On the Front Lines Military Chaplains Engage in Unique Ministry

By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (July 8, 2013) – U.S. Navy Chaplain Lt. David Kim had been asking himself whether he should no longer let himself get close to the men he ministered to in Afghanistan.

“We were several guys dying a month,” Kim says. “There were memorial services every other week.” The emotional pain he felt was intense as many were for young men he knew well.

To name a few: Sgt. Adan Gonzales Jr. and Sgt.  Joshua Robinson, who were killed the same day – “I was so close to them,” Kim says; staff member Gunnery Sgt. Ralph “Gunny” Pate; Lance Cpl. Sean O’Connor, a regular at Kim’s Bible studies; and Lance Cpl. Norberto Mendez-Hernandez, “who was always helping gather people up for services whenever I visited Patrol Base Faheem.”

Dealing with the pain and the doubts was an extended trial for Kim. Finally, he met with a more senior chaplain. “He did a good job of listening to me,” Kim says. “He told me God had brought me to be close to them.”

After that, he was able to give himself fully to a ministry that he and other Covenant military chaplains say is a privilege. “I get to be the representative of the divine in dark times,” Kim says.

Navy Lt. Mark Maines describes his work saying, “I have the opportunity to be present for life’s most poignant moments in the living and dying. I feel like this is a sacred trust.”

It is a trust lived out by 32 Covenant chaplains who are on active duty, in the reserves or National Guard. Seven Covenant ministers also are in chaplaincy training. Navy chaplains also serve with the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard since neither of those maritime branches has its own chaplains.

The Covenant provides more military chaplains per capita than any other denomination, says Navy Cmdr. Jeff Saville, who chairs the Covenant Chaplains Association.

Kim notes that of three of the nine chaplains in his chaplaincy training were Covenanters. In addition to himself, other Covenant classmates were Navy chaplains, Lt. Cmdr. Frank Riley and Navy chaplain Lt. Peter Dahlstrom.

Saville, who has traveled to more than 30 countries while on duty, says military chaplaincy is an important way that the Covenant serves globally. He has led services in a variety of settings—a tent in Somalia, a library-turned-chapel aboard a ship, a chapel in Spain, an ancient church in London, and a combat zone in Iraq.

Their ministry also has led many Covenant chaplains to ranks in which they oversee ministry to thousands of men and women. In Afghanistan in the last year, Army Maj. John Grauer, Riley, and Army Maj. Mark Nakazono have been responsible for ministering to more than 20,000 service personnel and Department of Defense civilians. That includes overseeing the work of other chaplains—and providing them with emotional and spiritual support, as well.

“I think it’s the Covenant’s emphasis on relationships that helps us a lot in this kind of ministry,” Kim says.

The chaplains are pastors, preachers, counselors, administrators, advocates, and reconcilers. “For someone who always needs to be doing something different, it’s the perfect job,” Nakazono said.

“Everything a pastor does, we do,” Maines says, adding what he admits is an exaggeration but one that points to reality. “One of a hundred local church calls for a pastor is for crisis. For military chaplains, it’s reversed.”

As a result, military chaplains encounter ministry extremes. “Since I have been deployed to Kandahar there have been hundreds of stories of heroism and of tragedy,” says Grauer.

He recalls one soldier who lost both of his legs. The first thing the young man said after waking in the hospital was, “ ‘I need the phone so I can call to make sure all my guys are OK.’ He didn’t even think about himself.”

Riley has helped carry litters with wounded soldiers and has been alongside surgical teams in the operating room.

Chaplains do a lot of counseling related to traumatic experiences. Survivors of attacks in which fellow soldiers are wounded or killed often feel a sense of guilt, says Grauer. “They question themselves. ‘Did I do the wrong thing? Why am I fine if I was in the same vehicle?’ ”

Chaplains sent to combat zones also can find themselves in harm’s way. In 2006, Nakazono was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for Valor after helping save the life of a platoon leader in the midst of gunfire.

While ministering to servicemen and women or traveling to see them, Riley has undergone as many as 100 attacks that included mortar shelling and small arms fire.

William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general who ordered the burning of Atlanta, famously declared that “War is hell.” It is in the middle of hellish situations that chaplains serve as the guardian of morality, they say.

Riley recalls that an Afghani “threw acid on children going to school, and they breathed it into their lungs.” One of the American servicemen declared he hated Afghans, and Riley had to help him through the anger.

“My job is to help them think morally and ethically about what they are doing,” says Maines. “The chaplain has to be the one in the room to raise the questions when actions being discussed might be unethical.”

Earlier this year, Maines wound up in an unexpected setting. He was called to meet with a Marine in his battalion who was accused of murdering an officer and was due in court for arraignment four days later.

On the day of the arraignment Maines went to the courthouse in case the Marine wanted to meet with him. He didn’t. But as Maines walked into the courthouse, he was met by some 30 members of the victim’s family, many of whom had served in the military and recognized from his uniform that he was a chaplain.

“It was definitely being a shoulder to cry on,” Maines says. After the judge announced a $4 million bail for the Marine, Maines stood with the victim’s family outside the courthouse as they responded to reporters’ questions.

The lectionary reading the Sunday before had been 2 Corinthians 5. “We have this ministry of reconciliation and are called to be Christ’s ambassadors,” Maines says. “Although I had not anticipated family members for the deceased being present, nor people who were rooted to the Navy, I immediately knew in that moment I was there to be present for both sides, to stand in the middle, to not choose sides, and to be that ambassador of reconciliation. It was a powerful and transformational moment for me as I considered the previous morning’s text.”

The work is not always dramatic. Navy Chaplain Lt. Peter Dahlstrom echoes his colleagues when he says his work is “a ministry of presence. You’re always asking how they’re doing and checking in with them.”

Chaplains also do a lot of ministry with the families of military personnel, whether it be providing counseling or performing baptisms.

Riley is a reservist who is the senior pastor of River47 Covenant Church in Orange, California. He says ministering in stressful ministry situations in the military has better prepared him to help families in his church regardless of what need may arise.

Since May 2012, Kim has been “stuck” serving as what amounts to the administrative assistant for the Chief of Chaplains—the highest ranking chaplain in the Navy. He does a lot of paperwork and organizing schedules. “I don’t know of a pastor who likes doing paperwork,” he quips.

“I didn’t apply for the job,” Kim says. “I honestly don’t know how I was tagged.”

Kim doesn’t know what his future holds, but he longs for the day he might get back to serving Marines to whom he can once again minister up close.

To see more photos go to Military Chaplains’ Call of Duty gallery.




  • Thank you Stan for highlighting the important work of our Covenant chaplains. May God continue to bless them with strength and peace.

  • Great info Stan Friedman! Thanks for sharing your views. In my view security of a nation depends hugely on the military services and the border security forces. Keep posting more info…

  • When I was in the Navy during the Vietnam war, it was a mustang Navy chaplain who not only ministered to me, but saw potential in me to go into the ministry. Now, being a retired Covenant minister, I am very thankful for God putting Lt. Roberts into my life and I have the opportunity to give back as I am the chaplain at the Veterans Drop In Center in Rockford, Illinois, one day a week. Thanks be to God for the “up close” ministry of our military chaplains!

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