There are reasons why military chaplains are noncombatants. It’s not only a stipulation of the Geneva Convention. As Chaplain Eli Takesian, a retired Navy captain, explains, “A chaplain’s hands using deadly weapons are not free to render sacramental ministry.” He adds: “One less combatant makes little difference in firepower, but makes a world of difference, symbolically and actually, in spiritual ministry.”
As for this peace-loving, conscientious-objecting, Geneva Convention card-carrying pacifist Unitarian Universalist chaplain, I simply know no other way. The exhortation from the Christian scriptures to “turn the other cheek” is deeply ingrained in me. Plus, because I’m female, my father and brother never thought to teach me how to fight physically. Mahatma Gandhi’s observation that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” resonates with me, and I adhere to one of my mother’s favorite adages: “Bake brownies for your enemies.” Whatever the reason, I am belligerently challenged.
This became an issue when I had to undergo the Marines’ martial arts training. Every Marine is required to earn a tan belt, so as a chaplain then serving Marines, it was an empathic exercise. I wanted the experience so I could better understand the Marines’ life and the arduous training they must endure. Plus, I’ll do most anything for sermon material!
Sgt. Brown was merciless, as a good warrior must be, and patient, as a good teacher must be. The other Marines overcame their parental/societal admonitions to never hit a girl, not to mention the taboo against hitting a chaplain. And I . . . Well, there is only one word to describe waking up at 0-dark-30 and beginning the day with body-hardening exercises that I, never having participated in contact sports, was not familiar with: OUCH!
I never in my life had made a fist prior to my martial arts training. During my initial go with the vertical elbow thrust, I was so focused on keeping one fist in front of my face for protection that my other fist—the one throwing the punch—missed the instructor and rocketed its way to the bridge of my nose. (Yes, you read it right: I hit myself in the face.) Humility and a sense of humor were my best weapons, I knew, but this proved it. Accidental slapstick was the kindest and most effective way for me to bring a beefy sergeant to his knees in tears.
My troops like it that I have a God who laughs. And loves. And listens. And journeys with them through the daily grind of life, in and out of the trenches. Every day I find myself counseling a young man or woman to conscientiousness—about issues at work, at home, in relationships, with the military.
My role as their chaplain is to walk with them through life’s dark valleys. Yet after I fractured a rib in martial arts training, it was a bottle of 800-mg Motrin that comforted me—along with the knowledge that people like me are not the ones defending our great nation and its ideals through such physical force. Despite my idealism and disastrous attempt to embody protection, I am grateful for folks like Sgt. Brown—and the other Marines, soldier, sailors, airmen, and Coasties—who do and have.
On this Memorial Day, I salute them. I salute them because they have made sacrifices to serve and feel it a duty and an honor to wear the uniform. I have ministered to those who have struggled to find meaning in their duty, for they are our sons and our daughters—trying to do what their conscience tells them is right.
On this Memorial Day, may each of us, in our own way, honor those who serve and have served our nation by protecting and upholding the principles upon which it was founded. This is our most basic tenant to service in the military—and as citizens of this beloved country. May each of us remember, in our own small way, to make a difference in our world.