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A Sacred Honor: Navy Expanding Chaplain Corps to Better Care for Men and Women Who Serve

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For the first time since the Cold War, the Navy is expanding its Chaplain Corps. This year alone, the goal is to fill 70 active duty slots, a number that would place one chaplain on every U.S. Navy destroyer.

"A lot of the bad behaviors, the evidences of stress, are reduced on ships or in units that have chaplains," Rear Adm. Gregory Todd told CBN News. 

Todd serves as the Navy's Chief of Chaplains, a position that also covers the Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Over the course of his career, he's worked as a chaplain in all three branches, responding to Ground Zero after 9/11, and deploying to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The funny thing about being a chaplain is the most satisfying moments are in some of the most challenging times because you're there to bring God into that situation," Todd said.  

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With growing mental health issues threatening service members across the board, Todd says chaplains can be the tip of the spear. 

"We become, often, first responders for them as they experience some of these stress issues. Some of them are normal stressors of life and we can help them and normalize those things. But we also work with our partners in the mental health world when something becomes a lot more serious than just a normal stressor," Todd explained.

According to research from Columbia University, Duke, and Harvard, those engaged in spiritual practices are 50 to 80 percent less likely to suffer depression. 

Todd says the Pentagon's decision to grow the Chaplain Corp is part of an effort to better care for people – a new emphasis on what he calls spiritual readiness. 

Now, it's up to him to fill the vacancies, and he's counting on a new generation to answer the call. 

While a chaplain at Emory University, Lt. Cmdr. Saul Burleson says God put military ministry on his heart. 

"When I looked at the men and women in uniform, what I found was people who were committing their lives to something greater in their life, something greater than themselves. They were serving the Constitution, they are upholding and defending our inalienable rights," Burleson told CBN News.

slider img 2He now serves as a Navy chaplain on the USS Makin Island. While his sailors are similar in age to the college students with whom he once worked, the job responsibilities look quite different. 

"We're embedded with our Sailors, our Marines, or Coast Guardsmen. We serve all the sea services, and the men and women in uniform in those, wherever they're at. Onboard a ship, across the Atlantic or Pacific, with the Marines in a desert, or in the Arctic. We're with them wherever they are," Burleson said.

"Sometimes I would joke, I'd say, 'My job is to hang out with you guys as you do your job.' But the reality is, you're there to spend time, to tell stories, to go to the motor pool, to be there. And then, in that, life connection and transformation begins to take place. In time, people go 'Hey, Chap, you got a minute,' the answer is always, 'Yes,'" said Lt. Col. Brandon Moore. 

Moore is an Army chaplain. After years of deploying with soldiers, he now serves as a recruiter for the Chaplaincy School at Fort Jackson. As the branch with the largest Chaplain Corp, Moore says the Army isn't looking to grow, but rather to maintain. 

"We're looking at recruiting the best qualified, really, and we're looking at about 300 each year. But when you think about all the qualifications we have, it is hard to find the best qualified to continue to serve," Moore told CBN News. 

Military chaplains are required to meet the same age and physical fitness standards as any other service member. Plus there's educational requirements, which include a Bachelor's degree, a Masters in divinity, or some area of religion, and then professional ministry experience. 

"Soldiers give up an awful lot, but they shouldn't have to give up their faith. So we want the best-qualified chaplains of all different faith groups," said Moore.

2nd Lt. Michael Englesgjerd is a candidate in the Army's Chaplaincy School. He felt called to minister to soldiers after his own military service. As he goes through the program, he's learning to view the men and women he serves alongside in a much different light.

"You know, it's a very different role, and as I'm learning things in Seminary and learning about what ministry is, it's like I'm in the same places, doing something completely different, and being able to draw on that experience, while still having to get used to the new lens of what it means to be a chaplain," Englesgjerd told CBN News.

Three decades into his career, Rear Adm. Todd calls caring for the men and women of the Armed Services a sacred honor and privilege. 

"I said, 'Okay, Lord, I'll do this for four years, I'll do one tour,' And that's been over 30 years. This flock has a way of getting under your skin. And so then the prayer turned to, 'I'll do this as long as you need me to do this because I love doing it, I'm happy to do that. But I can't decide when to go home. You have to tell me.' So I'm still here until the Navy says, 'Okay, now you have to go home. You're too old. You have to go home now,'" Todd said.

While the Navy is currently asking for 70 additional chaplains, Todd anticipates a need for even further growth, with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard expected to follow suit.

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About The Author

Caitlin Burke Headshot

Caitlin Burke serves as National Security Correspondent and a general assignment reporter for CBN News. She has also hosted the CBN News original podcast, The Daily Rundown. Some of Caitlin’s recent stories have focused on the national security threat posed by China, America’s military strength, and vulnerabilities in the U.S. power grid. She joined CBN News in July 2010, and over the course of her career, she has had the opportunity to cover stories both domestically and abroad. Caitlin began her news career working as a production assistant in Richmond, Virginia, for the NBC affiliate WWBT