Military Chaplains and the Holy Mystery of the Call

Note: This article was first published in the Chaplain’s journal, Curtana.

The nature of God’s call upon individuals is a holy mystery. I think this strange action of God is incomprehensible to those who have never received it. However, it is also never fully dissected by most of us who have felt the great talons grasp us from on high and carry us to thoughts and processes we may not have fathomed before God revealed to us we were set apart for service.

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The same beloved family members who were elated that I accepted my call into pastoral ministry as a 25 year old, were mystified when I informed them thirteen years later that I felt God was directing me into military chaplaincy. My dear Grandmother, with a look of despair on her face asked me, “But Robert, why are you leaving the ministry and joining the Air Force?”

The extraordinary truth is those two aspects of my call are not only “connected” but merely two of a yet unknown number of different tributaries of a mighty river that surges through every part of my being. One that continues to cut new channels where and when I least expect them. I hope that as I unfold this personal thesis, you will see common ground, areas of disagreement, perspectives that set you thinking deeply, but no reasons to engage in angry, religious debate. At 65, with 40 years of intense self-searching and perhaps more intense God-searching, I find angry religious debate to be totally useless and unpleasantly damaging to all involved.

Since, this is an article in a journal that serves chaplains, let me begin with my calling into chaplaincy, even though I did not become an Air Force chaplain until I was 38 years old, which places that ministry 12 years after my entry into ordained pastoral ministry. Actually, it is fitting to address this early, because it is the heart of this article.

One of the most painful chapters of my life began when at 19, married for nine months to the same beautiful girl I am still in love with today, I was required to join the Army, go through nearly five months of training, followed by a one year tour of duty in Vietnam. The main pain I’m speaking of is not being in a war zone, but being separated from Phyllis almost continuously from February 10, 1969 until return from Vietnam on July 25, 1970.

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I was part of the Army Security Agency (ASA), which at the time was the Army branch of the National Security Agency (NSA). ASA members were among the first American military members in Vietnam. All of us possessed high security clearances due to the sensitive nature of our work. My clearance was Top Secret/Cryptographic (TS/Crypto). We were not allowed to discuss the nature of our individual responsibilities with anyone without a need to know, and that included the unit chaplain. As anyone in such a job knows, it is a lonely position in which to be.

 

IMG_3001The first time I saw Chaplain Wesley Bassen was within days of arriving in Saigon. I was immediately captivated by this giant of a soldier with a radiant smile that was easy to see long before I noticed the cross on his Superman shaped chest. He made me feel like he was serving in Vietnam just so he could be there for me. That’s not what he said, of course, but it is what I felt.

My twelve to eighteen hour work days were spent in the most secure building in Saigon, surrounded by concrete walls that were several feet thick and totally windowless, handling materials most of which were stamped Top Secret. Most of that year I saw very little sunlight, but it seemed to me that every time I was out of our classified work location I ran into Chaplain Bassen. For me, he was like an oasis in the desert. While I could not discuss any work issues with him, I was able to pour out to him my heartaches about missing my wife, the interruption of my life goals, and the strange feelings I had in my soul about God wanting me to become a minister.

We were required to work six and a half days per week. I was able to get my half- day off on Sunday mornings and made it a point to be in chapel every week. Over the course of those twelve months, Chaplain Bassen touched my soul with nothing more than a caring, sacrificial heart, and nothing less than God’s touch through one of His faithful servants.

One of the issues we spent much time discussing was my calling into ministry, which for me was still far too primitive to result in more than wonderment and talk. But he saw something real in all of my fog and wrote several letters to the pastor of my home church. He also corresponded with a previous pastor who had been there when I began feeling even more primitive versions of the call as a fourteen or fifteen year old. I would consider it treasure equivalent to gold to possess those letters, but unfortunately, I never saw them. They were, after all, not directed to me, but to the pastors whom Chaplain Bassen made sure were aware of God’s influence upon me. I still marvel, especially when I think of the shortcomings of my own ministries, that he invested the time to send letters to those civilian pastors who were my shepherds back home.

What I do have is one letter from my local church pastor (Rev. Michael Fryga, now deceased), who wrote me near the end of my year in Vietnam. He covered a number of personal areas of interest such as my extended family, the unusually cold (for South Carolina) winter they had just been through, and how much help my wife was in various church events. In the last paragraph of the letter Rev. Fryga said,

“We have received communications from time to time from Rev. Wesley A.G. Bassen. He tells us of your good attendance and receiving Holy Communion at the services.”

I received another letter from the other pastor I mentioned, who coincidentally was also an Army Reserve Chaplain. He retired years later as the Reserve brigadier general, serving directly under the Army Chief of Chaplains at the time. That letter is one of the lost needles in twelve large haystacks (actually file boxes) of papers and mementoes from my forty years of professional ministry that I still aspire to mine for treasures. However, I remember clearly what he said:

“Chaplain Bassen has written me several letters discussing your sense from God that He is calling you into ministry. I recall that the Lord started that process with you while I was your pastor in Andrews. I look forward to assisting you when you are ready to begin the process of education and ordination as a United Methodist minister.” 

That pastor, Rev. George Fields stood behind me the day I was ordained as an Elder in the UMC, and laid hands on me along with the bishop as the Conference joined in the prayer that the Holy Spirit would empower my ministry.

These two threads in the fabric of my life demonstrate the interconnectedness of God’s call upon my life, and how the chaplaincy is wound through it tightly. But the fabric is far more complex than these two individual threads.

A Surprise at the Seminary

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In the Methodist tradition we baptize infants. I was baptized a few weeks after I was born in June of 1949. The pastor of our local church had served as a chaplain for the duration of World War Two. That may not seem like a very long thread, but it gets longer. Twenty-five years later, when I started seminary, I needed a job to help support my wife and our daughter. The pastor of a large Methodist church just a few miles from the seminary was looking for an Assistant to the Minister as the position became vacant just a few weeks before I was to begin my seminary training. I started that job and my first day of seminary education on the same day, September 1, 1975. The pastor was the same World War Two chaplain who had baptized me in my home church. During the year I worked for him, we had many discussions about the ministry he provided as a chaplain during the war.

I don’t know if this experience is common to all seminary students, but on the first day of classes I was with friends in the student union when members of our UMC endorsing agency arrived. They said they were there to talk to any of the new students who might be interested in serving as chaplains after their educational process was finished. A Voice within me said, “I want you to become a military chaplain.” I cannot prove to anyone that voice was God, but I thought it was, and the truth is the thought horrified me. I was not ready to deal with the thought of going back into the military in any capacity. Nevertheless, I attended the meeting and stored away the things I heard there.

I was ordained one year later with what the UMC calls Deacons Orders. This is a first level of ordination a UMC minister receives at a certain level in his progress toward Elder’s Orders and full Conference Membership. With that ordination I also became pastor of a country parish about eighty miles from the school I attended. At that parish and in the two others I served during the following eleven years, I had military retirees and Reservists in each parish. This was true even though each congregation was at least two hours from the closest military bases. Every one of them told me I should become a military chaplain. They observed gifts in me they felt would contribute to that ministry. While I wasn’t ready to answer that call for over a decade after first hearing that, I believe God was speaking through their witness.

In 1986, I became convinced God was determined I would become a chaplain, and I submitted the official paperwork thinking, “They’ll never take me—I’m too old to begin military service.” What I was told is, “No, we could take you, even up to 40 years of age, but the UMC has no open slots for active duty chaplains. We’ll put you at the bottom of the stack of all the others who are applying for a slot.” (At that time, there were thirty others ahead of me.)

I applied for a Reserve slot in the Air Force about a year later (when there still were no open slots for active duty United Methodist chaplains). I thought that would probably satisfy God. I got accepted into the Reserves immediately, but there were no openings in the next Chaplain School at Maxwell Air Force Base, which was to start a couple of months later.

Unknown to me, another one of those fibers was working its way through the weave. It turned out that the UMC chaplain who had interviewed me for endorsement by the UMC also happened to be the Commandant of the Chaplain School, and when he found out I wanted to go, he simply made another seat available.

Those four weeks at the Chaplain Service Institute at Maxwell AFB yielded an amazing truth in my journey: I absolutely loved the chaplaincy, I loved the Air Force, I loved everything about what I was learning and doing, and the people I was meeting during the four weeks of training. From that point, it was not God putting the pressure on me anymore. It was me putting the pressure on God: “Please open up a slot for a UMC chaplain to get into the USAF.” At that point there were then over forty UMC ministers who had met the credentials to be eligible for a slot and who desired one. But there were no positions available.

On 1 February 1988 I called the Office of the Chief of Chaplains for the USAF to ask if there was going to be a slot for a United Methodist Minister to go into the USAF. In my old age I realize that was a desperate and audacious thing to do, but back then I did it without a second thought. I didn’t get to speak to the Chief of Chaplains personally, but whoever it was I spoke to gave me a heartfelt and tender, while to the point and clear cut answer: “Honey, we have three open slots for chaplains for this year, and none of them are for a United Methodist.” When I hung up the phone, I actually broke down crying.

That year was a leap year. I will always remember that, because it was February 29th of that year, that Jim Townsend, our endorsing agent, called me at my office. I had talked to him many times and had sent many cards and letters reminding him I wanted a shot at any slot they got. Jim said, and I will remember this verbatim till the day I die, “Bob, we got one slot today, a miracle slot, and it’s the only one we anticipate getting for a long while. We have been through forty applications today of ministers just like you who want a chance to go into active duty service in the Air Force, and all three times your name came up to the top. It’s your slot if you want it.”

I knew then, and I know now that I was not the best candidate. I have never beaten out forty other competitors in anything. I recognized clearly then, and I know clearly now, that God made that slot for me.

It’s Not Our Call, It’s God’s

On the surface, this article to an audience that is filled up with other chaplains and other servants of God related to the chaplaincy, may seem to be me taking the opportunity of talking about myself. But I promise you I am too aware of all my shortcomings to write this long about myself. I am trying to make a strong point about a Holy Calling . . . one that many of you have shared.

There is a mystery in the Call of God that is as deep as any mystery in the universe. Bill Stackhouse who baptized me and hired me in my first church position . . . he who had served as a chaplain in World War Two . . . told me the substance of his Calling to over forty years of ministry was an overwhelming feeling that there was a need he could fill, and he made himself available to fill it. At the time, his description seemed too weak to me, but I was a very immature (and over zealous) Christian and (new) minister. Now I know that the Call goes out to all sorts of people. People of metaphysical, philosophical minds such as my own and practical, down to earth minds like Stackhouse’s. People like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samson, Elijah, David, Daniel, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Peter the Fisherman, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Mother Teresa, and every other kind of man and woman who God in His Omniscience and his Holy Humor chooses. We are flawed people, but Almighty God has called each of us for His own reasons. Who is capable of prosecuting that?

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I served thirty-five years in active institutional ministry. These included nine years as an active duty chaplain and thirteen years as a Reserve chaplain. The ministry I was able to do as a military chaplain was the most powerful portion of my service. Because of who we are as chaplains, I was able to serve service members, and to open windows to the power of God in their lives in ten states, eighteen countries, during five major deployments including the First Gulf War, and during a greater complexity of circumstances and complications than the average civilian minister would ever have the opportunity of experiencing. And I was simply an average chaplain.

We have a holy calling. Most civilians do not begin to understand what we do. Many in the military do not fully understand our role in their lives. Some secular critics would disband the chaplaincy and eliminate our presence forever. But we serve as a powerful flank of God’s Army and I am so grateful to God for allowing me to be a part of our ministry in the military chaplaincy. I know you are as well.

© 2015 Robert B. Clemons III.

Robert B. Clemons III is a full-time self-employed author. He recently published his first novel as an E-book at Amazon.com. It is available for purchase at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00XXCVODO. Clemons retired from the United States Air Force Chaplain Service as a Lieutenant Colonel with twenty-seven years service (including four years as an enlisted member in the Army Security Agency). He also retired from the United Methodist Church with a total of three and a half decades of service. In addition to his Master of Divinity, he holds degrees in Communications and Psychology and extensive post graduate studies in Philosophy. He is also the author of a poem included in this issue of Curtana and numerous articles in other publications.

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