Chaplains Nurture Living, Care For Wounded, Honor Dead
by U.S. Army Libby Weiler, Garrison Benelux Benelux Public Affairs
January 13, 2022
The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps has been taking care of Soldiers, Family members and civilians since its beginning July 29, 1775, and they continue to serve communities across the globe.
“We predate the constitution,” said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Thomas Gidley, U.S. Army Garrison Benelux chaplain. “General Washington recognized the need to care for the moral and spiritual needs of the Soldiers – that it was essential – so he petitioned Congress for chaplains. We have been right there beside Soldiers from day one.
July 6, 2021 - U.S. Army Garrison Benelux chaplains cut a birthday cake in celebration of their 246 birthday on Chièvres Air Base, Chièvres Belgium. (Photo by Libby Weiler, Garrison Benelux Benelux Public Affairs)
“An old way to describe this is ministry of presence,” continued Gidley.
Across the Benelux footprint – at Brunssum in the Netherlands and at Brussels, SHAPE and Chièvres Air Base in Belgium – chaplains are available to community members 24/7.
“One of the main roles as a chaplain is to provide and advise,” said Chaplain (Maj.) Jonathan Averill, the chaplain at USAG Benelux – Brussels.
Chaplain (Maj.) Bernardino Yebra, SHAPE chaplain, who became a priest 30 years ago and then joined the Army, said the chaplaincy is his calling within the calling.
“If you see a U.S. Army chaplain, you will see the cross on our PC (patrol cap) and uniforms,” said Yebra. “It tells the Soldier that yes, here is an officer, but his calling is to provide religious support.”
“The Army is actually addressing the holistic care for Soldiers, addressing the fact that we acknowledge as an institution that there’s more to individuals than just the flesh and bones,” said Gidley. “We look at the individual from a holistic perspective; you’ve got the physical, spiritual and mental aspect.”
The U.S. Army’s multi-faith approach ensures individuals the right to practice the distinct doctrines of their own belief system. The Army has recognized and accepted over 100 faith groups, incorporating traditional approaches to ministry but also including individuals with atheist, agnostic or no religious beliefs. The chaplaincy program itself has evolved over the years to include Protestant, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist chaplains.
“We talk to all kinds of people. It doesn’t matter what religious background you are,” said Staff Sgt. Samcess J. Fofanah, religious affairs noncommissioned officer, USAG Benelux - Brunssum. “You are a part of our Family, (and) we are a part of your Family.”
Caring for people is at the heart of the Army Chaplain Corps. Issues can arise, as they do with most individuals and Families, and chaplains are there to help foster safe places in our communities to wrestle with issues and talk through challenges.
“When someone is going through the deepest crisis that goes to the core of who they are, they have all this internal turmoil,” said Gidley. “Just like a soda can, once you shake it all up, the pressure has to go somewhere.”
While some can work through things internally, others may need to talk through things.
“Where better can they go to ‘verbally vomit’ their issue and sort it out?” he asked.
Although chaplains provide a listening ear, Averill finds joy making connections within his community.
“I enjoy preaching, and I enjoy all the services, but I would say the real thing is just being relational. That’s one of the things that I find a lot of enjoyment out of being a chaplain.”
“Whatever you do, you touch someone’s heart,” said Fofanah.
Chaplains in the Army specialize in one of five specialty areas: resource management, ethics, world religions, Family life, or clinical pastoral education.
As young chaplains progress in their career through their first or second assignment, according to Gidley, they let the corps know what their interest is.
“Each chaplain has their endorsing agency – their denomination,” said Gidley. “From a Christian perspective the Bible says, do not serve two masters, but from a chaplain’s perspective I’ve got three or four. I have the chief of chaplains, who is a proponent for all assignments and personnel matters within the Chaplain Corps. I’ve got my commander, I’ve got my endorser, and I’ve got God.”
Chaplains also have an obligation to the people they counsel.
“One thing unique about the Chaplain Corps – we have 100 percent confidentiality,” said Gidley. “I playfully tell folks that I’m kind of the Vegas of counselors. What’s said with me stays with me.”
The Religious Support Office has both chaplains and religious affairs specialists dispersed throughout the Benelux.
“If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a chaplain, you can always talk to a religious affairs specialist,” said Fofanah. “We are also a listening ear.”
While taking care of people is at the core of the chaplaincy program, chaplains also provide religious support in their communities. Weekly church services and small groups take place on SHAPE, in Brussels and in Brunssum.
“For the garrison our duties are to conduct services every week,” said Fofanah.
Yebra provides mass and sacraments daily to community members.
“If you’ll ask me what’s my favorite part in my ministry, that’s my favorite part: providing the sacrament of presence, which we call the Eucharist, to our Soldiers and their Families.”
Outside of regular church services, chaplains make themselves available to the community in a number of ways.
“I do battlefield circulation,” said Yebra. “I make myself visible and make the ministry present to whoever needs religious support or a chaplain’s presence.”
Chaplains are also there to help build bridges and bring communities together. Recent Thanksgiving and winter holiday events have been a success because of teamwork between the Religious Support Office and the Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation at Brussels.
This year, the Religious Support Office is looking into having more of a presence on the air by collaborating with American Forces Network.
“We may have an AFN radio station – a chaplain hour that is upcoming,” said Yebra. “That’s one way of communicating and providing a chaplain’s presence to SHAPE and the whole Benelux area.”
While serving the community is a core part of their job, chaplains in the Benelux have had to rethink ways of serving communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. When in-person services were halted during the pandemic, livestreaming was made available to the community.
“As Catholics we always believe that if you are going to attend a mass, it’s just like attending some kind of a meal and you have to be present and enjoy the meal, enjoy the presence,” said Yebra. “We had to change the reception of the Eucharist, the blessed consecrated bread and wine.”
Due to the pandemic, Yebra hasn’t been able to serve the Eucharist in a normal fashion.
“We just distributed the consecrated host, the body of Christ.”
“Even though there is a hindrance with what we want to do, the old normal, a part of me says maybe that’s a good thing to have that hunger,” said Gidley. “There will come a day when we will take these masks off. How do we prepare ourselves for that now?”
Although chaplains view their work as a calling, it can come with its own set of challenges at times.
“There were times where I had extremely low moments,” said Gidley.
While stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan a mentor and friend passed through and got to spend some time with him due to a canceled flight.
“He just looked at me straight in the eyes and said, ‘What’s going on?’” Gidley said of the encounter. “I looked at him and said, ‘Have a seat.’ My friend Kim was exactly who I needed and God brought him literally 5,000 miles to my doorstep.”
Fofanah explains being a chaplain does not make you less human.
“Just because we are religious affairs specialist and the Chaplain Corps doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes. We are human.”
For Yebra, the brotherhood of priests is one big factor that keeps him healthy in the ministry.
“It can be draining physically being the only Catholic priest here.”
Although his nearest brother priest is in Geilenkirchen, Germany, they still make time to break bread together whenever possible.
While in seminary, Averill connected with many of his fellow classmates.
“It is a blessing the fact that I had those friends,” said Averill. “We still stay in contact with each other and check in on each other.”
“It (chaplaincy) can be taxing – emotionally, physically, and spiritually,” said Gidley, “but at the same time according to my faith tradition, if I’m serving where God has placed me, then that brings me joy.”
The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps has served and continues to serve, during wartime and peace, in communities across the globe.
“We are always there to contribute to the readiness of our troops,” said Yebra.
Yebra went on to say the Chaplain Corps always answers the call “to nurture the living, care for the wounded, (and) honor the dead.”
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