by U.S. Army Spc. Charlton Pope
173rd Airborne Brigade
June 14, 2018
When envisioning a Chaplain in the United States Army, more than likely what comes to mind is a man who leads Sunday services and Bible studies, and provides council for soldiers. What isn’t pictured is a man who wears a Ranger Tab, a 2nd Ranger Battalion deployment scroll, a Combat Infantryman Badge, and Combat Jump Wings. However, that is exactly what is seen when looking at Chaplain Captain John McDougall.
McDougall was born and raised just north of Seattle, Washington. After graduating high school in 1996, he attended the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point to study Mechanical Engineering. While attending USMA, he played soccer and was in the bag pipe band. McDougall graduated in 2000 and was commissioned as an Infantry Officer.
McDougall‘s next stop was Fort Benning, Ga., where he attended Airborne School in the summer of 2000. He then completed the Infantry Officer Basic Course before continuing on to Mortar Leader Course in January 2001. Then in March, McDougall attended Ranger School. With the motivation of an oncoming assignment to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, he went straight through and completed all three phases on his first try. Upon his arrival to Italy in June 2001, he was assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 508th Infantry Regiment. He had some great experiences, deploying with his platoon to Kosovo and Tunisia during his first year. “Other than on the range, it was the first time my soldiers and I had actually carried live bullets,” he said. “We did border patrols on the Kosovo and Serbian border, watching for weapons smugglers.”
As 2002 came to an end, the New Year brought many changes for McDougall. “Sabers were rattling with the talk of war coming,” he stated. During this time, he was granted block leave. He headed back to Seattle to be wed to his (then) fiancé. “The whole time I was back home, up until my wedding day, my anxiety was very high. I was nervous I was going to get the call and have to miss my own wedding,” he said. However, the wedding went through without a hitch and he was even able to go on a short honeymoon with his new bride.
On 26 March 2003, McDougall took part in the only conventional combat jump during the Global War on Terror. McDougall deployed as the Executive Officer of Charlie Company. His company was responsible for the heavy equipment drops on Bashur Airfield, Iraq. After completing the heavy equipment drops, McDougall and the rest of Charlie Company jumped and recovered the vehicles and equipment. McDougall recalls, “I was jumper number 14. The guy in front of me said, ‘Great, just had to be 13 on a combat jump.’ I told him I wasn’t superstitious, I trust in God and not superstitions and we switched. Turned out to be a really smooth jump for me.”
In November, after getting pinned Captain, McDougall heard God’s call to the Chaplain’s seat. McDougall was pulled aside by 1st Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Timothy McGuire (now Major General), who had other plans. He told McDougall that he had cancelled his Maneuver Captain’s Career Course class date at Fort Benning because they needed him to stay. “It was supposed to be our first Christmas together. I asked if I could call my wife and tell her,” he said. He and his wife talked, cried, and prayed together on the phone. “She said through her tears, ‘Are you sure you’re not supposed to be a pastor?’ Then I woke up the next morning and couldn’t get that question out of my head. I looked myself in the mirror and told myself, ‘You’re supposed to be a Soldier, not a pastor’.” Recollecting with a smile, he said that was when God told him that a Chaplain is both a soldier and a pastor. “I was floored. I hadn’t thought about that.” He still struggled with the idea of moving away from the infantry. He fought with God for 10 days before finally saying, “Okay, if this is what You want, I’ll do it.” He then sent an email to his wife and she told him that it was about time he recognized the gifts God gave him.
McDougall returned from Iraq in February 2004 with a plan to get out of the Army to attend Seminary School. At the same time, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was already gearing up for another deployment, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom VI, for the beginning of 2005. McDougall said he was wanted to deploy with the 173rd Airborne one more time before getting out to study. However, as the Brigade was prepping for deployment, his Battalion Commander appointed him as the Rear Detachment Commander. He said, “Sir, I don’t want to be the Rear D commander. I want to deploy. I want to go to Afghanistan!” Lt. Col. McGuire again had other plans for him, however. He told McDougall that there was no one he would rather have watching over his family and the families of others than a future Army Chaplain. It ended up being a great year for McDougall. As Rear Detachment Commander, he learned a lot about caring for families, taking care of memorial services for fallen soldiers, and arranging for families to visit their injured soldiers in distant hospitals.
Portland, Ore. was McDougall’s next destination. He attended three years at Multnomah Biblical Seminary. After finishing school, the Army wanted him to have more experience before returning to active duty; he taught at the University of Portland as an ROTC instructor for 40 freshman cadets. He viewed it as a great opportunity to put to use all he had learned, both as an Infantryman and as a pastor.
In 2010, McDougall returned to Active Duty. He was stationed at Fort Bragg with the 82nd Airborne Division for two years before getting an invitation to attend the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP). Before he went to RASP, he was informed that if he passed, he would be assigned to 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. He was motivated to pass. Passing would mean moving back to Washington, near where he was from. “I came home after work one day exhausted, and my wife, who missed home desperately, mentioned she thought I was going for a run that day. I told her I was too tired and I would just do it tomorrow. She told me, no, you get out there and go for that run,” McDougall said with a little laugh. “She was motivated to see me successful.”
McDougall passed RASP and served in 2nd Ranger Battalion for a total of 38 months, deploying with them four times. He transferred to a Civil Affairs battalion after, which was a welcomed change of pace. He then attended the Chaplain Captain’s Career Course to help progress his career. Upon completion, he received a phone call saying that the 173rd had an opening and would love to see him back in Italy as a Chaplain. McDougall called his wife to discuss the offer. She told him that he better call back right now and accept the offer. They packed up and were on their way back to Italy.
McDougall has also authored a book during his time in service called "Jesus was an Airborne Ranger". He said that it started as a side project for a Bible study. However, after expanding on ideas, he thought to himself, “Why not just make this a book?” He started the book on deployment in 2013. It was sent to an editor shortly after he returned, who showed a lot of interest in it. The editor sent him a list of changes and corrections that needed to be made as he was getting ready to deploy again. McDougall said with a grin, “It’s pretty neat that this book was written, edited, and then published all while on deployments.” The book was published during his deployment with 2nd Ranger Battalion in 2014. He stated he doesn’t know how to really measure its success, but said that if it reached just one person and they understood the message he was trying to portray, that is success enough for him.
McDougall was assigned as Chaplain of 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, in January 2017. He moved to the Brigade Chaplain position about one year later and holds the same position to this day. He loves working with the Soldiers and is actively involved with both training and physical events. He feels that being a former Infantry Officer helps him better relate to the men whom he ministers to. Moving forward, he hopes to continue to serve both his country and God as a Chaplain.