baghdad.

“It was just part of doing ministry,” Col. Powell said. “Gunfire exchanged, we kept moving. It’s a whole lot different from getting caught in a traffic jam [at home] while doing ministry.”

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