There Are No Atheists in Foxholes

Jeffrey Jencks is still shaking off his habits from Iraq.

He checks an overpass again as he drives underneath looking for signs of ambush. Driving on Interstate 295 in Rhode Island a few weeks back, a deer hit his car like a bomb, and he had to remind his passenger, also a veteran, that it wasn’t an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), that they were home, and not in Baghdad.

It is strange to hear all this knowing that Jencks is a military chaplain. But just because you are a noncombatant protected by sections of the Geneva Conventions doesn’t mean you are safe in war. A chaplain’s service is all about those kinds of contradictions. As providers of support and spiritual leadership, more than 3,500 active-duty chaplains are serving with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in every combination imaginable: Christian and atheist, Muslim and Jew. Through it all, military chaplains like Cumberland’s Jencks, Robert Marciano of Providence and Neal Goldsborough of Barrington find themselves at the heart of the conflict between the morals of religion and the killing of war.

That’s the obvious contradiction, the one that a military chaplain lives every day of his service: that the morality of their presence in the armed forces must exist in the larger religious immorality of war. Then there’s the bloodier one, the contradiction that is almost perverse, the one that becomes evident when these three Rhode Island chaplains explain how they reconcile their faith with their participation in armed conflict. Sometimes, they’ll say, the answer lies in the middle of all the ruins and remains and filling mortuaries. They’ll say that the answer to being a chaplain lies in the worst evil that a person can know.

Jencks talks about these contradictions, and others. He re-members the night he found out that the first soldier in his unit had been killed, two tours ago, which was the same night he realized that all the books he read in seminary didn’t hold the information he would need in Iraq. The news of the casualty came over the radio, and the men around him dropped. “I saw soldiers collapse, and cry,” he says. He weighs each word, running a hand through his cropped hair. “I realized then that there would not be any set answers. I would have to be there and watch soldiers live in pain for awhile.” He glances out the window of his Episcopalian church, St. John’s, in Cumberland.

“I learned that you don’t go in with prepared answers to soldiers,” he says. “You let them cry on you. You let them tell you what a wonderful person it was that they lost. You let them tell you a thousand times how it happened.”

Starting with their participation in the Revolutionary War, military chaplains have served in the major conflicts and forgotten skirmishes of American history. Christian clergy mustered in the War of 1812, rode with the Army to the West, and took sides in the Civil War. Their service continued into the twentieth century, as American chaplains parachuted into Europe during World War II, froze through Korean winters, and received the Medal of Honor for service in Vietnam. Chaplains drilled and theorized and waited as the Cold War boiled for decades. By September 11, 2001, the American military chaplain corps had expanded from a predominantly Christian body to include Jewish and Muslim clergy, and in 2004, the Navy commissioned the first Buddhist chaplain in the history of the United States forces.

Today, the infrastructure of military chaplaincy includes training resources for recruits at the Air Force Chaplain School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, the Army Chaplain School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and the Naval Chaplain School in Newport. Commissioned officers, chaplains hold every rank from second lieutenant to general and higher and serve in all branches of the military from Army and Air Force Reserve to Navy, Marines and Coast Guard units. They carry no weapons, are bound to confidentiality by regulations, and are accompanied by assistants who provide security and support the chaplain’s religious and administrative duties.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Marciano is Rhode Island to the core — Hendricken, Providence College, priest at Saints Rose and Clement Parish in Warwick, National Guard, Warwick Fire Department chaplain. His military service took on national significance, however, when he was named chief of personnel for the Air National Guard and transferred to the National Guard Bureau at Andrews Air Force Base and the Pentagon in July of 2006. The forty-nine-year-old Providence-based Roman Catholic chaplain oversees recruitment of chaplains of all faiths for service throughout the Air Guard — a critical role considering the lower number of Army chaplain enlistments over the last few years, due in part to the probability of dangerous deployments in war zones. The Roman Catholic speaks with conviction. “I feel like I’m the Pope picking the cardinals,” he says. “In my brief time here, I have been impressed with those who are coming around for service.”

As chaplains in the United States military are commissioned officers, responsible for leadership as well as spiritual support, the government ensures that a person meets academic and religious standards before arriving for training. An applicant for Air Force, Army or Navy chaplain service must hold an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree, the latter with specialty postgraduate-level study in theology or divinity. Their status as clergy must also receive endorsement from a recognized ecclesiastical group representative of their faith. “You look for a number of things [in an applicant],” says Marciano. “We want to make sure that the chaplaincy reflects America. My job is to diversify chaplains, bring in women. I look for someone in good health who is physically able to deploy.”

Many clergy who become military chaplains had no initial interest, plan or aspiration to serve as chaplains in the armed forces, says Marciano. He came to the 143rd Airlift Wing of the Rhode Island National Guard in 1994 at the urging of another military chaplain, admitting that his aircraft knowledge was basic at best: “I knew a helicopter had rotors and a plane had wings.” Over twelve years, however, Marciano served as wing chaplain and in overseas deployments with such distinction that he was handpicked by the Guard’s chief of chaplains for his current post. Now, he says, “I have the most important job in the military, to take care of the people. Chaplains take care of the people.”

Such responsibility can pull a person all over the world, and a reserve or National Guard chaplain starting a deployment overseas must be prepared to leave their family and their church for months. A pastor can be central to a parish’s management, so the absence can be distracting for all involved; for example, Jencks’ combined twenty-seven months of deployment meant he couldn’t participate in administrative efforts at St. John’s. Marciano’s career advancement and move to Virginia meant he had to leave his congregation indefinitely. “It was tough giving up a great parish altogether,” he says.

As war continues in the Middle East, the gravity of deployment can weigh more heavily on a chaplain than homesickness, as Marciano learned on two stretches of active duty. In 2004, he was sent to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar to serve with United States and coalition forces operating in the Middle East. There, thousands of Australian, British and even Japanese troops moved in the hourly traffic of war. Marciano, though, talks about another deployment, to the Pentagon crash site after September 11, 2001, when asked if he feels a conflict about his services to a military at war and to a religion that advocates for peace. “I was deployed to help in the clean-up operations after the attacks. My perspective is no longer objective after that experience,” he says. “I wish I didn’t have to hold the hand of a twenty-year-old with no legs who wants to say the rosary, but unfortunately, we are facing evil. We have every regard for human life. After that experience, I committed myself.”

Perhaps better than anyone, military chaplains can say why people in mortal fear seek out spiritual comfort, even if they’re not religious. “It’s because we want to make sense out of things that make no sense,” says Neal Goldsborough. “Ultimately, all religion is striving for meaning, and when we’re in the middle of things that undercut the very meaning of who we are as people, things that go against everything most people believe about goodness, and life, and hope — especially war — then it becomes essential to have a religious person there.”

Perhaps as well as anyone, Neal Goldsborough, fifty-four, is suited to respond to the spiritual questions of nonreligious soldiers because he once was one of them. Now the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Barrington, Goldsborough says he was an atheist when he was drafted in-to the Army in the last lottery of the Vietnam War. He became an artilleryman, served in Korea, ranked expert in marksmanship and left the military swearing never to return.

Educated at both Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth universities, Goldsborough — friendly, with a basso that fills a room — opened up to religion and entered Virginia Theological Seminary in the late 1970s. He sprinkles the conversation with references to philosophy and history. He saw the military in a different light during his religious studies, when he attended a required course at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. “I enjoyed the work, and while there I saw a two-star general sit and have lunch with a sergeant. I said to myself, ‘This is a different part of the military.’ ” Inspired, he chose the Navy in 1986 because he thought the living conditions would be better — “I didn’t want to sleep in dirt” — and he has spent his entire service with “dirt-sailor” outfits like a helicopter attack squadron and a unit of the Seabees, the construction arm of the Navy.

Along with his twenty years in the Navy, Goldsborough believes his early service and outlook served him well during his service as chaplain to staff and patients at Expeditionary Medical Facility Dallas, a forty-four-bed combat hospital at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. “Having been an atheist, I appreciated atheists and agnostics because they kept me honest,” he says. There, the Virginia native estimates that about 7,000 patients were treated during his 2005 deployment, mostly coalition ground and naval forces of all rank
and spirituality, from Protestant to non-believer.

For Goldsborough, simply being accessible became a significant part of his work in Kuwait. “When someone who was injured would come in,” he says, “we would have their commanding officer there, and they’d be waiting in that passageway outside the Intensive Care Unit. And when it came time to issues like, ‘My soldier is hurt, what’s going to happen to my friend?’, at those moments, I was an important connection for them. Oftentimes, that’s when religious questions would come, even if [the soldier wasn’t] overtly religious. And that’s what the best ministry was about, a ministry of presence.”

A combat hospital is not an easy place to carry out a ministry, of course; a chaplain can walk the range of tragedy, all in a day. Goldsborough saw IED victims, demoralized doctors, a casualty whose head had been crushed by heavy equipment. He saw flies hover thick around operating tables during bug season. He tried to have bomb-sniffing dogs visit the patient wards be-cause the big, clowning Labradors would remind everyone — even the staff — of home, if only for a while. He sat with the living in the mess hall, joking in the downtime of war. Then, for hours he and his assistant would stand as the only companions to someone pronounced dead on the table, the body not yet ready for the mortuary, teammates not yet returned from the fighting up north.

The former atheist admits that he has looked for affirmation of his faith and his role in a military at war. He seems to have come away at once assured of his Christian beliefs yet still in struggle with what can happen in war. “In order to have a mature faith — I’m speaking about Christianity — one has to come to terms with the reality of evil, and death, and God, and God’s role in all this. I had wrestled with all that, and it is a sober, solemn hope that you find, that even God’s love can conquer this.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. War is the most evil that human beings can do to each other. But I also believe in a crucified god, and God is on those battlefields, in those hospital wards. I’m still conflicted, and
if you find any chaplain who isn’t, they shouldn’t be a chaplain. It’s a conundrum, and any military chaplain worth his salt is struggling with it.”

Things were just as confusing in the field. Shortly after arriving at Camp Arifjan, Goldsborough joined a detachment of personnel who were preparing to visit some outlying clinics, located elsewhere in Kuwait. He climbed into a white van with a group of soldiers, each of them armed. Goldsborough says that before he deployed to the Middle East, Kuwaiti forces had killed some suspected terrorists right outside the Arifjan gates. As the van began to accelerate, an officer ordered everyone to load weapons, and all around Goldsborough a half-dozen clips of ammunition clicked into place.

The moment raised a question for the chaplain, husband and father of one. “If ambushed, would I pick up a weapon and defend myself? Oftentimes those decisions are made in split-second moments,” Goldsborough says. “Thank God I wasn’t put in the situation of doing that. I have never carried a weapon as a chaplain. That’s not what we’re about. If I was a betting man, I would have hopefully used force and defended my colleagues and my friends. Because not to do that, I would have considered to be immoral. Now, I know that there are Christians who would say that it would be immoral to pick up a weapon, and I have the utmost admiration for them. And I might have been kicked out of the Chaplain Corps [in such a case], and that would be the cost. And I immediately would have begged forgiveness. But it’s like any ethical issue, you think you know what you would do, but only those who have actually been in the situation can
really say.”

Providing a ministry of presence can mean risking every suffering of the bat-tlefield, as Jeffrey Jencks did during two tours in Iraq. During his first deployment, as a major with the Rhode Island National Guard’s 118th Military Police Battalion, Jencks, fifty-five, lived the infantryman’s existence as his unit hunted insurgents while attacks on coalition forces increased in 2003 and 2004. He slept in a tent, rode in convoys, came under fire; he went knowingly into situations that a man might not walk out of. “There was a place [my commanding officer] sent me because the soldiers were being mortared on a daily if not hourly basis, and the soldiers wanted the presence of a chaplain,” he says. “I remember him saying, ‘Chaplain, you gotta go up there; they’re really being hurt,’ and I went up there, knowing full well we were going to be mortared that night.”

Jencks speaks and walks slowly, jokes and sincerity often coming with the same faint expression. He was educated at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, and he was a Catholic priest for five years until he was called in a different direction, as he says.

He started at St. John’s in Cumberland in 1988, and two years later he was forty years old and sweating through basic training. He joined the Rhode Island National Guard, served with an artillery unit, and then moved to the 118th MP Battalion.

Over twenty-seven months spanning two tours, Jeffrey Jencks has seen the edge of his mortality more than enough. A helicopter that Jencks was riding in with a general “landed strangely,” and he learned later that one of the aircraft’s engines had given out. Once, his humvee caught fire and filled with smoke, so they had to stop in the middle of Sadr City and put out the flames. (It turned out that it was an electrical fire.) Jencks can show you pictures of his outdoor prayer services, his congre-gation armed, Iraqi streets just beyond that wall in the background, only a few hundred yards away. Mortar fire, ordinance, gunfire; twenty-seven months, two tours, and the sound of explosions still roar through his mind.

The experiences of his first tour prepared Jencks for his role as ranking chaplain — lieutenant colonel — in the Rhode Island Guard’s 43rd Military Police Brigade, a role that demanded a second tour in Iraq. By the time he arrived in October 2005, sectarian conflict was increasing around United States and coalition troops.

War was by no means easier for Jencks, having been there before. “The second time, I knew what I was getting into. I knew that some people would die. I knew that some people would be hurt, and I knew some people’s lives would change forever,” he says. “That probably made it harder, because I knew what to expect. If you needed to go take care of a company that lost their best soldier, you knew upfront that when you walked into that experience, it was going to be draining.”

His responsibility to the chaplains under him raised an important question for Jencks: “Who takes care of the chaplains when a battalion loses soldiers? That was my job. It was my job to make sure the chaplains remained focused.” He tells the story of a chaplain who was asked to anoint the body of a female soldier who had been killed by a landmine. The chaplain entered the room and saw her teammates mourning the loss. What no one had told him: the explosion had taken off her head.

Many of the world’s major religions include warfare in scripture or in the historical example of their believers, though the fundamental lethal violence of war goes against core religious laws against killing. The contrast of religious law and historical example is only compounded by the opinion of many governments that war is not only present, but necessary in a dangerous world — when a state’s security is clearly threatened, say, and all other resolution fails. Scholars of all faiths have tried to fix morality to the existence and necessity of war, even as combat moves from sword battles to air strikes to suicide bombings, and even when war-making goes against core theology, as it does in the cases of Buddhism or Christianity.

A good example of this is the “just-war theory,” first expanded from early Greek ideas by the bishop Augustine in the fifth century to determine the morality of war. The theory uses criteria to determine if the reasons for war and the way in which that war is conducted are morally acceptable. Over centuries, secular and religious leaders have continued to adapt the criteria to reflect changes in warfare, and the just-war theory is still in use today. In a letter to President Bush in 2002, five Protestant leaders, signing on behalf of
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, used versions of just-war criteria to support force against Saddam Hussein. At the same time, the head of the Conference of Catholic Bishops used similar criteria, again in a letter to the President, to argue against it.

To people who are distant from war, it can seem that such endorsements or condemnations might further confuse the presence of clergy in a military force. Speaking with chaplains like Jencks, Goldsborough and Marciano, however, it becomes clear that they are equally committed to the people fighting and dying around them as they are to their religion — and to other things.

When asked how he reconciles his role as a person of religion serving an organization at war, Jencks begins his answer with reference to a conversation he had when his son took him to a New England Patriots game, shortly after his return from Iraq. “My son said, ‘Dad, look at this,’ ” Jencks remembers on a quiet morning in Cumberland. “ ‘Look at all of these people.’ You get out of the car, and they’re cooking steaks, and spare ribs, and anything you want. ‘Dad, look at the people in the sta- dium. Why wouldn’t they [terrorists,
insurgents and oppressors] want this?’ ”

He speaks slowly, again, as he continues: “Not to say that America’s perfect, but we live together. And I’m sure that there were Jewish people there [at the stadium], I’m sure there were Muslim people, Roman Catholic, Protestants, agnostics. And we were there, celebrating that day, together.

“There are some places in the world that do not like to celebrate the gifts of freedom or prosperity. There are some places in the world that like to dominate their people, places that enslave [their people] and kill them. And you don’t have to go to Iraq or Afghanistan to see that, unfortunately. You can see that in Africa, in North Korea; there’s no special place where evil has its hold.”

Evil, good; violence, kindness — this is where a chaplain finds himself in war, living in contrast. Carry no weapon, stay alert for the enemy. Grow angry at the killing, be forgiving of the fighters. Learn you have no answers, give explanation for this loss. For Jencks, who found himself in the war in Iraq twice, the conflict is about something other than faith. “It’s not so much a question about religion,” he continues, the empty chairs of St. John’s in dark rows behind him, “or about which religion is the right one. It’s a question about human slavery and dictatorship, and ultimately it’s the question about evil.

“If we reduce it to Christian and Muslim, if we reduce it to Christian and Jew,” he says, “that’s just a false covering for what is really happening inside the human condition. It’s [about] whether or not we’re going to live in the same standards, and if we feel that these standards are important in America — and the world — whether or not we’re going to live and die for them.”