Many holidays, many faith: Chaplains meet servicemembers' religious needs
by Staff Sgt. Don Branum
332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
12/29/2008 - JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq -- Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Pagans all observe major holy days in December. Air Force chaplains here spent much of the month making sure everyone in the diverse Joint Base Balad community had an opportunity to worship according to their beliefs.
For the first December since assuming overall responsibility for religious services here, the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Chapel staff and their Army counterparts worked together to ensure observances went smoothly for each the month's holy days: Hajj and Eid al-Adha for Islam, Boddhi Day for Buddhism, Hanukkah for Judaism, the Immaculate Conception and Christmas for Christians and Yule for Pagans.
In order to meet servicemembers' religious needs in December, the Chapel held or sponsored nearly 40 religious services, said Senior Master Sgt. Michael O'Donnell, 332nd AEW superintendent of chapel operations. O'Donnell did not have information about how many people attended December's services but said it was likely to be higher than the approximately 7,500 people who attended services in November.
"We have different setups for each group," O'Donnell said. "Catholic services are pretty much the same wherever you go. Protestant services depend more on the denomination of the chaplain, and chaplains may add their own uniqueness to a service based on how they want things set up."
One challenge the chapel staff had to overcome was the difference in organizational structure between the Air Force and Army, O'Donnell said.
"Army brigades will have a brigade chaplain who works directly for the brigade commander, whereas our chaplains all work for the wing chaplain," said O'Donnell, a native of Marshfield, Wis., who is deployed from Langley Air Force Base, Va. "Because of their missions, Soldiers don't always have the same opportunities to worship that Airmen do, so the chaplain works for his unit."
Another challenge is supplies, said Chaplain (Capt.) Andrew Cohen, the 332nd AEW's Jewish chaplain and the first rabbi to deploy to the wing.
"A military environment always creates its own unique challenges regardless of whether we're stateside or deployed," said Cohen, a Pittsburgh native who is deployed from Andrews AFB, Md. "The main challenge in a deployed setting is almost invariably resource-related -- having adequate usable supplies."
Thankfully, more than 20 donors, including private individuals and communal organizations, have provided "more than adequate" supplies, including menorahs, olive oil, wicks, candles and traditional foods such as potato pancakes for Jewish religious services, Cohen said. The chapel staff likewise has received supplies for other congregations' religious needs.
A third challenge is finding representatives for faith groups that are not directly represented by chaplains. That's where lay leaders, also called distinctive faith group leaders, come in, said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Terese Erickson, the deputy wing chaplain.
"Accommodation doesn't mean chaplains lead all worship services," said Erickson, a native of St. Paul, Minn., who is deployed from Maxwell AFB, Ala. "Accommodation means making sure everyone has an opportunity to worship. In some cases, it means I find appropriate qualified leaders and help them find a facility and resources. Freedom of religious expression is a key right that we have as citizens of the United States, so it's a privilege to support the Airmen and Soldiers who are defending the U.S. Constitution."
Lay leaders conduct services for members of their faith groups. In some cases, they lead worship; in others, they conduct religious studies or fellowships, Erickson said.
Army Spc. William Corum, an operations clerk with the 555th Engineer Brigade's 561st Engineer Company, 5th Engineer Battalion, is one of three lay leaders for a group of Wiccans and Pagans that meets here Thursdays and Saturdays.
"The chaplains here are very supportive," said Corum, a carpentry and masonry specialist deployed from Scofield Barracks, Hawaii. "Chaplain Erickson has helped us with numerous things: getting locations and times (for services), helping us get the word out. They occasionally sit in on our groups and send me e-mails to see how we're doing. They've worked with us to get us the things the group needs, and they've really gone above and beyond."
Erickson also works alongside Army chaplains and said she has a great deal of respect for them.
"Many of these chaplains are on their third deployment," she said. "Some have been deployed almost 15 months. And they've been terrific -- they've shown a lot of goodwill, a lot of enthusiasm, and a lot of teamwork in making the Army garrison chapel program work. I appreciate their dedication and their resiliency and their commitment to their people. It's been a joy working with them."