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Delivering Strength and Peace – All in a Day's Work For Alumni Chaplains

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Delivering Strength and Peace – All in a Day's Work For Alumni Chaplains

Delivering Strength and Peace – All in a Day's Work For Alumni Chaplains

Note: Massachusetts native Scott McGowan ’09, chaplain with the Army National Guard, felt called to the ministry even before he entered Greenville College. William Breckenridge ’90, chaplain with the Warrior Transition Battalion at Ft. Riley, joined the Army in his mid-30s. Their reflections offer a glimpse at ministry in the military. 

Scott McGowan (pictured on left) has come to expect “trial by fire” as a chaplain with the Army National Guard, particularly when emergencies call. He tells of standing in the wake of a tornado that devastated Springfield, Massachusetts. The homeowner surveying the wreckage with him had just lost everything. “We could see the foundation where his house once stood,” said McGowan. “What can someone say to that?”

But McGowan has learned that even his quiet presence as chaplain is valuable. “We don’t always need to have an answer, but we do need to be a source of strength.”

Muddy boots

The idea of serving as a living witness to God’s grace captured McGowan’s imagination early on. He felt a distinct call to ministry by age 19 and eventually came to know that his service would lean in the direction of his love for the outdoors, physical activity and being out among people.

Now serving with the Army National Guard, the outgoing McGowan brings his pastoral presence to communities in crisis and soldiers in training. He describes his work with the latter as shoulder-to-shoulder, side-by-side engagement: “being with your soldiers, going through what your soldiers are going through and getting your boots muddy.”

Simply put, the Army’s description of the chaplaincy is bringing God to soldiers and soldiers to God. McGowan’s challenge, however, is far from simple. The part-time nature of the Guard means his unit typically drills two days each month. Every moment counts for him to get to know unit members and gain their trust.

Move quickly, waste no time

Chaplain Bill Breckenridge pictured with family.

In 2010, during his second deployment to Iraq, Captain (CH) William Breckenridge (pictured left with his family)

likened his challenge to church planting. He told an interviewer for the Combat Studies Institute, “In the civilian world at least you have an established place and a somewhat established congregation to build upon. Here, it's so transient.”

Pastors of church plants waste no time building relationships, and in Iraq, Breckenridge wasted no time engaging with soldiers. He counted this advice from a seasoned chaplain as most valuable:

“Hit the soldiers hard at the beginning . . . visit, visit, visit. Go do physical training (PT) with them. If they're out on the range, go to the range. If they're doing high mobility multi-wheeled vehicle (HMMWV) training, get in that HMMWV with them. If you're in aviation, fly with them. Just be there all the time . . .”

One sergeant major told Breckenridge, "In all my years in the US Army I've never seen a chaplain as much as I've seen you."

 "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Breckenridge asked.

 "That's a good thing. Keep it up." 

Breckenridge now uses the “always present” strategy with the cadre and staff who work with wounded soldiers. “These are the ones that work more consistently with the warriors, giving so much and leading to potential burnout. My approach to providing pastoral care is to be as visible as possible in their lives.”      

Bridge or barrier

Chaplains are officers, but they also carry the title of “chaplain,” a label that can serve as a bridge or a barrier to building relationships. A soldier’s trust often determines which way the relationship will go. Breckenridge recalls one of the greatest compliments he ever received as this proclamation from one soldier: "Hey. There's our chaplain. The only chaplain I know of that walks down the sidewalk and soldiers don't turn and walk the other way."

Breckenridge recognized the fruits of trust in Iraq with the formation of a small congregation in the desert and the discipleship and baptism of soldiers. “It was really an exciting time. I developed a great rapport with the command and staff. It was very rewarding.”

“Much of what we do is counseling-based,” says McGowan, who has leveraged trust in relationships to help soldiers draw closer to God through personal crises like PTSD, suicidal thoughts and alcohol abuse, and also through life's joys like weddings, births and promotions.

The face of peace

Even as they deliver a sense of peace to others, chaplains sometimes enter into crises unprepared. In Iraq, Breckenridge received no forewarning that he would conduct Hero Missions – the dignified, ceremonial movement of deceased soldiers’ remains off the battlefield. The process required impeccable professionalism and particular sensitivity for soldiers grieving the loss. Breckenridge learned that even transport of the remains could overwhelm an aircraft crew emotionally. “The key is just to provide pastoral care for anyone that you sense is having a difficult time.”

McGowan considers the Army’s counsel to “be prepared for anything” sage advice. Last April “anything” for McGowan meant responding to crisis at the Boston Marathon where explosions from two pressure-cooker bombs at the race finish line left three people dead and more than 250 injured. Approximately 1000 Massachusetts National Guardsmen had already been on hand to secure the Marathon site. McGowan and his assistant arrived shortly after to help people process the trauma and ensure the soldiers’ wellbeing. As the search for the bombing suspects stretched from hours into days, McGowan coordinated all of the chaplain movements on the ground and made sure the soldiers’ emotional needs and physical needs for showers, meals and sleep were met.

The GC connection

McGowan recalls leading marriage seminars as part of his chaplain’s role and quoting nuggets of wisdom he gleaned from classes he took with Professor Veronica Ross. “She knew early on about my intentions to enter the ministry, and she regularly encouraged me,” he said. He also credits Professor Joe Culumber for teaching him about clarity in one’s call and remaining faithful to God who calls us. “He showed me how to be compassionate without being walked on and helped me to better understand the great task that is upon ministers of the Gospel.”

Breckenridge gratefully recalls the experience of grace in college when he almost got kicked out of school for some poor choices. “I don't endorse that behavior at all (now that I've matured a tad bit) but it has definitely helped me identify and relate to soldiers that make some pretty significant mistakes in their lives.”

Fast Facts About Military Chaplaincy

  • All chaplains regardless of faith tradition are required to earn a minimum of 72 graduate-level credit hours.
  • A master’s of divinity degree is preferred, but not required.
  • Each chaplain must be endorsed by a denomination and is accountable to that denomination.
  • A chaplain cannot perform or be required to perform religious services or rites outside his or her faith tradition.
  • A seminary student can enter the Reserves or National Guard as a Chaplain Candidate (CC). The CC performs many chaplain duties under the direct care of a supervisory chaplain. Candidates do not serve in a battalion or deploy, but they are sometimes called up in times of State Activation through the National Guard.
  • All chaplains are required to take the Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership course where they learn counseling and how to conduct death notifications, memorial services and ceremonies.  

This story was published on April 15, 2014




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