Military Chaplains on the Front Lines of Faith: A conversation with Chaplain (Colonel) Geoff Bailey
Chaplain (Colonel) Geoff Bailey enlisted in the Army in 1991 and became a chaplain in 2001. He is endorsed to serve by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and he is currently a student at the U.S. Army War College. In honor of Veterans Day, we asked him to share about his experiences serving our country.
How do you care for those who practice a faith different from your own?
This is one of the great joys and responsibilities of serving as an Army Chaplain. We are charged with coordinating or providing religious support for all Service Members, Department of Defense Civilians, and their Family Members while faithfully representing our own respective religious organization.
We build networked relationships within the Chaplain Corps, local civilian religious organizations, and low-density religious leaders within the Army. We do this to appropriately refer people to their respective religious organizations/groups and encourage their faith formation and spiritual well-being. In circumstances where there are no religious organizations of that particular perspective, we seek out volunteers within the unit or local area who can meet the requirements to serve as a Distinctive Religious Group Leader if there is a request for such a group to meet. We then coordinate facility space and material support to ensure the group has equitable conditions for the free exercise of their religious traditions and practices.
There are exigent conditions that arise where it is merely impossible to find someone of that faith group to respond to a need at the moment. This is where pastoral identity, the skills learned in Clinical Pastoral Education, and a foundation of dignity and respect focused on the needs of the one making the request are paramount. There are no easy answers in these situations, and that is why continuing education and ongoing spiritual discernment are indispensable.
For senior chaplains, this involves creating conditions that ensure equitable support and empowerment for all faith groups’ chaplains. Remaining mindful of this responsibility and intentionally taking steps to guard against marginalization or unintentional oversight is imperative.
An example for me was supporting the Passover Seder in Afghanistan. A unit commander had reservations about letting a soldier journey for 4–5 days to observe the Seder, so I made a trip ahead of the Seder to gain the commander’s support for that one soldier’s attendance. My non-commissioned officer and I corresponded with each dining facility and subordinate unit commands to ensure appropriate support. We then traveled with the Jewish chaplain and attended the Seder to communicate the event’s importance. As a representative of my commanding general, my presence and involvement expressed his commitment to free exercise and respect for the event.
What led you to military chaplaincy?
My call to the chaplaincy was rather exciting and one I never saw coming.
I served in the Army following graduation from high school for three reasons. First, I wanted to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps, who served in WWII with the 28th Infantry Division. He was a hero in my eyes, and I wanted to become like him. Second, I needed money for college, and the Army offered the GI Bill and Army College Fund as part of the terms for a 4-year enlistment. Lastly, I had no idea what I wanted to do in life, and serving in the Army would allow me to serve while figuring out where I wanted to go.
I’d become a Christian in high school, but I rededicated my life to Christ while serving in the Army in Germany. I got baptized at a Baptist church pastored by Charles McIllveen (of Lufkin, Texas) and met a chaplain who invested in me, essentially treating me as his son. Upon finishing my rotation in Germany, the Army sent me to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, where I joined First Baptist Church of El Paso, Texas, and met Dr. Levi Price Jr. and so many other incredible people. They welcomed me into the church family and invested in me.
Upon completing my initial enlistment, I transitioned to the Army Reserve and started classes at the University of Texas at El Paso. Before my junior year of college, I surrendered to the ministry, believing it meant I would serve as a pastor in a church while also serving as a line officer in the Army Reserve. One day, I took a gander at the email address of the Army chaplain I knew from my time in Germany. Within minutes of emailing him, he wrote back and we made plans to meet for a meal when he was in town. During our meeting, I told him about my call to ministry and how I was still serving in the Army Reserve. He didn’t waste any time in asking me when I was entering the Army chaplaincy. Despite any excuse I gave, he persisted and convinced me to try out the Army Chaplain Candidate Program. Until this point, I’d not anticipated or even considered my call to ministry and my service to the country converging.
While serving as a chaplain candidate on a 45-day practicum at Fort Bliss, I found myself in the middle of ministering to a family struggling with the murder of their daughter-in-law. Within a few days of the murder, the parents’ sons were arrested and charged with the daughter-in-law’s murder. The harsh reality of suffering, grief, anger, and disorientation affected the family, the Army unit, and its leadership. I found myself walking through the situation, building relationships with each person or group, and doing the very same thing I did as a civilian pastor, albeit in a uniform and in an environment with a distinct culture and ethos, which I understood and appreciated.
As the summer of 2001 drew to a close, I submitted a packet to join the Army chaplaincy in the Army Reserve while serving as pastor of a church in Hamilton, Texas. I also started Ph.D. studies at Baylor University. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, changed those plans as God impressed upon my heart that I belonged on active duty as an Army chaplain. I submitted a follow-on packet to transition from the Reserve to Active Duty and was selected.
What sort of training did you go through to be a chaplain in the U.S. military?
From an academic standpoint, my training is identical to the civilian requirements for a chaplain. I graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso, and I then attended George W. Truett Theological Seminary, pursuing a Master’s of Divinity while also serving as pastor of a church in Hamilton, Texas.
The Army sent me to several schools, which are chaplain-specific and related to general military skills. The Army also sent me to a year-long residency in Clinical Pastoral Education to prepare me for ministry in a combat support hospital. Understanding that the Army was going to primarily invest in my development as a staff officer, I enrolled in D. Min. studies at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, where I studied spiritual formation and pastoral care. Those studies proved beneficial at every assignment and position, since we never leave our role as providers of religious support and pastoral care.
The Army also sent me to standard military courses with no affiliation to the chaplaincy. I learned skills, capabilities, and competencies required for successful staff integration and support to the Army.
The Army places a strong emphasis on continued professional development and invests heavily in its personnel to ensure we develop critical thinking and strategic reasoning skills in our leaders. We operate in conditions that are dynamic, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous.
What’s a common misconception about military chaplains?
Two common misconceptions go hand-in-hand. The first is the notion that chaplains “left the ministry” to serve as chaplains. The second is that chaplains represent all faith groups, kind of like Father Mulcahy in the television show M*A*S*H. We haven’t left ministry by any stretch of the imagination. The requirements of chaplains are the same as any other ordained ministry position. We preach, teach, counsel, baptize, officiate weddings and funerals, and visit people in many settings. The only difference is that we wear a military uniform, meet physical fitness requirements, and stand ready to deploy and train alongside the people we are called to serve. In that setting, we still faithfully represent our respective religious organization’s beliefs while operating in a pluralistic environment.
How is being a military chaplain different from other forms of chaplaincy?
Aside from wearing a uniform, we tend to build close relationships with the people in our assigned units because of the environment’s intensity. A unique aspect of military chaplaincy is that there is always an awareness of the fragility of life. The intensity of the environment heightens the importance of rapidly establishing trust and relevance.
Can you share a story that sheds light on your work as an Army chaplain?
One common theme is being there when a person needs reassurance, hope, courage, and a reminder of the divine. One such situation was an encounter with a soldier serving extra duty. I stopped by the battalion headquarters to check on the commander and the personnel officer before heading home for the day. As I walked in from the parking lot, a soldier’s expression and demeanor picking up trash struck me as a bit low. I conducted my visit inside and made a note to check on the soldier afterward. He later looked just as sad, and I asked him if he had a moment to talk.
The soldier told me he’d received a positive urinalysis for cocaine and was now on 45-days extra duty and 45 days restriction. Due to Army policy, separation paperwork was initiated, and he had a meeting the next week with the commander. He was confident he was getting kicked out of the Army, felt he had embarrassed his family, and wanted to end his life. We spoke for almost two hours about the Army process, what to say to the commander, and how his faith informed his thoughts, feelings, and actions. We concluded the conversation with him committing to a no-harm contract, assurance of a plan to talk to the commander, a plan to go to behavioral health in the morning, awareness of his non-commissioned officer with an overnight watch plan, and prayer.
The next morning, we walked over to behavioral health together. In the end, the soldier was not separated from the military. Several months later, a Master Sergeant approached me in tears and relayed that her nephew was that soldier and how his chaplain prevented his suicide that night. Being a chaplain is about being present, being attuned to the situation, and being ready for use as God sees fit.
How can religious communities support local veterans and service members?
Simply by doing what they already do, but with an eye on intentionality: Invite and welcome service members and veterans to your faith community, just like any other community member. We can become rather exclusive in churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious groups. Although service members are only there for a brief period, we are still looking for connection and the ability to practice our faith and invest in the community. Some longstanding relationships for my family are rooted in short relationships all over the country. We remain in contact, visit, and enjoy those relationships just the same as if we’d stayed in place.
Also, watch for moving trucks and new families, and take the initiative in getting to know whoever moves into your neighborhood. They might be military and trying to figure things out, such as kids’ schools, vehicle registration, public utilities, local grocery stores, and everything else associated with living in a new community. Reach out, share what you know, and welcome a new neighbor. If a military person uses a phrase or term you’ve never heard, just ask. We have our own vocabulary, just like wherever you work or live. If you ask them where they are from, be ready for a complicated response with multiple answers from members of the same family.
What’s one thing you wished everyone knew about military chaplaincy?
The military chaplaincy is an exciting and challenging field of ministry. We do our very best to meet the needs of the population we are called to serve. That said, we need the local communities’ support to effectively meet the needs of the service members and their families. Like most military families living in the local community and relying on the local schools for education, they also rely on local faith communities for most of their free exercise. Help our chaplains get to know you and the religious communities in your area. That will help us best support the diverse faith practices of our service members and families.
How can people learn more?
Thank you for the opportunity to share a little bit of my story and the Army chaplaincy story. If you feel God calling you to this ministry or want to know more, please go to www.goarmy.com/chaplain or reach out to me directly at Geoffrey.firstname.lastname@example.org.