A Memorial Day article at the Washington Post covers the service of a group of chaplains at Arlington National Cemetery. The chaplains recall their sacred service and their combat duty, to all members of the military.
Chaplain (LtCol) Keith Croom, the senior Army chaplain at Arlington, has seen the two extremes of that service:
He has been sworn at by dying soldiers and steeped in calamity and sorrow. He ministers to service members of all faiths, and to those of none at all.
“We have to understand that people don’t have to agree with any faith. They have a right not to practice, and I need to be OK with that,” he said. “I’ve had a guy say, ‘I don’t believe in your God,’ and he died right in front of me.”
On the other hand, the opposite occurred in Iraq in 2004:
Croom…recalled a 2004 incident in a combat-support hospital in a part of Iraq known as Dogwood.
“It was 12 miles outside of Baghdad. A staff sergeant came in. One of his arms and both legs were gone,” he said. “He was burned and not going to make it. I looked at his dog tags and it read ‘NONRELPREF,’ which stands for “no religious preference.”
The staff sergeant asked Croom how he could trust God. The two talked — chaplains aren’t allowed to proselytize, but they can share their religious perspectives — and the man asked Croom to change the designation on his dog tags. He died minutes later.
The careful qualifications in which the conversation is couched are evidence of the sensitivities surrounding religion in the military, but they are also unnecessary. If a soldier asks a chaplain — or any member of the military — what it takes to “trust God,” or become a Catholic, or ‘have a faith like yours,’ it is entirely expected (and permissible) that one’s faith will be shared, even if that results in “conversion.”
Those conversations were not the target of General Order Number One (here) restrictions that prevent “Proselytizing of any religion, faith, or practice.” In fact, battlefield conversions — whether to or from a faith — are relatively common.
Chaplains in the military are there to serve all. What men and women in the military choose to do with that opportunity — whether deny God or accept him — is up to them.