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NEWS | Feb. 23, 2011

National Guard chaplain inspires hope, courage in Soldiers

By Army Staff Sgt. Pat Caldwell 3rd Sustainment Brigade

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq - Silhouetted against the shadows of a dozen Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, the chaplain prayed.

He prayed for the men standing around him in a semi-circle; he prayed for their families back home in places like Oregon and Idaho. He prayed for their spouses and daughters and sons and brothers and most of all, he prayed that on this cold January night, the men in the MRAPs would be safe.

Then the prayer ended. The Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 103rd Sustainment Brigade (Expeditionary), slowly began to wander away, back to their MRAPS that would, in a few short hours, carry them down a stretch of Iraqi highway that may or may not be safe.

A Soldier lingered. He chatted with Army 1st Lt. Jock Johnson, chaplain for 3rd Battalion, 116th Cav. Regt., 3rd Sus. Bde.  Then, he too walked away; back to his MRAP.

“It was good,” Johnson said. “I think they appreciate that the chaplain showed up.”

Johnson walked slowly down the line of MRAPs from Alpha Company, 3rd Bn., 116th Cav. Regt., 3rd Sus. Bde., talking, laughing, pointing. He stood at the end of the line and surveyed the vehicles.

For Johnson, the very act of meeting and praying with Soldiers before they go outside the wire carries its own kind of significance, its own form of sanctity. There, down the line of MRAPs, the 3rd Battalion chaplain can recognize devotion and fellowship and, in a strange way, purity.

“This is one of those things you can’t measure,” he said.

He probably wouldn’t label his profile as a “beacon of light” to Soldiers, but Johnson fills a role that is distinctive, at times challenging and more often than not, rewarding.

Chaplains are woven into the very fabric of today’s Army. They exist at a rare intersection between counselor and religious mentor where they balance faith with the mission and nurture Soldiers while furnishing a foundation of encouragement.

“The chaplain’s role is kind of unique in that we provide religious support and, at the same time, we offer aspects of well-being life counseling,” Johnson said.

More than 25,000 chaplains have served in Army ranks through its history, and more than 700 are now serving Soldiers in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a chaplain, Johnson must minister to a large group of men and women with diverse beliefs. Some are Catholic or Protestant or Baptist. Some place their convictions in other faiths. All of them though, by virtue of their calling as Soldiers, are members of Johnson’s ministry in Iraq.

“I think my job is real critical,” Johnson said. “It isn’t [as] critical when things are going well. But it is when things are not going so well.”

One key goal of chaplains in the Army is to help with the free exercise of religion, an aim Johnson takes seriously.

“My job allows Soldiers to express themselves and protect their religious practices,” he said.

Johnson is well-versed in scripture and can discuss religious philosophy easily, but his real focus is on the average Soldier. It is there, among the Soldiers, where Johnson said he secures the most reward.

“Me going out to a CET [Convy Escort Team] shows them I’m approachable. I’m someone they can confide in. The easiest thing (about my job) is going out and visiting troops. I enjoy praying with the troops,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a business and computer technology teacher in civilian life at Irrigon High School in Irrigon, Ore., used to be a pastor fulltime, but said he always wanted to serve his country.

“When I was a pastor, and even before when I was going to Bible School, I thought it would be interesting to be a chaplain. But it wasn’t the right time,” he said.

Like so many Americans, the deadly Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks helped push Johnson into a more proactive role.

“After 9/11, I wanted to look for a place to serve. My kids are older, and they are always looking for chaplains. There are never enough,” he said.

While Johnson said his passion is teaching, he also said he believes the role of the chaplain is essential to the overall health of his unit.  While he acts as a chaplain and a counselor to Soldiers, he is also a key instrument for the 3rd Battalion’s commander, Army Lt. Col. Phil Appleton.

“Sometimes the command will ask us to gauge the morale of the troops, and sometimes we can act as the counselor for the commander,” he said.

In the end, though, it all comes back to the spiritual welfare of the Soldier, Johnson said. He said he sympathizes with the challenges Soldiers in the 3rd Bn., 116th Cav. Regt. face on the roads as part of convoy escort teams.

“Some of our Soldiers are seeing a lot of time outside the wire,” he said.

So Johnson’s role runs a full circle each week.  He visits a number of different CETs preparing to go out on convoy duty and it is usually in the dark, under the stark lights of a company staging area. There he gathers around a group of Soldiers and prays. The focus, of course, is partly on divine guidance. Yet another main element to his prayers rests, as it should and as it always has, on the Soldiers.  He prays for their safety and their families and their future.

“I pray they don’t get hurt. I pray they do a good job,” he said.