Pastoral Care in the Military Chaplaincy

by L. Edward Nelson

“I sat where they sat.” Ezekiel 3:15 (KJV)

He was waiting for me as I arrived at the Chapel. It was the first day of what was to be 20 years in the Chaplaincy of the U.S. Army. It was through a great deal of soul-searching that I had entered the Army, so I admit that I was elated that at the beginning of my first day as a Chaplain I had the opportunity to serve.

He began speaking before I offered him a chair, literally opening up the flood gates of personal and family problems. Yes, I was shocked. He was only nineteen years old—divorced twice and children from both marriages. I was finally able to question his enlistment in the army. He bluntly informed me that he had no choice. It was either the army or jail. Yes, I admit that I was shocked. So many problems so soon in his young life. Sorting them out in my mind there were some with which I could assist him with by referral, some through advice, and some perhaps would never be resolved.

Then, all of a sudden, he looked up at me and through the tears welling in his eyes, he said: “You are the first older person that I have had a chance to talk to who listened.”

After he left, it was my turn to weep. In retrospect this incident was almost a God-send. It made me realize that I could never become a hot-shot counselor handing out easy solutions to complex problems. Every soldier, no matter what his problem, deserved a listening ear.

The Battle of Triangle Hill (Korean War, 1952) had raged on for more than 60 hours. The unit to which I was assigned, finally took its objective and was replaced. There was no chance to sleep during that entire period. I spent most of my time in the Battalion Aid Station counseling and consoling, and, yes, assisting some in dying. As the operation of my unit ceased and was replaced, I went to the regimental headquarters to shower, get into clean clothes, pick up mail, and attend to other personal duties.

As I was leaving, the commander invited me to his office. He shut the door and politely offered me a chair. As he sat down, he began to weep, crying out a flood of tears. Finally gaining his composure, he stood erect with impeccable military bearing and exclaimed: “That’s all Chaplain. Thank you.” I reached out my hand saying: “I understand. God be with you.” And he added: “It is hell to have to send these young men to their death.” He held them in such high regard and talked about the caliber of men that he had the privilege to command. Upon leaving he suggested—a suggestion rather than an order: “If you have time, look in on Company C.”

For a moment, I did not understand my reception. Without uttering a word, they began pawing at me, touching me, hugging me. I was confused until I realized that this was all that was left of Company C—26 men remaining out of a contingent of 200. I dropped to my knees and began to pray audibly. They all joined me in that holy moment.

The previous Monday, I had been invited by the Commander of Company C to have supper with him and his staff and to conduct worship. The dinner was on the table when I arrived. Noritake China, a touch of elegance in the midst of tragedy!

“Why don’t you sit down and eat? You didn’t have to wait for me,” I said. The Captain set the mood, politely interjecting: “You are our guest Chaplain. Please offer prayer before we eat.” All six of those officers were killed within the next 48 hours.

Artillery began falling during the Sunday Morning Worship. I was conducting the Pastoral Prayer as the explosions resounded. At the close of the service, one of the soldiers approached me: “Chaplain, weren’t you scared when the stuff fell around us?” “I really don’t know if I was afraid or not, but if I am going to get killed out here, I don’t know of a better way to meet it than in an attitude of prayer.” “Hey!” he added, ‘Tm going to remember that the next time I’m in a fire fight.” “Yes, but don’t pray so much that you fail to do your job.” “Don’t worry, Chaplain, I want to stay alive and I want to go home.” The two most important motives for a soldier in combat—stay alive and go home!

It was a Mad Minute. The name given for a demonstration, in which the fire power of the entire unit was unleashed; including thirteen tanks, supporting artillery, mortar fire, machine guns, and each infantryman shooting his personal weapon. That moment that seemed never to cease was climaxed with a shell that landed squarely in the center of the target. It had been launched from a position twenty miles away. As the echoes rumbled toward the distant horizons, my reverie, or whatever, was interrupted by a voice with which I was very well acquainted. It was General Creighton Abrams gruffly asking: “What are you doing here Chaplain Nelson?” Not knowing if that was a question that called for an answer, I offered: “Perhaps a Chaplain needs a view of the terror of hell as well as a vision of heaven.” “Maybe so,” he said, “but I have seen enough of hell!"

A personnel carrier had rolled over the edge of a cliff during night training, pinning the tank commander under thirteen tons of steel. It was 3 am as I came upon the scene. The military maneuver had ceased as the unit awaited the arrival of the doctor. The hillside was covered with men milling around. I walked to the center of that tragic moment that was enveloped in brilliant search lights. Not knowing what to do, I knelt in prayer. The silence that descended upon that scene is unforgettable and still wrenches my soul.

I attended the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery for a major general who was as much a friend as the Commander of the Post to which I was assigned. My companion at the service was the widow of another commander and personal friend. Following the service, I accompanied her to the grave of her husband. I had conducted the memorial service a year previously and there at the graveside, I was overcome with grief as she stood silently with her thoughts. This demeanor I had seen before. During the days of mourning and grief, she was more a consoler that a recipient of consolation as so many of the soldiers of the command visited her. She had shed her tears, especially with my wife, but not in public. I wondered at that composure and asked: “How was it possible for you to show so much strength during those days of mourning and grief? I’m sure that the loneliness of the past year has been almost unbearable.” “I am surprised that you should ask, Chaplain. I have only done what you suggested when he died, ‘Have faith. The Christian hope tells us that this is not the end, but the continuation of the immortality that God has given us.’ If that is true, then I can go on with my life.”

The events and experiences of the past are as vivid as the original moments in which they happened. They are there in the bank of memory to be drawn upon gratefully. The only problem—they can’t be changed. I wish I could relive as well as recall. To say, to do, to act, to be, in more appropriate manner. How I wish I could pray again for those who were killed. But to dwell on that leads only to morbidity. If the past has anything to teach us, it is to value the present—the only moment that we have about which we can do anything. Pastoral Care is born in the present moment. It is scary because it is not only what we say, but what we are. There is a terrifying urgency about this, but that is the way creative moments are. All this is part of service, the highest reward of which is to serve by answering the call to be where they are!