ST. CLOUD, Minn. - In unprecedented numbers, Minnesota Army National Guard service members have been called to active duty and mobilized to combat zones. One deployment, extending 22 months, constituted the longest tour of duty of any military unit in Iraq.
Battlemind, and its newer description, resilience, have become household terms in Guard families and communities.
Who serves these Soldiers at the confluence of clashing cultures and ideologies, in the chaos of combat, where morals and morale are buffeted by relentless heat, wind, sand or boredom, sprinkled or flooded with relationships fed through Skype and chat?
Soldiers train to immediately act on sensory and technological input to save their lives and the lives of others. What resources are available to address the emotional and spiritual impact of this experience?
On the ground, Army National Guard chaplains are among those who tend to the job of making meaning of the mix of raw experience: readiness, mission, violence, loss, alienation, camaraderie and life away from home.
What equips chaplains to listen and hear, to lead in praise and thanksgiving, to accompany those who have borne the battle, to provide solace and hope, to advise commanders in matters of ethics and morals, and to facilitate the re-building of service members' understandings of the world, humanity and the divine when faced with experience that renders previous views impotent?
A DOD/VA sharing agreement, initiated by the Minnesota Army National Guard state chaplain and VA Midwest Health Care Network (VISN 23) ACPE System, established a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program designed for ARNG chaplains and chaplain candidates.
Enhancing ministry effectiveness of chaplains to provide spiritual care and ethical leadership in their ARNG units was a primary goal of the program.
Through on-going reflection on their own lives and ministry, each chaplain was challenged individually and within a group of their peers to examine the impact of their beliefs and practices on those they serve.
Expected to identify their strengths and weaknesses, students risked engaging each other to offer critique that would further develop their ability to reflect theologically and own their pastoral identity and authority in the face of the challenges of military service.
Each chaplain brought his or her own theological understanding and faith-group perspective with which to ground their ministry and offer perspective in the group. In addition to religious, cultural and social diversity, members of the program held the rank of first lieutenant through lieutenant colonel. The disparity in rank provided opportunity for group members to articulate their perspective while addressing each other with respect.
Twenty-nine chaplains completed 35 units of CPE during the six programs offered between the fall of 2007 and spring of 2013. Five chaplains followed their ARNG CPE training to engage in CPE residency programs.
Armed with 100 hours of education, informed by more than 300 hours of direct ministry experience in ARNG units, congregations and social service agencies, ARNG chaplains offer ministry with their units in Minnesota communities experiencing natural disaster, Iraq, Kuwait, and in the homes of those experiencing the death of an ARNG soldier.
Prepared to listen to their heart and to reflect on their experience, these CPE-trained ARNG chaplains are equipped to walk with service members through the valley of the shadows of life, to point to the light in the darkness, and to remind us all that though the waters of chaos may converge and threaten to overtake us, we are not alone or without hope.