By Stanton D. Trotter, a captain in the United States Army.
One afternoon, I found myself in the middle of a small group, pretending to be a minister visiting a parishioner in the hospital. The next day, I was in class discussing when it would be appropriate to use religious resources when counseling someone. Another day, I was learning about the three Isaiahs and then, in another class, I was learning about which letters Paul clearly wrote and which letters were a little suspect. I kept wondering what all of this have to do with my vocation -- to be an Army chaplain. I knew why I was at Claremont School of Theology -- to get an M.Div. and learn all that I could to prepare me to be a chaplain -- but I didn't know if what I was learning was really preparing me well.
I remember wrestling with my Old Testament professor and asking why it was so important to know about the three Isaiahs and the "documentary hypothesis." He told me that one day I would have a parishioner ("a soldier," I thought to myself) come to me, asking a question about the Bible, and I would be thankful to have this knowledge. I remember talking to another professor, asking why we were spending so much time learning to provide pastoral care to people who seemed really damaged and needed more professional, psychological help -- wouldn't it be better to focus on the needs of more functional people? He told me a similar answer -- one day I would deal with these issues in my ministry. My pastoral care and counseling professor also told me I needed to take several units of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at a hospital. Of course, during my time with hurting and dying patients, I had no idea that I would be repeating very similar scenes on the battlefield in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fast-forward eight years.
As an Army chaplain, I've been in combat three times -- each time in a different place with diverse soldiers. My first tour was weeks after September 11, 2001, when I was sent with infantry soldiers to Afghanistan. Days before the Iraq war began in March 2003, I was in Kuwait with the military police. Starting in Kuwait, I was with the soldiers as they fought their way into Baghdad and remained there for a one-year tour. In 2006 and 2007, I was back in Iraq, this time in the northern part of the country, with a support unit.
Throughout these times in combat, I saw soldiers at their best and I saw them at their most difficult times. I held the hands of dying men, and I held the hands of the wounded and prayed fervently that they would not die. I celebrated and praised God with my soldiers when we returned from missions with no fatalities. Back at Claremont School of Theology, I had no idea that I would experience so much. I never realized that I might be the only chaplain on a battlefield with so many soldiers. I didn't realize how much I was learning in seminary that would make me a better Army chaplain.
"You're the man, chaplain." This is a phrase that I hear many times from my soldiers. "But why?" I wonder. Soldiers come to me with questions, sometimes simple and sometimes not. They wonder what the Bible says about a certain topic. They ask the difference between Catholic and Baptist, or Christian and Muslim. They questions why we worship on Sundays. Sometimes, as I am answering their questions, I realize that soldiers come to me because I am the designated religious expert. For the most part, I am able to answer their questions and send them away with something new to think about. This is where the phrase, "You're the man, chaplain," comes in. They thank me for the explanation and then ask where I learned so much about Christianity, the Bible, and other religions.
That's easy. Seminary.
"You're the man, chaplain" is also communicated to me in other ways. Much of what I do as an Army chaplain is counseling and pastoral care. When I start a counseling session with a soldier, usually he's a bundle of nerves. But then I see physical relief and a sigh. The twitching stops. Most of the time, I close my counseling sessions with prayer, and the soldier often cries. To me, this communicates appreciation: "You connected with me, you help me connect with God, and you helped me with my problem." What an honor and responsibility!
I am extraordinarily grateful to the professors who shared their knowledge, understanding, and wisdom while I was a theological school student. You helped make me a better Army chaplain, and any time I receive a word of thanks from a soldier, you deserve part of the credit.
Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!