Wednesday marked the 240th anniversary of George Washington’s founding of a chaplain corps in the Continental Army. Commemorations were low-key—the anniversary was mentioned on the House floor and highlighted by the “Faith It Forward” initiative spearheaded by Rep. Randy Forbes and Sen. James Lankford, co-chairmen of the bipartisan Congressional Prayer Caucus. Still, it was good to be reminded that in the war for American liberty—for a nation founded on the freedom to exercise religion, and the freedom to practice no religion at all—Gen. Washington believed that the military chaplaincy was essential for the health and well-being of his troops.
I was also reminded of a more somber anniversary coming next month: It will have been five years since Chaplain Capt. Dale Goetz was killed in action, along with five soldiers from his unit, on Aug. 30, 2010, by a roadside bomb in the Arghandab Valley near Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was the first U.S. military chaplain killed in action in 40 years.
The hardest moment during my tenure as Army chief of chaplains was receiving the news that one of our nation’s chaplains had been killed in action. Emails and phone calls began flooding in, attesting to the tremendous spiritual impact he’d had on members of the military and their families.
An airman reported that Chaplain Goetz had led him to a profession of faith. A couple said that his pastoral counseling had saved their marriage. Two young men entered the ministry as a result of his influence on their lives. A soldier who attended Chaplain Goetz’s last chapel service, inspired by his message that we should live with the same compassion we saw in Jesus Christ, said he had been moved to ask God’s forgiveness of those who were “setting the bombs on the road for us to die.”
Such influence on America’s military personnel has been a hallmark of the chaplain corps since the Revolutionary War. Soon after Washington established the Continental Army’s Chaplain Corps on July 29, 1775, chaplains were organized for the Navy, on Nov. 28, 1775. The Air Force chaplaincy got its start on May 10, 1949.
As the religious backgrounds of the nation’s military personnel has expanded, the chaplain corps has also grown to attend to a range of faiths—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu. Military chaplains, in taking up their pastoral duties, pledge to serve equally all members of the armed forces, regardless of religious belief, ensuring their Constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.
While military chaplains are noncombatants and don’t carry weapons, they still follow those they serve directly into harm’s way. Many chaplains have given their lives providing religious and spiritual support for those who sacrifice to keep our country safe. From the Army alone, nearly 300 chaplains have died while on deployment, and eight chaplains have received the Medal of Honor.
The Medal of Honor recipients range from those who served in the Civil War, such as Chaplain John. M. Whitehead, whose citation says he “went to the front during a desperate contest and, unaided, carried to the rear several wounded and helpless soldiers” at the Battle of Stones River in 1862, to chaplains in the Vietnam War. Their number includes Maj. Charles J. Watters. He was killed in Dak To province in 1967 after having successfully carried wounded U.S. troops to safety while “unarmed and completely exposed,” his Medal of Honor citation reads, “showing unyielding perseverance and selfless devotion.”
On my last trip to Afghanistan, in 2011, I met with Chaplain Goetz’s unit. They were still grieving his death and the deaths of those lost with him. The soldiers described Chaplain Goetz as a trusted confidant, a “combat multiplier,” a good friend, “the real deal.” That’s a good description of the military chaplains I have known, nurturing the living, caring for the wounded, honoring the fallen, bringing soldiers to God and God to soldiers.
Mr. Carver, who retired as a U.S. Army major general in 2011, served as the Army’s 22nd chief of chaplains, 2007-11. He is the executive director of chaplaincy for the North American Mission Board.