Washington, 9 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A leading U.S. military chaplain says it is exciting and encouraging to see many of the ex-communist countries forming corps of chaplains within their armed forces.
Rear Admiral Byron Holderby, chief of chaplains for the U.S. Navy, made the comment during an RFE/RL interview in Washington. He says he believes chaplain corps would be helpful as many of the former Soviet bloc countries restructure their armed forces.
Holderby says that chaplain corps play an important role in the military beyond providing religious services and counseling. He says that in the U.S. military, chaplains have other duties such as monitoring and boosting morale, advising commanding officers of specific religious holidays and cultural traditions, teaching courses on values, interpersonal skills and leadership, and offering a wide range of counseling services to military personnel and their families.
Holderby says that historically, the U.S. military chaplain corps was formed according to the British model. He says that when the American colonies were formed, each of the local militias always had a chaplain. America's first president, George Washington, was the first to hire military chaplains on a federal basis. In 1775, Congress authorized the creation of a chaplain corps and officially put it in the articles of military regulations, he says.
Today in the U.S. armed forces, Holderby says there are approximately 2,700 chaplains, representing more than 100 different religious faiths. Among the faiths represented are Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and Christian Scientists.
Any religion can petition to have its clergy join the U.S. military, explains Holderby. The way it works, he says, is that the religious group must contact the military with a qualified candidate who is willing to serve in the armed forces. The requirements for a chaplain are fairly simple -- a person must have an undergraduate degree and another 90 hours of graduate study. The candidate must also be officially endorsed, trained, and certified in the particular faith by the religious organization.
Holderby explains: "Churches themselves take care of the religious training. Each church will send their person to a seminary or to a viable college or to some sort of advanced education beyond their bachelor's degree that will certify them to be clergy in their particular branch. The military does not get into the religious training."
Once a candidate is accepted, they are immediately commissioned as officers, says Holderby. He adds that the military does provide about eight weeks of basic training for the chaplains, mostly to familiarize them with specific military culture and language.
Holderby says that chaplains must wear uniforms like other soldiers and are subject to all the rules and regulations of military personnel. The only difference, he explains, is that chaplains wear what is called a "corps device" on their uniforms. The device is a symbol that the chaplains wear on their left collar to indicate their particular religion, says Holderby. It also indicates that the officer does not have command privileges, but is part of the chaplain corps, he adds.
Holderby explains: "If it is a Christian chaplain, he will wear a cross on his left collar. If it is a Jewish chaplain, he will wear the tablets of the law on his left collar. If he is Muslim, he will wear the crescent on his left collar, and so on. This will identify to people that this person is a chaplain."
Holderby says that chaplains are permitted to wear religious clothing when conducting religious ceremonies and on special occasions. They are also promoted in rank according to their job performance, just like any other military personnel, he adds.
The chaplains are overseen not only by their commanding officers, but by a special civilian board made up of representatives from each of the religious denominations represented in the military, says Holderby. This group, which meets several times a year, developed a code of ethics by which all the chaplains must abide, regardless of their religion. Some of the ethics include respect for all religions and not trying to convert people of other faiths to their own, he adds.
Sensitivity and respect for all religions is a critical part of a chaplain's job, says Holderby. For example, he says when he was stationed at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, it was his job to inform the school commander of the different religious holidays.
Explains Holderby: "We had exchange students there who were Muslim, and it was my job to tell the commander when they were going into high holy days and what their food requirements were. The school then provided for them. For Jewish personnel, if they wanted to observe a holy day, I would go to the commander and ask that they be allowed to observe the day. So, unless there was a military necessity which would keep that from happening, they would be permitted to have the time off."
Frank Silnicky, a former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who is Jewish, told RFE/RL that he was impressed by the chaplains sensitivity to military personnel of all faiths during his tour of duty. He says the chaplains were consistently accommodating and respectful of his faith along with the differing religious beliefs of his comrades.
Says Silnicky: "This may be so, possibly because the U.S. is such a pluralistic society and we have so many different people. But more than anything else, it is legislated -- it is a part of official military procedure."
The military procedure of commissioning chaplains into the armed services is becoming popular in many of the ex-communist nations, says Holderby, adding that he thinks it is a "wonderful" development.
For example, Tiit Tammela, the defense attache' at the Estonian Embassy to the U.S., told RFE/RL that his country's military instituted a chaplain corps six years ago. He says that while the corps is still young and developing, it is already considered an integral part of his country's military system.
The story is different in Russia, however. On May 27, the Russian Duma adopted a law about the status of military personnel. The Russian journal Itogi reprinted an excerpt from this law in its June 7 issue where it was stated that the state has "no responsibility to provide military personnel with services connected to their religious beliefs and execution of religious worship."
But Holderby says that those countries interested in forming chaplain corps can always count on help and advice from the U.S., if it is wanted.
Concludes Holderby: "We certainly stand ready to help in any way we can. We think our model of being able to work together with various faith groups is a solid one. We would always be willing to share how that works with anyone who is moving in that direction."