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Army chaplains extend support to combat zones

'Nurture the living, care for the wounded, honor the dead'

Posted: Sunday, February 27, 2005

FAIRBANKS - Fort Wainwright Army chaplain Capt. Herman Cheatham is preparing for spiritual battle.

While infantry soldiers are honing combat skills, the chaplain is ordering religious supplies and co-teaching combat stress training.

Cheatham, who expects to be deployed to Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment this summer, admits to experiencing pre-deployment jitters, just like the soldiers and military families he is counseling along with combat veteran chaplain Maj. Joe Melvin.

It will be Cheatham's first experience in a combat zone.

"At first I thought it (jitters) was a weakness on my part," Cheatham said, "but in talking to the other chaplains, I found it was the normal jitters to feel that way. It's the uncertainty and knowing that there is nothing we can do about it ... knowing that God is in control."

Cheatham has been privy to the war stories passed along from his more experienced peers. It's helped, he said.

"They found some peace and I can, too," he said.

Like soldiers, chaplains train during peacetime and are always training for combat on post and off - battling soldiers' wartime apprehensions and fears and counseling those left behind.

"Chaplains are noncombatants, so it's more of a spiritual battle," said Melvin, family life chaplain. "We're there keeping soldiers from breaking down spiritually, emotionally and physically. We're nurturers on the battlefield."

Army chaplains work right alongside soldiers wherever they may go, said Fort Wainwright Post chaplain Lt. Col. Vance Theodore, who oversees seven other post chaplains.

"If they're (soldiers) getting up in the morning and doing P.E., you're getting up in the morning and doing P.E. with them. If they're deployed, you're deployed with them. If soldiers are sleeping on the ground, you're sleeping on the ground with them. If soldiers are jumping out of planes, you're jumping out of planes with them."

Theodore and Melvin, military ministers for 21 and 16 years, respectively, know about deployment and ministering in battle zones like Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Somalia and Iraq.

The chaplain doctrine, Theodore said, is "nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead."

Primary among the many responsibilities of an Army chaplain is ensuring that soldiers have the right to practice their religion while serving their country.

Chaplains have some help in their duties.

Chaplain assistant to Melvin, Sgt. Darrin Numbers calls his job dynamic.

"Our main focus is on soldiers and the chaplains," Numbers said. "We're often the go-between for the chaplain ... the tie in with people on lower levels."

The Army prizes its chaplains.

"We're one of the only organizations in the world that do a one-to-one protection," Numbers said.

In battle zones, a chaplain is always accompanied by an armed chaplain assistant since chaplains are prohibited from carrying firearms.

"They take good care of us," Theodore affirmed.

Post chaplains are always ready to help soldiers and their dependents.

Dealing with stressed-out soldiers and family members is a challenging part of the job for all the chaplains.

"You have to stay committed to the mission and ministry in order to deal with your own issues and to have anything left for other people," Melvin said.

A typical workday may include leading a devotional service, counseling families and returning soldiers, and attending meetings.



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