Not all military heroes carry a gun.
Down the street from the elementary school where my lovely wife teaches, there’s a little memorial park with a sprinkling of monuments to the sacrifices of our military servicemembers across the years. I was strolling through this park a couple of weeks ago and happened upon the marker pictured on the right, honoring a group of men known collectively as The Four Chaplains.
George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington were newly-minted chaplains who were accompanying troops deploying to the European Theatre in February 1943, sailing aboard the troop transport Dorchester. The ship was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Greenland. What happened next was the stuff of legend, and all the more epic because the story is true, confirmed by multiple eyewitnesses. Read it here.
Some people, mostly outside the military, have a problem with chaplains. They interpret the presence of clerics in uniform as a violation of the separation of church and state, a compromise of religious doctrines of nonviolence, a superstitious attempt to curry favor with the Almighty on the eve of battle, or a right-wing conspiracy to proselytize emotionally-vulnerable young men.
All those objections are wrongheaded and ignorant of the vital role chaplains play in the military community. Chaplains are granted a unique privileged communication with troops and their families akin to and in some respects stronger than attorney-client privilege. They help build a sense of community within a military unit and are often the unofficial “morale officer,” with a finger on the organization’s emotional pulse. They’ll often detect impending problems that escape the commander’s attention. Their presence is a continuing reminder to the leaders of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines that their troops are first of all human beings, with all that implies, including a soul that requires nurturing and encouragement, that reaches toward God even, and perhaps especially, in time of war.
Chaplains have served with great courage and distinction throughout our nation’s history, unarmed, interested only in the welfare of the men and women they serve. The story of The Four Chaplains is extraordinary, but also, I think, representative of what any of our chaplains would do and have done in similar circumstances, without a second thought for their personal safety. As we remember our fallen this Memorial Day, remember also the men of God who have always walked and sailed and flown with them into the fires of battle, armed only with their faith, shielded only by their prayers.