MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
We've heard a great deal in the recent years about the strain that deployments have placed on the Army National Guard. Well, we're going to hear now about a very particular shortage: military chaplains.
Nationwide, 40 percent of chaplain positions remain vacant. The Guard is stepping up recruitment of chaplains, offering incentives and signing bonuses, and it has produced a promotional DVD called "Courageous Spirit", in which Army national chaplains talk about what they do.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROMOTIONAL DVD, "COURAGEOUS SPIRIT")
PAUL DOUGLAS: It was such a positive experience for me, being able to be a soldier in a combat zone, standing for the values that I feel are important - at the same time, being able to wear a cross, to be able to engage in a meaningful ministry with soldiers.
NORRIS: On the tape there, you just heard Chaplain Paul Douglas of the Georgia National Guard. Joining us is Army National Guard Chaplain Major Timothy Baer. He's a member of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, and he's chief of the specialty branch recruiting for the Guard. Welcome, Major Baer.
TIMOTHY BAER: Glad to be here.
NORRIS: I want you to begin, if you could, by explaining the shortage. What explains this?
BAER: Well, the shortage, ma'am, has happened over time. Over the last 10 years, some of the reshaping of the Army that has happened has put different strains upon the military. And this losses started back, realistically, in 1996.
NORRIS: So, even before the war?
BAER: Oh, much before the war. And so as the restructuring happened, and then, basically, every year until last year, they have declined in numbers in the National Guard chaplaincy.
NORRIS: So is it that chaplains are retiring and they're just not being replaced?
BAER: Well, we have a high amount of retirements of older chaplains that have retired and are retiring, and that is a big concern of ours. But more of what happened was basically, it was just they were relying on what had happened in the past, that people just kind of show up and say, hi. Here I am. I'm the local guy. I work at a Baptist church, and can I be a chaplain? And they didn't really have to do a whole lot. They just came to us.
But as demands have been placed nationally and not feeding that change, just waiting for them to kind of come to you, it's created a shortage.
NORRIS: Now the shortage is particularly acute in the Army National Guard. Does this reflect the military's overall reliance on the Guard?
BAER: Well, the active duty, I believe their numbers are nearly at 100 percent on the chaplain ratio. The reserves are much higher than we are as well, although they are short. But the Guard has a large footprint of chaplains, over 700 chaplains that they are assigned or authorized to have, and so they obviously need to fill all those vacancies to be able to be more effective.
We have met all the needs that have been placed upon us, but we still have a very robust recruiting program just to be able to meet that.
NORRIS: Chaplain Baer, you actually served in Iraq. Help me understand what a chaplain does.
BAER: I think the biggest thing that the chaplain does, in my personal view, is the counseling aspect. Chaplains have confidentiality that's really afforded to no one else in the military at this level.
So any soldier who's having some painstaking issues dealing with home, family that he doesn't want anyone to know about, he can come and have that interaction from a chaplain and get those needs met and really get some wisdom without having any kind of negative repercussions. And that's just an incredibly huge vent, because in a military structure where you have rank, you can feel very threatened to say gosh, here I'm just a private. And I have this sergeant, and he's older and maybe he's kind of scary, and do I want to tell him anything?
And many people feel uncomfortable, but hey, the chaplain over there, I can go tell him and say hey, you know, something's going on at home. And I'm scared for my wife, how she's feeling. Can you give me some wisdom? You end up loving your soldiers.
You become fond like you just never believe you would have, and you help them. You hold their hand. You're with them. You get the information that they want you to tell to someone else if something does go bad, and that they don't feel comfortable maybe telling anyone else in the world, and so our chaplains have done outstanding in that.
NORRIS: Chaplain Baer, your positive outlook is commendable, but what if there are cases where units do have to deploy without chaplains? Can you imagine what that would be like for that unit?
BAER: Well, if that were to happen, ma'am, I think it would be very tragic. I know that as I have heard - I mean, I don't want to speak for him, the chief of chaplains for both the National Guard and for the active duty - that that's not going to happen. And I don't think it has happened. Even if they had to use an active-duty or a reservist to fill a Guard unit, if that was the case, they would do that.
We will send no unit without a chaplain. I mean, it's put a lot of work on everybody, but we're all, you know, we're here to do - take care of soldiers.
NORRIS: Chaplain Baer, thank you so much for coming in to talk to us.
BAER: God bless.
NORRIS: That was Army National Guard Chaplain Major Timothy Baer. He's the chief of the specialty branch for recruiting for the Army National Guard.