After learning the proper way to wear and care for the uniform, as well as the pertinent Army Regulations governing the wear of uniform, we did our very best to look soldier-like. There was an inspection conducted by the platoon leaders and NCO’s. Those with prior service were very helpful to the newbies. What a fraternity, what a camaraderie!
Monday morning. I was not sure what to expect. I did not know anybody either. Just so I won’t be late for class at 0700H, I scouted the location the previous night and found it to be within a mile or so from my BOQ. After the pep talk by the commandant, we were divided into four platoons and were introduced to our platoon “Senior Group Leaders” (SGLs). There were about 175 students total. Later on I realized that there were only three Roman Catholic priests in the group!
My home for the next three weeks is an old building called Kennedy Hall. It is one of the “hotels” inside the post where unaccompanied soldiers may stay for the duration of their training. The accommodation is not bad (similar to Motel 9) although it is about a mile hike from the school house.
My first Sunday morning at Fort Jackson was spent in the Post Chapel where I assisted at the celebration of Holy Mass upon the invitation of Fr (MAJ) Kelly, the Post Chaplain. After the Mass, the Catholic congregation continued the celebration with a simple breakfast which was open to everybody. It was a wonderful opportunity to interface with the local Catholic leaders and parishioners, and meet the soldiers who attend Mass at the main post chapel.
Woke up early this morning and drove out of the rectory while still dark, for a 14-hour travel to Fort Jackson which is in Colombia, SC. There I will attend “Chaplain Initial Military Training” (CIMT) for three weeks together with male and female clergy from different religious tradition according to the US Army’s finest tradition of religious pluralism.
I was commissioned as a First Lieutenant (Reserves) in the US Army Chaplain Corps during a solemn ceremony presided by my good friend, Commander Charles Dobra (JAGC) USN, with the assistance of my other military friends Major James Williams USAF, Captain Greg Schildmeyer USMC, and Chief Petty Officer Jim Collins USN. The ceremony was conducted at the Family Center of Saint John Neumann Parish in Saint Charles, Illinois and witnessed by around 300 friends and parishioners.
Applying as a chaplain in the US Army is a very laborious work and entailed a lot of paperwork, too. I’ve have submitted all the requirements but it will take maybe a year or so (from December 2007) for the application to be approved.
I flew in to New Jersey yesterday for today’s event which was MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Service) and an interview with a senior chaplain (a full-bird Colonel and Rabbi).
The USAREC put me up at Crown Plaza, where an entire floor was reserved just for applicants (the basic recruits share a room, the officers have their own room). There I met two other Roman Catholic priests (a Filipino and a Nigerian) who were also applying for direct commission as army chaplains.
We were roused from our sleep at 0300H, got bused to Fort Dix at 0400H, and started the whole MEPS process at 0500H. The MEPS process involved various paper-based and computer-based tests, as well as blood draws, urine sampling, agility exercises, and physical examination by a military/contracted physician. I was done by 1100H. With my recruiting NCO, we waited until the other two priests were done, and headed off to lunch.
At 1300H, all four of us (three priests and the NCO) headed off to the main post chapel to meet the garrison chaplain. He gave me a tour of the chapel area and introduced me to his staff. In the chapel, we met one of his assistants (another Jewish person) who upon knowing that I was a Roman Catholic priest, jokingly said that the “Blessed Mother assaulted [him] for locking her up in the closet” (it turned out, he was taking something from the closet and a statue of the BVM fell over on him)! They were a hilarious bunch and I believe they liked the jobs they were doing in the army and were having a lot of fun working with each other and with their army congregation. It was a heartwarming experience to see the UMT working together and liking each other!
The thought of becoming a military chaplain first crossed my mind during my last year in the Seminary (Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, MD). Every so often, chaplain recruiters from different branches of service would stop by and have a chat with the guys. For some reason they never show up all at the same time; I thought it might be a chaplaincy policy or something. There were also some seminarians who had served previously, either as enlisted or officers, in the different services who have given favorable impressions of the chaplains they’ve encountered in the field. I had the impression that chaplains are in general, well-respected by the soldiers regardless of what religious denomination they represent.
I was ordained as a deacon at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Emmitsburg, MD on November 9, 2002, and then as a priest at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rockford, IL on May 17, 2003. In between those dates, I was an intern at Holy Angels Church in Aurora, IL, while the rest of my classmates were finishing up their theology degree at the Mount. I came to the Mount with a graduate degree in theology from the Pontificia Universitas Urbaniana (Propaganda Fidei) in Rome, so I was dispensed from many of the classes, including the last semester of fourth year theology.
Before our ordination to the priesthood, all 11 of us in the Ordination Class of 2003 were interviewed by the Vicar for Clergy, who will become our immediate boss upon ordination. I manifested to him my desire to enter the chaplains’ program… he told me to wait a few years and then talk to him about it. So I waited until I was done with our diocese’s five-year “Junior Clergy Program” (probably similar to what the chaplains-in-training at Ft. Jackson call “death-by-powerpoint”).
And so, sometime in June 2007, I contacted the Army Chaplaincy and asked for more information about the program. I also did some research on the Army Chaplaincy’s website and contacted some of the chaplains whose blogs I found on the net (those were Godsent). Fr (CPT) John L (US Army Chaplain Recruiter for Catholics) and SFC Dan C (Station Cmdr) were very helpful in guiding me through the process.
For Catholic priests, entrance into the military chaplaincy is a two-fold process: application to the branch of service, and application to the AMS (Archdiocese of Military Services) for the necessary endorsement. These two applications are separate from each other, and ideally should be done simultaneously since completing the paperwork could take some time. From my experience, the military, at least the Army, is much quicker compared to the AMS. One Catholic Chaplain joked that the AMS endorsing department is composed of “an elderly lady and a typewriter.” The AMS, as the only Roman Catholic endorsing agency for the military, must be swamped with endorsement applications. One important note for Catholic priests: you must have your own ordinary’s permission in writing, without any restrictions, before the AMS could endorse you.
To be continued…