Newsweek on Military Chaplains

In 1999, as the new General Counsel of the U.S. Army, I joined General Jack Keene on a trip to visit our troops in Kosovo. It is an experience that I will never forget for many reasons. What most struck me about the experience, however, was how young our soldiers and most of their officers were. It was rare to meet anyone over 30. The reality--that no one should forget--is that the Army is largely a group of quite young men and women led by somewhat less young NCOs and officers.

The military chaplains are no different--they tend to be a bit older than most soldiers because (like the lawyers) they had to attend graduate school, but the fact remains that the large majority of our chaplains are quite young. And, at this young age, are put in one of the toughest position for any young rabbi, priest, minister or imam.

I was therefore fascinated to read this Newsweek cover story, which focuses on the Army's chaplain corps--largely through the journal of a young Baptist minister who loses his faith in Iraq, only to regain it in working with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed:

Army Chaplain Roger Benimoff heard the IED blast and saw the smoke rising. From his vantage point at a forward-aid station on the morning of June 7, 2005, he peered through a fog of dust as .50-caliber machine-gun fire erupted in the distance. Then the guns went silent. Benimoff helped medics get stretchers ready for the wounded. But when the soldiers of Fox Troop returned to station near Tall Afar, all they had was the bloodied corpse of one of their men. Benimoff began a familiar death ritual. The heat was closing in on 100 degrees; a smell of diesel fumes filled the air. Benimoff gathered the medics around the corpse of their comrade in the shade of an armored personnel carrier. Ignoring the din of rumbling engines and radio chatter, he began to pray in a strong and reassuring voice, quoting Psalm 121: I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He prayed for the soldier's family. He prayed for the medics who had wanted so much to help. He prayed that God would look down upon their small circle and surround them with his love.

. . .

Benimoff's journal ends Jan. 22 of this year. The last lines read: "I do not want anything to do with God. I am sick of religion. It is a crutch for the weak ... We make God into what we need for the moment. I hate God. I hate all those who try to explain God when they really don't know." By late March, during his first interview with NEWSWEEK, he was recovering his faith but the pain had not subsided. "The symptoms are still there; this past year has been the most challenging of my life," he says. "But I have a new relationship with God. I tend to be much more blunt with him."

As part of his daily rounds at Walter Reed, Benimoff strolls the campus gardens or the lobbies where outpatient vets congregate. Some are on crutches, some walk with prosthetics and some are in wheelchairs. His job is to be there, to say hello and to see if they need someone to talk to. Benimoff even offers up his cell-phone number, and tells the vets they can call 24/7. He invites 22-year-old Army Specialist Brent Hendrix, a Southern Baptist, to talk. Hendrix lost his right leg, and suffered multiple other injuries when an IED hit his vehicle last June in Al Anbar province. He talks with Benimoff about NASCAR—and later about how there's no time to think of commandments like "Thou shalt not kill" when enemies are shooting at you. Army Sgt. Andrew Buchanan, 25, who lost part of his right heel in an IED blast in Baghdad, tells Benimoff he's not much of a believer—but that his brother's a born-again Christian. He shows Benimoff a medallion of Saint George that his mother gave him before he deployed, and they chat about patron saints.

The rounds make Benimoff feel a certain kinship. The patients talk about their spirituality, and they can discuss "the same issues I am dealing with—anger towards God and grief over loss," he says. He shares a verse that best describes where he is today with his faith, Psalm 40:1-2. I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. After two deployments and his new mission serving the wounded from Iraq, anger and grief are daily companions. But, Benimoff says: "God gave me room to cry out as I flashed back to traumatic events and the soldiers my unit lost in those two deployments. He allowed me to slowly move through the mud and the mire." Now Benimoff is trying to look forward as much as back. "It's messy, it's not a pretty ending," he says. "I cannot tie a pretty bow on my story and I don't believe that God would want me to." He thinks of the soldiers whose lives were lost, but also of those who survived. He hopes that the verse of Psalm 40—I waited patiently for the Lord—which is so meaningful to him, might help to lift the spirits of other soldiers who fall into the same slimy pit.

Read it all. This is really worth reading.


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