U.S. Struggles To Find Clergy For National Guard

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The National Guard has solved its recruiting crisis for rank-and-file soldiers, but reserve units across the U.S. are struggling to find enough clergy to serve as part-time chaplains. The problem reflects an aging clergy and a dire shortage of Roman Catholic priests.

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The strains of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created recruiting problems for the National Guard. But now, most Guard units have returned to full strength. Still, a recruiting issue remains: Guard units are searching for clergy willing to serve as chaplains.

As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, the Guard is trying to fill more than 250 chaplain posts.

BRIAN MANN: In 2004, Chaplain Eric Olsen, a Lutheran pastor, deployed to Iraq with the National Guard unit from upstate New York. He found himself ministering to men and women fighting in the Sunni Triangle.

As part of an audio diary, he recorded this conversation with one of his parishioners, Staff Sergeant Ulrich(ph).

Lieutenant Colonel ERIC OLSEN (Chaplain, 42nd Infantry Division, U.S. Army): How would you say your faith has changed being in a combat zone?

Staff Sergeant ULRICH: Well, you know, they say there's no atheists in a foxhole.

MANN: Olson struggled to help soldiers balance their faith and values with the ugliness and confusion of war.

Lt. Col. OLSON: Whoa. At ease, guy. Hey, stand back. We got a couple of soldiers who got into a little bit of an altercation because of attitude and the workload and…

MANN: In tense situations like this one, Olson was often able to talk soldiers down. He says chaplains serve as pressure valves, helping with issues that range from family troubles to post-traumatic stress.

Lt. Col. OLSON: We provide worship services. We provide counseling, everything from weddings to funerals to baptisms. The hard part of the job lately, with the war on, is we're the ones who notify families a loved one has been killed.

MANN: Five years after he deployed, Olson is a full colonel, the top chaplain in New York state's National Guard. These days, his challenge is finding clergy willing to take his place on the front lines.

Lt. Col. OLSON: Let's face it. It requires physical fitness. It requires a discipline that many are not willing to undertake.

MANN: National Guard recruiters say clergy these days tend to be older, too old for a combat zone, and churches are less willing to give up their pastors.

Lt. Col. OLSON: It's very difficult for a congregation to lose a chaplain for - their pastor for 18 months and to survive that and then him come back.

Major Chaplain Timothy Baer is a Baptist minister charged with recruiting chaplains for reserve units nationwide. He says a third of clergy positions in the National Guard are unfilled. There are only six rabbis in the guard and not a single imam. The biggest problem, Baer says, is a shortage of Roman Catholic priests.

Mr. TIMOTHY BAER (Major Chaplain): We are short Catholic priests for every component in the military, and that's a reflection of the national shortage of priests. We do need priests that are willing to accept the call and go forward. They are vitally needed.

MANN: Here in New York state, 40 percent of Army National Guard soldiers are Roman Catholic, but Chaplain Olson hasn't been able to recruit a single priest, not one.

Lt. Col. OLSON: The Archdiocese of New York City, I have several candidates who are in the diocese, but they won't let them come on to active duty because the diocese, the Catholic diocese, already has shortages.

MANN: The military is working to accommodate priest recruits whenever possible. Father Douglas Decker from Adams, New York serves with the Air National Guard, which has fewer and shorter deployments than the army.

Reverend DOUGLAS DECKER (Air National Guard): Since I'm a pastor here in a Catholic church, they let me come in on the Friday of that weekend and then Saturday of that weekend. And that way I can get back for masses and all for the parish.

MANN: Decker says his parish made do with retired priests and a lay pastor when he was sent to Saudi Arabia and Germany, but those deployments lasted only a few weeks. What the guard needs is civilian clergy who can go to war for a year or even 18 months.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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