By Karen J. Diefendorf
“I didn’t know we had female chaplains!” Even though the military’s first female chaplain entered the Navy in 1974, people who meet me are still surprised.
I’ve been asked all sorts of questions: “Do you do the same things as the male chaplains? Where have you been assigned? Has it been hard for you? Are you married? Do you have children?”
I do the same things as other chaplains. The only limitations are the general limitations that Congress has imposed on women. Female chaplains are not assigned to combat units, only to combat support and combat service support units.
The tasks in any of those units remain the same—provide for the free exercise of religion according to the First Amendment without establishing religion (that is, without giving preferential treatment to any one person’s faith group or beliefs). For the most part, it has not been hard with an exception here and there. I’ve been married for 27 years and we have three great children ages 24, 21, and 13.
I’ve been blessed to serve in all kinds of units, meet and work with the finest men and women the U.S. has to offer, and see places I would never have seen otherwise. Those great soldiers and family members have allowed me to walk with them on their holy ground and invited me into their lives. We’ve laughed and cried together, walked and talked, and come to know the Lord of this life better. I have often received far more than I’ve given and learned more than I taught.
My first assignment came shortly after being commissioned, June 10, 1985, when I became a part of the 124th Transportation Battalion (U.S. Army Reserve) in Peoria, Illinois. I had not been to the Chaplain Officer Basic Course so I knew nothing about the Army or how the chaplaincy worked.
My uniform and boots didn’t look very good, but two sergeants and a warrant officer took me under their wings. They appreciated whatever I did for them and made sure they “took care of the chaplain.” They saw it as their duty, but some of it, I suspected, was motivated by the superstition soldiers have about their chaplain. “If we take care of the chaplain, God will take care of us.” Either way, I was blessed!
The unit wasted no time securing a spot for me in the summer Basic Course. For 81 days the Chaplain School at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, did everything within its power to transform about 100 of us from civilian ministers to military ministers.
During the Basic Course I was accessioned to active duty and reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, the home of the Infantry. My first unit was the 2nd MASH, just like the TV show except a lot more modern. I had been through clinical pastoral education and was comfortable in that environment, but I still had much to learn about the Army.
I came to appreciate my first pastoral lesson: chaplains have the privilege to live and work among their “parishoners.” Civilian ministers can’t just show up at someone’s work and visit. I could and did.
My ministry expanded at Fort Benning. After one year at the MASH I was moved to the School Brigade which meant finding new ways to provide ministry. I was assigned to the Officer Candidate School and the Army Airborne School. I went on 15-mile road marches with an 80-pound ruck sack just to encourage them. I learned that what we studied at our Wednesday night Bible study, though significant to them, wasn’t nearly as important some nights as the respite we provided.
And while jumping out of perfectly good airplanes may not make sense to some, I learned another ministry lesson: respect and trust are earned by doing what your soldiers do and sharing the same burdens. Lessons of faith are learned living life. Road marches teach the value of pressing on and of helping your buddy. Jumping out of airplanes is a 1,200-foot faith walk with opportunities to confront superstition—I wasn’t their good luck charm but I would demonstrate faith and a confidence about my hope and my future. If they weren’t sure about theirs, I’d be happy to share mine.
Influence and Laughter
I wish there was room to recount it all. There was the 84th Engineer Battalion (Combat) (Heavy), a construction unit with soldiers deployed all over the Pacific rim to islands like Kwajalein Atoll, Kosrae, Guam, and Western and American Samoa, as well as Thailand. We laid concrete block together to rebuild schools destroyed by typhoons, played volleyball at night while cooking the huge tuna we’d caught earlier that day, went diving for lobsters at midnight, and talked about our families back home, being faithful to marriage vows, and dreams for our futures.
Bible studies around a campfire and worship as the sun rose over the ocean were amazing moments. Soldiers who wouldn’t have darkened the door of a church building would come to listen, pray, and sing.
There was the Chaplain’s School where I spent four years teaching ethics and leadership. One of the most memorable moments was training the chiefs of chaplains from seven Latin American countries. I did not realize their influence in their countries until I heard the priest from Ecuador say in broken English, “When I return tonight I will go to El Presidente’s house and he will ask, ‘What did you learn there?’ and I will tell him. Then he will say to me, ‘And what shall I do about it?’ and I will tell him. Then he will say to me, ‘Then let it be done,’ and I will do it.”
I had been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to teach ethics to men who had the very ear of their presidents and who had the power to develop a more democratic, humane government. I am still stunned.
There were humorous moments, too. By the third day, these priests had forgotten how highly offended they were that a woman and an officer of lower rank was their instructor and were now feeling quite free to discuss anything even remotely related to policies between our countries.
The priest from Argentina was usually vocal and animated. During a discussion on Lawful Dissent of Unlawful Orders, he began to pontificate. I could tell by the translator’s reaction that it was a delicate matter because he didn’t want to translate it.
I put the class on break at which point the priest came running up, grabbed my marker, and began drawing the female reproductive system on my flip chart. For the next year I received e-mails from Chaplain School staff members addressed “Dear Dr. Ruth!”
Now I spend my time in the Office of the Army Chief of Chaplains. It is an honor to walk the hallowed halls of the Pentagon and a solemn experience to sit in the Memorial Chapel that is built where the plane entered on 9/11.
However, the work in the building seems anything but holy. Here is where the Department of Defense consolidates the budgets of the Army, Navy, and Air Force to present to Congress. If the No. 1 problem in marriage is finances, you can imagine the “marital spats” between the DoD and Congress! My ministry is to see to it, on the Army Chief of Chaplain’s behalf, that we get the positions we need to provide ministry for soldiers and family members.
God is still teaching me ministry lessons. Some reinforce earlier ones. The most important is that it boils down to relationships and trust. It’s about being available when folks have had a tough day and need someone to listen and pray with them.
Recently, one of the men, Dennis, who worked in the section with which I deal the most, was sent to Iraq on a short assignment. His vehicle hit an IED (improvised explosive device). Within hours of notification, I got e-mails from several in the section who wanted to make sure that I would pray for Dennis. It was quite a change of heart. Just days before, some of them had been adamant that we didn’t need any chaplains in “those” positions! Now I was being asked to go visit him when he arrived at Walter Reed. Even though we competed with each other over the same limited resources, now I was their chaplain.
I know my chaplain peers could tell you countless stories, too, of God’s faithfulness and the many amazing experiences we’ve had in military ministry. And while none of my civilian experiences required me to run five miles while singing cadences (though it might have shortened a few of those lengthy board meetings), I surely cherish those experiences with America’s finest.
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Karen Diefendorf serves in the U.S. Army, presently as the Force Structure Officer at the Army Chief of Chaplain's Office in Arlington, Virginia.