If you asked Maj. Michael DuCharme why he joined the Army, he will tell you that God called him. There were few people in his family who had served; he was nearing the age requirement where he would have been too old. And, in 2002, we were already in the war, so his wife and he knew it would mean deployment, according to DuCharme.
He deployed to Baghdad first in 2004 and then again in 2006 as a Regular Army officer. He continues to serve as an active Army Reservist.
As a chaplain in Iraq, he provided religious support and counseling services for a battalion of over 1,200 soldiers, mostly military police. These soldiers were spread out all over the city of Baghdad, with some of the units stationed much further away in the region. DuCharme had to travel to visit the soldiers in the places where they resided, which meant taking the same roads the soldiers took when they went out on patrols and missions.
“It was a three-hour road trip to get to some of the guys,” he said. “My truck was as likely to get hit as anybody else's.”
DuCharme explained that there was a benefit to being out in the field and on the road like any other soldier. “If I went around on a regular basis...there was only one reason that I was doing it, and that was to see them [the troops],” he said.
And traveling affected the way DuCharme was able to communicate with soldiers about God.
“When I was talking, counseling with soldiers about faith in God...I had to take my own medicine,” he said. “Prior to that I had faith; but it wasn't the kind of faith where you really had to depend on God.”
DuCharme performed religious functions by holding chapel services or providing other religious leaders for non-Christian soldiers. But that was only a small part of his job.
“Ninety percent of what I did over there was counseling,” he explained. “I started by building a relationship with the soldiers. Once I saw them four or five times, then they would naturally come to me when they had something to talk about.”
“A chaplain is the only person in the U.S. Army that a soldier has complete confidentiality with. They are able to talk about anything that it on their minds,” he said.
“All of my counseling training is pastoral counseling. I don't have any formal psychological training,” DuCharme said. Therefore, he would ask regular questions and listen to what the soldiers were saying.
“The way I worked was, I would keep asking questions, until God seemed to take the conversation down a road,” he said. “A lot of times it would be directly spiritual. Other times it wouldn't be. I was a friend to them. They could trust me,” he said.
During deployments, “Soldiers were impacted because they were watching friends die. There is a “constant low angst that a soldier has to go through at all times, DuCharme reflected.
“I would talk to them about friends and family, living and dying; all the things that life is about,” he said. “Something I will always have from those deployments is that I could see everyday why God had called me to this.”
DuCharme shared a story of one experience from his first deployment that changed his life. In 2004, he had planned a trip to visit soldiers in a city that was on the opposite side of Baghdad from where he was stationed. When he and the team he was traveling with arrived, the soldiers they had come to see weren't even there -- to his frustration and disappointment. But, because there was a swimming pool at the base and it was a hot day, they decided to stay for a while so some of the team members could go for a swim. DuCharme was sitting at a poolside table when a young female soldier came over, sat down and started talking to him, he said. They ended up talking for over an hour.
“She had been distanced from God,” DuCharme said. But following that conversation, they talked frequently and she started going to chapel services too, he noted. “She ended up getting killed shortly thereafter.” While out in a convoy she was hit under her armor, just a few weeks before she was supposed to go home.
“But I got to talk to her parent's back home,” he said. “It was a relief [for them] knowing that she was walking with God before she died.”
So, what seemed at first like a wasted day at the pool, ended up being a significant part of this young woman's spiritual journey prior to the end of her earthly life. “It was instrumental not only in her life, but also for me in that I was able to share that with her parents,” DuCharme said.
“This is one of many stories, like that,” he said. “God tends to put you in the right place at the right time.”
“[Soldiers] ... face all the things: death, loss, heat, separation from family. And even though it's hard, they go out and do it, day in and day out...with the goal of bringing each other home,” DuCharme said. “When bad things happen, when people die, there is survivor's guilt. Soldiers ask ‘Why not me?' But if you struggle through it with God and others, you ironically come out with a deeper faith,” he said.
“Even with all the bad stuff that happened, I would do it all over again,” DuCharme said.
“Memorial and Veterans Days will never be the same,” DuCharme said. “Those used to be days where I would think about taking a day off. Now I think I celebrate [those holidays] in the way they were meant to be celebrated.”
Chaplain Michael DuCharme received two Bronze Stars, one for each of his deployments.