The United States Army Chaplain Corps is a unique part of American military tradition. Said to be among the smallest (if not THE smallest) unit in the U.S. Army, the Chaplain Corps predates Independence Day and since this unit began, chaplains have served in every American conflict.
Army Chaplain Corps anniversary will be on Thursday, July 29, 2021.
The Anniversary of the Army Chaplain Corps
The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps celebrates its birthday each year on July 29th, the day it was authorized by the Continental Congress. There are commemorative gatherings across the globe held by Army Chaplains, Chaplain Assistants, and other support troops to observe the birthday of the Corps.
These events reaffirm the Army Chaplain Corps’ commitment to helping, mentoring, counseling, and teaching soldiers. July 29th is celebrated everywhere from Washington D.C. to the most forward deployed locations around the globe.
A Brief History Of The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps
In 1775, The Continental Congress authorized the creation of an Army Chaplain Corps, providing one chaplain for each regiment. At the time, those who served as Army Chaplains were paid approximately $20 a month and had no required military uniform. The role would evolve and change over time, especially where multi-faith operations are concerned.
The Corps did not begin as the pluralistic operation it is today, but over time Catholic chaplains were added, and later African American and Jewish chaplains. These additions happened prior to or during the Civil War, but it wouldn’t be until 1979 for women to be allowed to accept commissions as Army Chaplains.
What Is The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps?
The Army Chaplains Corps offer soldiers spiritual guidance, counseling, advice, and mentoring in peace and wartime by employing trained clergy members who have had both spiritual and classroom-type training and have passed Army training requirements in non-combatant soldier skills.
Chaplains are expected to accompany troops on and off the battlefield, providing what the Army calls “free exercise of religion in a pluralistic setting”.
Army chaplains must be ordained, have appropriate undergraduate and graduate degrees, and must also go through Army training above and beyond college work. But not all the people who work in the Army Chaplain Corps are ordained, nor do all who serve in the Corps serve as military chaplains.
An Army Chaplain is an officer, but an Army Chaplain Assistant may be an enlisted member who does not hold a degree or ecclesiastical training before she or he joins the service.
The Origin Of “Chaplain”
The word “chaplain” is said to have its’ origin in the story of St. Martin of Tours, who while a conscript in the Roman army (circa 334 A.D.) is said to have cut his cape (known as a cappa in Latin) in half to share with a homeless person. This humanitarian act is supposed to have occurred while he served as a Roman soldier before his 18th birthday.
The story goes that following the cloak-cutting incident Martin of Tours had a divine vision and woke to find his cloak was whole again. St. Martin of Tours would be baptized into the Christian faith, become a monk, and later a bishop.
Since St. Martin of Tours was associated with military service, when his cloak began to be thought of as a holy relic, it would be carried into battle and used to swear oaths upon. The cloak or cappa would be placed in a royal treasury later given by Charlemagne to a group of monks circa 799 A.D.
A priest responsible for caring for this relic who would be come to known as a cappellanu. Over time any priest serving troops would become known as cappellani. In French, this is translated as chapelains. From there we get “chaplain” in English.
The Historic Role Of Army Chaplains
Those who serve in the Army Chaplain Corps have always done so as non-combatants. Army Chaplains do not carry weapons, cannot direct combat operations, and cannot serve as commanders.
A Chaplain is not permitted to do many of the things that another soldier of equal rank and seniority may do as it relates to combat, defense operations, or other functions that are specifically related to warfare.
Chaplain Assistants, also known as Religious Affairs Specialists, are not necessarily non-combatants and do not have all the same restrictions as the Army Chaplains they work with.
This enlisted Army MOS does not require the same religious training that chaplains are required to undertake, but they do get training in psychology and related areas as part of their Army professional education experience.
How Army Chaplains Work
Army Chaplains serve as counselors, religious leaders, moral authorities, and provide comfort to those in conflict zones or affected by combat. In peacetime and outside areas where American forces engage in combat operations, you may find Chaplains working in ways similar to those who run civilian houses of worship.
Chaplains may provide teaching, guidance, serve as mentors, even work as radio personalities in military radio stations to discuss their mission, work, and services. They often serve in or in conjunction with military medical facilities on and off the battlefield.
Requirements To Become An Army Chaplain
The U.S. Army frequently adjusts, streamlines, and modifies its’ requirements of a variety of Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) codes, but in general, to become an Army Chaplain the following requirements must be met:
- Basic Army Requirements for physical readiness as determined by a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS)
- The ability to obtain a security clearance.
- Minimum age of 21 years old and under age 42 at the time of active duty commissioning. Army National Guard or Army Reserve commissioning requirements include being under the age of 47 at the time of commissioning.
- Must complete “basic theological education” for the service member’s chosen denomination or faith tradition (a Master of Divinity degree is common).
- A minimum of two years of post-theological education professional experience (active duty only).
- Are ordained by the service member’s chosen denomination or faith tradition and have the faith’s endorsement to serve in the U.S. Army.
- Applicants are required to obtain “ecclesiastical endorsement” which shows in writing that the service member is qualified “spiritually, morally, intellectually and emotionally to serve as a chaplain in the Army”.
- Able to observe sensitivity to a pluralistic faith environment and enable the free exercise of religion for all.
There are minimum education requirements to serve as an Army Chaplain, which include:
- A baccalaureate degree of no less than 120 semester hours.
- A graduate degree in theological or religious studies, and at least 72 semester hours in graduate work.
These requirements must be met with degrees from an accredited institution of higher learning.
The U.S. Army Chaplain Experience For College Students
The Army offers a training program to help Chaplain candidates determine if the Army Chaplain Corps is right for them. The Army Chaplain Candidate Program allows students to “train to become an Army Chaplain at the same time you are training for the ministry” according to the Army official site.
This program requires entry into the Army Reserve or Army National Guard. Chaplain Candidates will attend the Chaplain Basic Officer Leader Course, described as “an intensive, entry-level, initial military training process for newly acquired chaplains and Chaplain Candidates.”
Military Honors For Army Chaplains
In spite of being non-combatants, Army Chaplains have earned many awards for bravery, self-sacrifice, and valor. Five have been awarded the Medal of Honor including a posthumous award in 1969.
During World War Two, four Army Chaplains died helping servicemembers survive a German torpedo attack on an Army transport ship, the U.S.A.T Dorchester. They gave their life jackets to other soldiers, went down with the ship, and died as a result. These men, known as “The Four Chaplains” were awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously.
They were also awarded a specially-created, one-time honor: the Special Medal for Heroism. This was authorized by Congress and awarded by the President on January 18, 1961, and has never been awarded again.
Many other Army Chaplains have died in the line of duty, including 12 during the Korean War, and 13 killed in action during the Vietnam conflict.
The Army Chaplain Corps Today
There are approximately 1,300 active duty Army Chaplains, with another 1,200 Army Reserve Chaplains serving a diverse group of faiths including Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. More than 120 individual denominations are represented.
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