UU wins Military Chaplain of the Year award

UU wins Military Chaplain of the Year award

Rev. Rebekah Montgomery also awarded bronze star.


Life is full of “Hey, Chaplain!” moments for Rebekah Montgomery. Whether she’s at the gym, in the dining hall, or at a base in Afghanistan, the Army National Guard captain has grown accustomed to soldiers calling out to her, “Hey, Chaplain! I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something.”

The Unitarian Universalist military chaplain drops everything for those “Hey, Chaplain!” moments to listen to whatever might be on the mind of that passing soldier—who might be Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, or not religious at all. Chaplain Montgomery has become known for her responsiveness, her intelligence, and her sensitivity to soldiers and their families. And all those impromptu encounters added up to her being named Chaplain of the Year by the Military Chaplain’s Association in July.

Montgomery, who also received a bronze star for her service during an 18-month tour of Afghanistan, was not expecting the award. “Chaplains are often in the position where we love to serve so much, it’s always a surprise to be rewarded for it,” she said.

As a woman in army fatigues with a Velcro cross on her uniform, Army Capt. Montgomery, 35, stands out. She is one of about a dozen UU chaplains in the U.S. Armed Forces. (UUs in the military are considered Protestants and wear crosses.) And only 3 percent of military chaplains are women. “I get a lot of double takes,” she said.

Her Chaplain of the Year award, one of six distinguished service awards bestowed by the Military Chaplains Association this year, came on a banner day for Montgomery. On July 17, the Adjutant General of Maryland, the leader of that state’s National Guard, came to her Baltimore office to present her with the award. And it was also her last day of work before her second maternity leave started. Wearing her maternity Class A uniform, and being, as she describes, “very, very pregnant,” she received a plaque recognizing her “superb example of ministry as a military chaplain.”

Growing up, Montgomery said she was “blissfully unaware of military service.” Her father had served for three years in the Air Force during the Korean War, but she didn’t have any other friends or family with a record of service, and she never considered it as a career when she was a child or when she studied at the Union Theological Seminary, in New York City, after graduating from Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minn.

After September 11, 2001, however, Montgomery started to think about serving her country. She was ordained as a community minister in 2002 and was pursuing hospital chaplaincy. But the 9/11 attacks brought military service to mind. “From an early age, I’ve always had a servant’s heart,” she said. “I wanted to serve out my sense of calling toward the community and a sense of duty from God.”

Montgomery wasn’t particular about which branch of the military she joined. She just wanted to serve. She began calling military recruiters, and the National Guard was the first to call back. She joined in September 2003. “The military has been a surprisingly wonderful fit,” Montgomery said. “It has been a quick six years, and I look forward to a long career.”

She was deployed to Afghanistan, one of three chaplains assigned to serve the religious needs of 3,000 soldiers across the war-torn country. Sometimes she met them in cities, such as Kandahar or Kabul. Other times she arrived in villages perched on the side of a mountain reachable only by helicopter.

The Geneva Convention provides that military chaplains are non-combatants. Montgomery never carries a weapon. And in the field she is always accompanied by an armed assistant charged with her security. Typically, when Montgomery would visit remote Afghani villages, she drove the Army vehicle so her armed assistant could keep watch.

Upon arrival at a new camp, she would be met by soldiers who sought her out and commanding officers would alert her to personnel in need of counseling. She would also perform religious services in the field—sometimes six or seven a day if she was traveling from camp to camp. “Whatever day the chaplain arrives, that is Sunday,” said Montgomery.

On a handful of occasions, she has encountered a UU soldier. Still, she finds being a UU chaplain “perfect.” “Honoring diversity is our strength, and working in multifaith, pluralistic environments is our strength,” she said. “I have no trouble working with people in different faith groups. That is a privilege and an honor. I get to help a rabbi set up for Shabbat or help an imam get to Muslim soldiers. I am happy to help.”

She was touring Afghanistan at the same time as her husband, Captain Travis Montgomery. They met when they were both deployed to Florida in 2004 to respond to a series of hurricanes. Their first child, Genevieve, was born after they returned to the states and moved to Rebekah’s hometown of Bethesda, Md. Growing up, Rebekah attended the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Her parents are still active members there. Rebekah was dedicated there as a child, as was Genevieve. Baby Thane will be dedicated there, too.

Travis Montgomery, a civil affairs officer in the Reserves, is on a tour in Iraq until the winter of 2010. He attended Thane’s birth via a five-hour, overseas phone call.

Back in Maryland, Rebekah Montgomery is filling many roles, as soldier, mother, chaplain, and minister. When her maternity leave ends, she’ll return to her post serving the Army National Guard Readiness Center in Arlington, Va. And she is also brigade chaplain in Maryland’s 58th Troop Command, where she reports one weekend a month and two weeks a year.

She is also affiliate minister at River Road, the church in which she grew up. After she returned from Afghanistan, the Rev. Scott Alexander invited her and her husband to appear before the congregation in their battle fatigues for a “sermon dialogue” during a Sunday service. Alexander thought it was an important opportunity for his congregation—many of whom have a very “ambivalent relationship to the military”—to hear them speak about active service.

Alexander sees Montgomery as a gifted ambassador to the military and an asset to the Bethesda church. “People have been very grateful to get to know her,” he said, noting that very few Americans have connections to soldiers. He also said that some UUs can be antiwar “to the point of silliness.” “We are a nation that acts in the world,” he said. “We have hundreds of thousands of good men and women serving us. Whether you agree or disagree with particular actions is irrelevant. These people are defending us, and we need to support them.”

Montgomery appreciates the opportunity to be a physical representation of the military to UUs, who often don’t know anyone who serves. “I’m a prophetic voice in the UU community for military families,” she said. Only 3 or 4 percent of the entire U.S population is in service.” She also notes that there are veterans from many conflicts attending UU churches across the country, even though their communities may not know it.

Montgomery has felt a lessening of the tension between military service and Unitarian Universalism during her tenure as a chaplain. She credits former UUA President William G. Sinkford for that. “He really changed the tone of military service for UUs,” she said, noting that Sinkford was very intentional about having UU military personnel front and center at the Fort Lauderdale General Assembly and that the UUA has a staff member who helps chaplains negotiate career issues. “I have felt overwhelming support from UUs,” said Montgomery. “We do get hard questions, but it’s been overwhelmingly positive.”

As her maternity leave winds down, Montgomery is preparing to return to her chaplaincy work. At her Maryland unit, she counsels soldiers and their families as they prepare for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. She keeps an eye out for signs of suicide risk. Suicide is cutting across all swaths of the service, she said—all generations, all ranks, married and divorced, parents and non-parents. She keeps an ear out for key words that signal suicide risk, and she works to be a “calming, compassionate presence.”

Montgomery says the service to her state unit is where her “nuts-and-bolts mission” is. “I feel like I’m staying in touch and serving at the local level,” she said.

In her weekday position with the Army National Guard Readiness Center, she focuses on a broader mission, advising high-level officials on spiritual issues. Her supervisor there, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Bruce Farrell, nominated her for the Chaplain of the Year award. When he heard that the award was for a senior captain who had been deployed and had a productive and exemplary career, Montgomery came to mind right away. He had first encountered her when she was in training at Camp Shelby, Miss. Since then he has been impressed by her intelligence, her insight, and her sensitivity. “She fits into the masculine world of the military very well,” said Farrell.

Farrell finds her sensitive to people of many backgrounds and faiths. “She knows how to fit in in an appropriate way without compromising her faith,” he said. And in the stressful field of ministering to active-duty soldiers and their families, she knows how to keep the right balance of being connected to people, without being overwhelmed by them, which he said can easily happen in chaplaincy. “She has the closeness and the distance,” Farrell said.

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