When a military unit is activated to deploy or even conducting operations within the United States, military chaplains are always a part of the planning process to ensure service members can practice their first amendment right of their freedom of religion. Even during the Revolution War that took place in the 1770’s, George Washington, one of the founding fathers, realized the importance of chaplains and their role in maintaining morale within the Continental Army. In fact, one of Washington’s first requests to congress was to formulate the Chaplain Corps tasking them with the spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing of his troops.
“The Chaplain Corps is one of the oldest and smallest in the military,” said Army Chaplain (Capt.) Theodore Hoham, assigned Joint Task Force 374 MED.
Hoham is an ordained Lutheran minister, currently serving in the middle east where he supports U.S. and Coalition troops at the joint task force level. Hoham is also a former U.S. Army Armor Officer.
Thinking about what he likes most about being a chaplain, Hoham said he enjoys working with Soldiers and supporting them.
“I love counseling Soldiers,” he said. “I don’t love the Soldier’s problems, but I love that they come to me. A lot of Soldiers think they are bothering me when they come to me, but talking and counseling them is what I love about this ministry.”
While the unit has many resources for Soldiers to use when they are having issues, to include their leaders and behavioral health, the chaplain is one safe person that Soldiers and Commanders alike can speak to with absolute confidentiality. Every conversation with the Chaplain is protected and cannot be shared with a third party.
According to Army regulations, chaplains have three main competencies they are expected to carry out--nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead. They are tasked with providing religious services, pastoral care, and providing counseling. The chaplain is also utilized by commanders specifically concerning ethical situations.
The chaplain role is also very important when a Soldier dies and administering the last rites— a process where the Chaplain lays hands on the Soldier, anoints them with oil and prayers.
“Part of the job of being a pastor is preparing people to die,” said Hoham. “When a patient under our care passes away it can be very traumatic and stressful with lots of different types of feelings. While everyone else is freaking out, the chaplain is not. They need to be able to provide comfort in suffering and death and a constant companion. I always thank everyone that was involved in the care of the patient and reassure them they did everything they could. At that point the chaplain takes over care of that patient. I think it is important for the providers to see the patient is being taken care of.”
During the preparation for deployment process, Hoham advocated for training to include this process of the taking care of Soldier remains, where he performed a last rite, prayed over the Soldier and even prepared a memorial service.
“As a chaplain this is one of our METLs (mission essential task list) we need to train on and know how to do. The trainers had not thought about it before. I am glad we practiced,” he said.
During the deployment Hoham assisted with caring for remains of one of the Coalition force service members.
To stay mentally and spiritually prepared for the duties of being a chaplain, Hoham said he relies on prayer, reading and liturgy.
“I think you really have to be theologically centered, read hard and difficult theology and apply it. Being a good counselor is not enough,” he said.
Hoham also relies heavily on his Religious Affairs NCO, Sgt. Ian Barclay. Together, they form what is called a Ministry Team. Tasked with a number of administrative roles to the chaplain, religious affairs specialists serve as both gatekeeper and personal security for the chaplain, as chaplains do not carry weapons when serving.
“Religious affairs specialists are really force multipliers, and you have to be a jack of all trades. Having a good assistant makes my job a lot easier,” said Hoham.
Barclay and Hoham have been working as a ministry team for a total of four years.
Thinking ahead to the deployment wrap up, Hoham stressed the challenges and difficulties beyond deployment and the reintegration process of Soldiers and families.
“I have shared this before, but Soldiers need to be putting in as much work and effort into going home as they did for preparing for the deployment. The reunion part is going to be easy, but the integration part is what takes work. Reintegration usually takes place about 2 to 3 weeks after a Soldier has come home. Spouses and kids have gotten used to being without you and coming home can be a source of stress and tension. This can be an opportunity to work on things, to have tough conversations and address these issues,” he said.
Soldiers experiencing difficulties with integration have a number of resources to turn to when then they return home to include Military One Source, the VA treatment facilities, their first line leaders, as well the Chaplain.
“Even after this deployment I am available to Soldiers to talk if they need. You don’t have to do this alone. Your marriages and relationships are more important than the Army and this deployment,” said Hoham.