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Face of Defense: Division Chaplain Answers Call

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Sept. 23, 2009 – For many chaplains, providing spiritual and mental support for soldiers is a calling. But for one Minnesota Army National Guard chaplain, that’s just part of the equation.

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Army Lt. Col. John Morris, 34th Infantry Division chaplain, presents Army Staff Sgt. Bellatrix Estrella, a chaplain's assistant with the division, with a Bible during a religious support conference for unit ministry teams at Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq, June 30, 2009. Minnesota National Guard photo by Sgt. Mark Miranda

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The real calling is that of being a soldier.

“I’ve often said in sermons to soldiers that I believe serving in the military is a call, and that it’s a call to be a peacekeeper or a peacemaker,” said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) John Morris, chaplain of the 34th Infantry Division, which is currently deployed to Basra, Iraq.

“These phrases that we use like selfless service, which is a common phrase in the Army, it’s a vocational, religious connotation whether a person has a spiritual background or not,” Morris said. “We’re calling them to self-sacrifice on behalf of other people.”

As he makes his rounds among the division’s units, Morris said he often talks to the soldiers about sacrifice.

“Soldiering here, at this time, is a call to serve the Iraqis as well as serve the defense of our nation,” he said. “And to be willing to be that person in the middle to enable peace and enable conditions to happen in that a new country can be born, I often present that to soldiers and they are often visibly moved and often encouraged by that.”

Spiritual support is important throughout a deployment, but it is especially needed when a soldier is wounded or killed in action.

“From the time a soldier is wounded and goes up to one of our medical facilities, we’ll do everything to get one of our chaplains up there if there is enough time,” Morris said. “A lot of times the soldier will be evacuated so quickly to a higher level care that it will be a chaplain at that end, but there will be a hospital chaplain somewhere along the line.”

In such a case, the chaplains often work with more than just the wounded soldier.

“That chaplain will minister to that soldier, but then will also stay and minister to the staff after that soldier passes on to the next level of medical care that is available,” Morris said. “We’ll follow up with that battalion chaplain or brigade chaplain and work with the chaplain to circulate through the unit and follow up with the soldiers who are affected and the commanders.

“A lot of times people forget that the commanders are tremendously affected by the injuries or deaths of their soldiers.”

If there is a death within the unit, the chaplains have additional roles.

“We’ll do a memorial service, which is a very distinct ritual to provide support to those who are remaining and rebuild their fighting resolve,” Morris said. “We’ll also … help put together a DVD of the memorial service for the families at home because we’ve found that to be tremendously comforting. So, this ministry goes to both sides of the world to those in the fight and those at home.”

With chaplains busy talking with soldiers, they often don’t leave time for themselves.

“Caregivers are notorious for not seeking care for themselves, and chaplains are no different,” Morris said.

To alleviate that, there are a number of resources among the 34th Infantry chaplains. One of those is the family life chaplain, who works to provide training and serves as a debriefer among the division’s chaplains and assistants.

“He is providing direct pastoral care to chaplains and the assistants, and he’s tangled with some pretty tough issues that are the result of chaplains having repeatedly dealt with death and having repeatedly deployed,” said Morris, adding that the family life chaplain has “earned his pay twice over” by taking on those duties.

One of Morris’ primary duties is ensuring that the division’s chaplains have someone to turn to for the support they need.

“I’ll meet with the command chaplains and establish a relationship with them and try to provide pastoral support to the level they want to be, and then, as I travel through their battalions, I’ll do the same thing,” he said. “They realize I’m not there to force anything upon them. I’m there to make sure they are successful and have the care they need.”

Morris encourages each chaplain to seek out each other for support. He encourages them “to establish some kind of working relationship with another chaplain on the battlefield or another military chaplain that they can talk to confidentially, so that they have got somebody that can put some support or encouragement behind them as they are giving everyday throughout the day.”

Support also comes from sources outside the military.

“Each chaplain is endorsed by a denomination, and their endorser provides another level of pastoral care by reaching out and making sure the chaplains know they are supported,” Morris said. “For example, I’m a United Methodist and my endorser calls my wife to see how she is doing, regularly sends her notes of encouragement and does the same for me.”

As a result, these chaplains are able to support soldiers in the field.

“I find this generation of younger people that we have today, they want a mission bigger than themselves,” Morris said. “They want to be about doing something that makes the world safer and better and soldiering does that, particularly in the place that we are.”

(Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy serves with the National Guard Bureau public affairs office.)

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Multinational Corps Iraq

Click photo for screen-resolution imageBishop Imad Al Banna, officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as the acting Archbishop of Basra and a native of the city, meets with Army Lt. Col. John Morris, left, chaplain of the 34th Infantry Division, and Army Maj. Gen. Richard Nash, right, commanding general of Multinational Division South, at MND-S headquarters, July 13, 2009. Minnesota National Guard photo by Sgt. Frank Vaughn  
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