This post is due to the many questions I've received from those interested in military chaplaincy. I've been surprised to learn that actually not many people are familiar with what is chaplaincy in general, not just military chaplaincy and not only in conjunction with Buddhism. Some are unfamiliar even with the term "chaplain" (derived from the French, and refering to a garment worn by soldiers, in legend by a Catholic saint). One assumption I've encountered is that Buddhist chaplains do nothing but sign conscientious objection forms for Buddhist servicemembers! Certainly the C.O. process involves chaplains, but it is not exclusively the work of Buddhist chaplains (in my 6 years as a chaplain I've (correction!) only done one). The work of a military chaplain can be similar to the work of chaplains in other fields, like hospital chaplaincy. Below is a description of some of the military chaplain's roles - this is not a definitive or "official" list by any means, just an outline of what our work may consist of:
This may seem like a given, but I've been asked if we actually do this! So yes, chaplains do perform religious services, although only for his or her particular faith group. So a Roman Catholic chaplain cannot perform a Jewish seder, or a Buddhist chaplain a Mass. We can perform life-ritual services (sacraments) like weddings, confirmations (for Christians, things like baptism, etc.) and such services as required by our faith tradition. We can offer prayers and blessings for various functions like retirements, graduations, convoys departures, etc. The Constitutional Right of the free exercise of religion is our main reason for being. Military chaplains exist so that servicemembers have the opportunity to attend services of their faith tradition, especially in places where they may not be readily available, such as aboard a naval ship, or in the field, or another country. You can imagine it may be difficult for those of a minority faith, like Buddhism, Wicca, or others, to be able to talk to another member of their faith, much less attend services. Buddhist chaplains can help alleviate this.
Pastoral Care and Counseling
Perhaps the bulk of our service involves counseling of individuals. This is something all chaplains can perform for servicemembers regardless of their faith or non-faith affiliations. We often encounter individuals with issues regarding to marriage, stress, even suicidal ideation or post-traumatic stress disorder. In some cases we do refer individuals to mental health professionals or other services. Speaking with a chaplain involves confidentiality, meaning we cannot disclose the information passed in a counseling session to a third-party without the individual's permission. Chaplains also make visits to servicemembers incarcerated in the brig or hospitalized, so in this sense our chaplaincy is very similar to prison and hospital chaplaincies. Chaplains are very important in just being a person the servicemember can go and talk to without fear that their "issues" will be made known to the command, or to anyone. Sometimes all a servicemember wants to do is just "vent" and we can provide an ear for listening. (If you don't think a chaplain is needed, try just "venting" or talking about your issues with your boss, and see how that turns out)!
Another big part of our work involves boosting the morale of our servicemembers. We work as part of the command on this. This can take the form of providing volunteer activities (many chaplains I know have been involved in outside projects like Habitat For Humanity, which I also hope to participate in!), and assisting with Morale-Welfare-Recreation (MWR) activities and other programs, like United Through Reading. It can take the form of something as simple as arranging for the delivery and distribution of USO items and care packages (important on deployment) to servicemembers. There are many care package organizations, such as Adopt-a-Platoon and Soldier's Angels, that work with chaplains to ensure that deployed units receive free gear like food, toiletries, books, etc. We can liaison with outside, civilian groups, like nonprofits, churches, etc., so that servicemembers can receive assistance with family issues, material support, even financial support.
Historically, this was one of the major jobs of the chaplain. During the 1800s Navy Chaplains were actually involved in the education of midshipmen not just in religious subjects, but in secular subjects like mathematics, history, and navigation. Even today, chaplains can teach college courses on base or in deployed areas or on ships. Many servicemembers do take advantage of such opportunities to gain educational credit.
As I stated earlier, chaplains can be involved in the administrative work involved in things like conscientious objector discharges, although it takes more than just a chaplain's sign-off to successful complete such as discharge. We can also assist in other administrative work such as an Exceptional Hardship discharge (usually for servicemembers who need to take care of family member full-time). We also assist in the process of recommending and supporting command-sponsored lay leaders. Additionally, we work with the command in this.
There are undoubtedly many other things military chaplains can do, so I am sure I am neglecting to list them! This is just a brief outline of what our job can consist of. Ideally, a chaplain can do all this very well, but like all human beings, not all of us are completely perfect, but we try to do the best we can. Military chaplaincy is not an easy job, just as being a clergyperson is not a "cake" job (another misconception I've run across). Chaplaincy is clergy work outside the temple or church. Military chaplaincy is clergy work, in an especially challenging an unique environment.