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The Chaplain

Harold E. Berger, B.D.

The doctrine of religious freedom in our governmental philosophy, insured by the Constitution, is extended to every soldier in the military services. During World War II, over 70 different religious bodies were represented by 9,117 chaplains who saw service in the Army.l


From ancient times, the chaplain or his counterpart was associated with the warrior and soldier, lending spiritual aid to the waging of war. The manner in which this aid was presented makes interesting reading and is fully annotated by Honeywell.2 'Religion in the modern Army is pursued, consistent with the allowances of time, location, and combat situation, and many dispensations are granted by various denominations in order that practical fidelity to military duties may not be hampered by certain religious observances cumbersome to the demands of training and combat.'3

During World War I, as in other wars, the chaplain was frequently assigned many secular duties aside from his responsibilities for the religious and spiritual welfare of the command. 'Many were put in charge of the post exchange, a mess, the unit post office, special funds, bond sales, athletics, or the schools established after the cessation of hostilities.'4 World War II sometimes involved the chaplain in similar secular duties but to a much lesser extent than in the previous war. Such duties were usually of an emergency and temporary nature. The chaplain in this war was required to include and explain, in his monthly report, all secular duties he had performed. Unwarranted assignment to other than his more normal duties was immediately corrected by higher authority.


The chaplain is an Army officer whose noncombatant status places him in the group presumably protected by the Geneva Convention. But

1Honeywell, Roy J.: Chaplains of the United States Army. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1958, pp. 215-217.
2Ibid., pp. 1-10.
3Branham, Vernon C. and Kutash, Samuel B.: Encyclopedia of Criminology. New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1949, p. 251.
4Honeywell, op. cit., p. 193.


in his status as an officer, he differs from other officers. He has access to officers and personnel in all echelons up to the highest command. This freedom of contact places him in an effective position where he can present problems, together with a solution or pertinent recommendation, directly to a level where positive action can be taken immediately.

The chaplain is actually the only person in the military who cannot be compelled to divulge privileged communications. Although the Inspector General's Department supposedly keeps communications confidential, a bona fide complaint must be investigated, and thus, confidentiality is usually lost. Privileged communications between client and attorney (judge advocate) or patient and physician (medical officer) can be abrogated under a number of circumstances.5 So the chaplain is unique in this sphere which permits the soldier to unburden his most intimate problems in confidence. Thus, by simply listening, often without censure or even advice, the chaplain indirectly contributes to preventive psychiatry. Gregory6 stated: 'Probably the most important contribution made by the chaplain to mental hygiene and morale was an unconscious one. Their mere presence was often sufficient to give a man an assurance and confidence he would otherwise not have had.'


'Tell it to the chaplain,' or 'Go see the chaplain' were often colloquial jests but just as often they were meant as serious advice. When a soldier's problems, great or small, could not be resolved by the first sergeant, the company officer, or even the psychiatrist, referral to the chaplain was frequently proposed as a possible solution. This was not 'passing the buck' because experience showed that many solutions were evolved.

The chaplains in World War II in all branches of the service did a remarkably efficient job of their wartime ministry. Thousands of ministers serving the churches of the Nation today are there because of the personal inspiration and incentive provided by the military chaplain. The best tools the chaplain had were his love for God and his genuine love for his fellowman. Without this background to generate his ministry, the chaplain could not succeed; without it, all other training would have been excess baggage. With it, he could be 'all things to all men.' He could 'weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those that rejoice.'


One of the chaplain's more important functions besides his established religious duties was in the field of counseling. Some chaplains were

5(1) Army Regulations No. 60-5, Changes No. 1, 25 Sept. 1946. (2) A Manual for Courts-Martial, U. S. Army, 1951, pp. 284-287.
6Gregory, W. E.: The Chaplain and Mental Hygiene. Am. J. Sociology 52: 420-423, 1946-47.


already adept in this function, others had to learn. They frequently found willing teachers in their brother chaplains, psychiatrists, psychiatric social workers, and others. Because they did possess the best basic possibilities along these lines, they were frequently valuable assets to the psychiatrist and the 'psychiatric team.' They not only relieved the busy psychiatric services of many potential patients but accepted referrals from these services when it was thought that the chaplain was in a position to provide a better solution to a perplexing problem. To be sure, in some cases the chaplain was 'not the desired choice' for referral.7 Chaplains and psychiatrists alike have jokingly remarked that their 'failures were referred to each other.' This cliche contains much truth.

As Morale Officers

The chaplains, by their very nature, training, objectives, and position in relation to staff, not only were able to solve certain problems beyond the scope of others but also were excellent morale officers in every unit. The two major objectives which they were in a very appropriate position to accomplish were (1) the lessening of the stresses to which the soldier was subjected and (2) the increase of environmental support as it was available to them.8 Thus, they indirectly helped in the prevention of mental illness.

The chaplain was particularly sought out in problems concerning marriage and family relations. These problems were by no means uncommon and the chaplain had the wherewith and know-how to assist in the solution of many such problems. In his advisory capacity, he was, at times, forced to request the censoring of certain books, periodicals, and features in camp shows that were morally obnoxious and obscene. He also interested himself in the rest and recreation of troops, especially overseas, in isolated areas, or aboard ships, when Red Cross assistance was limited or unavailable. The chaplain often assisted the soldier in acute, legitimate financial matters, sometimes using his own money when a Red Cross loan or Army Emergency Relief was not available.

Most clergymen are satisfied that their patient relationship has been made more effective by their awareness of two things:

1. They must be familiar with the aims and purposes of psychiatry and understand its language.

2. They must realize, and be motivated by, the unique and vital role of religion in the treatment of the patient.

The chaplain in World War II knew next to nothing about psychiatry. He left that to the man trained for and highly skilled in that profession. By means of the Sacraments and the Word of God, he was able to bring

7Menninger, William C.: Psychiatry in a Troubled World: Yesterday's War and Today's Challenge. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1948, p. 66.

8lbid., p. 328.


comfort and hope, light and discernment, in an era when the lights had gone out all over the world. The lonely, the distressed, the frustrated could find in him a solid support. Those with burdened conscience could come to him in confidence and leave cleansed and lifted up through the Friend of sinners, Who also included them when He said, 'Be of good cheer, thy sins are forgiven thee.'

Soldiers turned to the chaplain with many other diverse, perplexing, and distressing problems. Nostalgia, loneliness, and a need to unburden oneself found the unfailing kindness and patience of the chaplain an everpresent haven of relief.

In the Hospital

The problems of the hospital chaplain were very much similar to those in the field but complicated by illness and injury. Under such circumstances, he probably had many more problems in the hospital setting, and he certainly found them more acute in many cases. Although the problems of the average psychiatric patient were in most instances routine, in others, they were extremely difficult and sometimes rather bizarre. It also seemed logical that 'different combat arms have distinctive psychological problems which affect the chaplain's work. This is especially true of the Air Force where fighting conditions sometimes tend toward recklessness or a degree of fatalism.'9 The assumption that the chaplain solved all problems would be naive, but neither did the psychiatrist.

The acceptance of hospital chaplains has its roots in the military ministry of the chaplains of World War II. Their faithful visitation to their men in military hospitals, their eagerness to serve, to cooperate and learn, earned for them the respect and admiration of the medical men in uniform. The physicians were quick to see that the chaplain was a familiar helpful friend to the sick or wounded soldier. He instilled confidence and acceptance. He radiated Christian assurance and hope. His relationship to the patient conditioned and encouraged the patient's response to treatment. Above all, the patient knew he had a friend. Although his surroundings were unfamiliar, he was not alone. His chaplain reminded him of man's greatest Friend.

In Combat

Church services were held in combat areas wherever and whenever possible. A young sergeant, already a veteran of several campaigns, came to his chaplain and said: 'Sir, I've found a new meaning and purpose in the Christian religion. Could you baptize me?' The chaplain poured water from his canteen into his helmet, the only baptismal bowl available, while the soldier kneeled on the plaster-strewn floor of what had been a tavern. In the distance, shells were exploding, the reverberations causing

9Honeywell, op. cit., p. 250.


plaster dust to sift down upon this tiny oasis of peace. With a wave of his hand and a sincere 'Thanks, Chaplain,' the sergeant went on his way, fortified with the presence of Him Who said, 'My grace is sufficient unto thee.'


It has already been mentioned that the chaplain who had no previous experience with psychiatric patients needed assistance. At the time, there were no real sources where the chaplain could find material in this field which were particularly directed toward his function as a counselor. The Army Air Forces, in 1944, directed that each chaplain be given an additional 2 weeks' special training after the course at the Chaplain's School had been completed. Despite the evident need for psychiatric indoctrination, the Chaplain's manual10 provides but little information on publications relative to psychiatry. Yet this same manual contains this warning: 'A careful study of current publications, both religious and secular, is advised before the chaplain enters boldly into a field which holds so many possibilities in human personality of great good or costly error.'

The care of the psychiatric patient in the Army needs the full efforts of the 'psychiatric team,' including the chaplain, so that if each member is fully cognizant of his expected contribution a great stride and another lessons will have been forged from World War II.

10War Department Technical Manual 16-205, 'The Chaplain,' 17 June 1947.