CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE BASRA, Iraq — "As a civilian pastor I can't go to your office to check up on you, but as an Army chaplain, everywhere you go, that's where I am," said Maj. Michael J. King, chaplain, 17th Fires Brigade, from Vine Grove, Ky.
King's job is to provide Soldiers of the 17th FB an open door to talk, spiritual guidance and a friend in their time of need.
"It all begins with a call to serve God," said King as he reminisced on the steps that led him to become a chaplain. "I was a teenager when I first gave my life to Christ and I can remember having this longing to serve in mission work. I did a few mission trips and enjoyed them. Early on, I wanted to be a youth pastor, but ended up teaching high school instead."
After three years of teaching biology to high school students, King entered the seminary, followed by four years of pastoral work. Still, something was missing: a longing or need, King said, to serve an even larger audience.
Following the allure to walk in the footsteps of his father, who retired as an Army chief warrant officer and served three combat tours in Vietnam, King decided to join the U.S. Army Reserve.
"I spent four years as a reservist before becoming active duty," he said. "I initially joined to see if I would like the military life, but after a while I realized that I was exactly where I needed to be and I've been active duty for 13 and a half years now."
King earned a direct commission and chaplain status while still in the reserve, meeting the initial requirements of a master's in divinity and the endorsement of his religious organization, the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"One of the biggest differences between being a military chaplain and a civilian pastor is that the chaplain is not a pastor but a missionary," King said. "We chaplains have a broad scope of religions we must cater to. So with that in mind, I have to be very careful of what I say in public so that I don't offend anyone."
"The Army says I must 'perform or provide,'" he said. "Meaning, if I can't perform a service, I have to find a way to provide that service. For example, I'm not catholic so I can't perform a Catholic Mass. What I must do is provide the location and materials for such services to take place and find someone that can provide those services."
The Army provides chaplains with an avenue to freely express their personal beliefs through chapels and churches. However, King said the chaplaincy has been taken to court consistently by those who seek to have them removed from the military because they feel chaplains are a violation of the separation of church and state laws.
"The only reason we still exist is because we don't advocate one religion over another. We support all Soldiers equally. That's part of our First Amendment right and my main responsibility is to ensure Soldiers have their right to the free exercise of religion," King said.
Chaplains also serve as counselors for service members. Army regulations provide chaplains direction on confidentiality regarding counseling sessions, but King said for years the regulation has been misunderstood. He said there have been misunderstandings about the things chaplains should and should not report.
For a long period of time, chaplains erred on the safe side and reported the same things that were required of state-approved counselors, such as instances where there was a report of spouse abuse, child endangerment or when an individual confessed to wanting to hurt themselves or someone else.
As of May 2007, the chief of chaplains released a policy stating chaplains, their assistants and anybody working with the chaplains can guarantee complete and absolute confidentiality.
"With the increase of confidentiality, a greater responsibility has been placed on chaplains to use their best counseling techniques to help these individuals having issues reach a place where they feel comfortable to ask for help and to get that help that they need," said King.
Chaplains are considered non-combatants and are not authorized to carry weapons. For this reason, each chaplain is assigned a chaplain's assistant to provide protection for them as well as help minister to Soldiers.
"It's a very interesting job being a chaplain's assistant," said Staff Sgt. Caroline A. Keller, 17th FB chaplain assistant from Saint Salme, Ore. "I know that if the situation ever arises I would not hesitate to protect the chaplain by all means."
Although chaplains don't engage in the fight forcefully, they play a large role emotionally.
When deployed to a combat environment, one responsibility of the chaplain is to prepare Soldiers emotionally for the possibility of having to take a life in order to protect their own, as well as helping Soldiers cope with the difficult circumstance of losing a battle buddy.
"Fortunately, because the 17th Fires Brigade is not kinetic on this deployment, or immersed in a constant state of combat, this ministry doesn't have to prepare Soldiers for those types of circumstances regularly," King said.
Deployments may produce some of the most stressful conditions Soldiers will ever face in their military career. The chaplain tries to help Soldiers cope with these stresses by providing different outlets for combat-associated stress.
"We try to offer a lot of different bible studies and worship services that we normally wouldn't offer back in garrison," King said. "Here, stresses and anxieties are elevated to a much higher level with Soldiers being away from their normal source of comfort, and as chaplains it's our responsibility to provide that source of comfort."
"In some respect it's easier being deployed, because I don't have the distractions around to keep me from Soldiers," King continued. "My family is not here, so I can devote my time and attention to just the Soldiers. I'm no longer torn between my two loves — my love for my family and my love for my Soldiers."
This work, Chaplain provides guidance, friendship in time of need, by SPC Maurice Galloway, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.