National Guard Units Strained By Chaplain Shortage

July 10, 2009

Author: Nomaaan Merchant

Source: ABC News

Wire Service: AP

When patriotism inspired the Rev. Jerry Fehn a decade ago to serve soldiers in combat zones abroad, the 45-year-old was afraid he had waited too long.

He needn't have worried. The National Guard, wrestling with a chronic shortage of priests, cleared the roadblocks that might have kept Fehn out.

"They didn't really want to take someone over 40," Fehn said. "But because there's such a shortage of Catholic priests in the military, they said they would grant me a waiver if I could pass the physical."

Fehn went on to serve in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. Meanwhile, the guard has made significant strides in adding chaplains to its ranks, though many units still struggle to recruit for a position seen as crucial to morale. About 200 positions are open in the Army National Guard and 45 in the Air National Guard.

"It makes it harder to provide religious support," said Chaplain Samuel J.T. Boone, commandant of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, S.C. "There are some people who we can't provide their religious rites and sacraments as we can back here in the states."

Chaplains serve as more than ministers for guardsmen in harm's way. They are confidants, counselors and arbitrators. In Iraq and Afghanistan, unit commanders have used chaplains to communicate with local leaders and clergy. Many chaplains are embedded with units and travel through war zones, putting them within arm's reach of soldiers.