‘We need UCC chaplains in the military,’ says Navy captain
Written by J. Bennett Guess June 1, 2010
Capt. Donald P. Troast, U.S. Navy chaplain
"We need UCC chaplains in the military," insists the Rev. Donald P. Troast, a U.S. Navy captain and commander of U.S. submarine force chaplains, offering his own "commercial" at the outset of his sermon at the UCC's Amistad Chapel on May 26.
"We need the diversity that they bring. We need the openness that they bring. We need the sense of mainline tradition that they bring."
Preaching to about 100 worshipers in advance of Memorial Day weekend, Troast recounted moving moments when military chaplains have been both mediators and recipients of God's grace during war, loneliness, suffering, death and survival.
Speaking with tears in his eyes, Troast recalled a time recently — during a tour in Afghanistan — that he returned to his quarters and found a handwritten note from an officer requesting a few minutes of his time.
The officer, an Episcopalian, wanted to receive Holy Communion on the night before his troops were being sent into battle, yet the officer's unit chaplain — a Missouri Synod Lutheran — was not comfortable serving him because of their denominational differences.
But, because of the UCC's open-table approach to the Eucharist, Troast — unlike some chaplains that come from more-restrictive traditions — was able to oblige.
"He was afraid of making wrong decisions in combat that might result in the loss of life," recalled Troast, who reassured the officer of his intellect, training, and support of his soldiers. "And then we had Holy Communion," said Troast, who used the Book of Common Prayer to prepare and consecrate the holy meal "in the tradition he was accustomed to."
"You see why we need UCC chaplains?" he said.
Troast, who has served 19 years in military ministry and was selected last year to lead the Navy's submarine chaplains, was one of 15 military chaplains who gathered last week for a retreat at the UCC's Church House in Cleveland.
"It feels like we've come home," said Troast, speaking of his first visit to the UCC's national offices.
The UCC has 55 chaplains serving throughout the U.S. military and another 25 chaplains serving veterans and their families with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
While it is presumed that chaplains exist primarily to provide worship services for service members and their families, "we do so much more," Troast said.
"Every day a service member approaches a chaplain and says, 'Hey Chap, you got a minute,' and we always do," he said.
According to the Geneva Convention, chaplains — who do not carry weapons — are classified as non-combatants. Yet they train and work alongside military personnel in every respect. The constitutionality of chaplains has been upheld repeatedly by U.S. courts, because the establishment clause ensures that citizens have "free exercise" of religion — something that might prove impossible in the military, given tours of duty, isolating locations and restrictive conditions, without the presence of chaplains.
"Imagine if your minister showed up with you at work everyday," Troast said. "That's exactly what we do."
The Rev. John Gundlach, a retired Navy Chaplain of 27 years who now serves as the UCC's minister for government chaplaincy, hosted the retreat in Cleveland.
"It has been our privilege this week to have 15 of our finest clergy with us, our military chaplains," said Gundlach, in introducing the chaplains to Church House staff and visitors.
While in Cleveland, chaplains met with church officers and called for UCC churches to reach out to military families, especially those returning from tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We need to take care of our returning warriors who are hurting mentally, physically and spiritually," Troast said.
Participating in the chaplain retreat were Lt. Cmdr. Peter E. Bauer, USAR (Southern Conference); Capt. Heather A. Bodwell, USAF (Northern Plains Conference); Col. Stephen B. Boyd, USAR (CA-NV Southern Conference); Capt. Countess C. Cooper (Central Atlantic Conference); Capt. Aristides Fokas (Penn Central Conference); Lt. Cmdr. Leila H. Gomulka, USN (Calvin Synod); Capt. N. Charlene Johnson, USAF (Minnesota Conference); Maj. R. Michael Lake (Kansas-Oklahoma Conference); Cmdr. Luis A. Perez, USN (Florida Conference); Capt. Deris L. Rice, USAR (Wisconsin Conference); Lt. Cdr. Leticia P.J. Rouser, USN (Hawaii Conference); Lt. Col. Grant W. Speece, ARNG (Minnesota Conference); Lt. Cmdr. Beth A. Stallinga, USN (Minnesota Conference); CDR Ronald C. Sturgis, USN (South Central Conference); Capt. Donald P. Troast, USN (Massachusetts Conference); and Col. John L. Trout, ARNG (Penn Central Conference).