I need to take a break to talk about the job ofChaplain Assistant. This chapter may help explain my attitude towards organized religion. It delves into life events that steered me to that Army MOS (Military Occupation Specialty).
My mom took my sister and me to Sunday School (and later Church) almost every Sunday. On the other side, dad belonged to the “C & E” club – Christmas and Easter. Both my sister and I were confirmed into the Lutheran Church.
As for what I remember, my dad was not confirmed into any church until he went to class at our Lutheran Church. At the end of the class, he was confirmed. My dad was never one to wear his religion on his sleeve. He lived by the “Golden Rule”. My dad was an honest, hard-working farmer and businessman. Watching the sunrise was his affirmation that there was a higher power.
My dad did support some church functions. For several years, mom, dad, sister, me, grandmother, and some of my grandmother's catering crew cooked breakfast after Easter Sunrise Service. Still, the land was my dad's church”.
When it came to time to settle into college life, I started attending the campus Lutheran “congregation”. There was a young, opinionated pastor. This was in the late 60s and the height of Viet Nam. The pastor was preaching against the war. I had not formed a solid opinion about the war – but felt that such sermons did not belong. I stopped attending campus church.
This takes me to the week before my military induction. In one week, I had been drafted. Resigned my job. Moved from Cincinnati back to Wisconsin. My maternal grandfather had died and I attended his funeral. The next morning, boarded a bus to the induction center.
To say that I was a lost/confused 21 year-old as far as my religion was an understatement. I was not keen on killing people. Nor was I a conscience objector. When the Chaplain made is talk recruiting chaplain assistants – I was all ears. This seemed to be nearly the perfect job for me. I could serve my country and my fellow soldiers. The job would be to help the guys and not shoot the “enemy”.
The Army Chaplain Assistant is a “jack-of-all-trades”. Whatever it took – we did it for the Chaplain. Chaplains could carry a weapon if he wished, but not required – I was his body guard. It was up to me to maintain the Chaplain's jeep and drive him wherever he went. We were his clerk and typist, filed daily reports, typed and duplicated chapel bulletins.
We typed a “next-of-kin” letter for fallen soldiers. Served as acolytes for chapel services. Some of us even played organ for services. We built chapels. I served as base movie projectionist. We set up chapel services and memorial services.
We were paired up with a chaplain with our same basic denomination – divided into Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. However, we were trained how to set up for and assist the Chaplain of any denomination.
The first chaplain I worked with was was for just 2 weeks as his assistant was leave. For the next 9 months, I worked with the my assigned Chaplain. If did not take much time to find out I had problems working with him. He was North American Baptist from Seattle, Washington. He was always right – just ask him. He did not know how to give compliments – they were always back-handed.
Tuesday afternoon until Thursday mid-day, my chaplain and I were at BMB as duty chaplain and assistant. While at BMB, my chaplain would select hymns and the title of his sermon for our Sunday chapel service. Saturdays were were generally traveling to one of the other bases for services. That left me Thursday afternoon and Fridays to type and duplicate the chapel bulletin. Also try practice playing the hymns.
I made a big mistake when I told my chaplain that I had played the accordion when younger. He took that I could play the organ for chapel service. I tried it, making an effort, if I knew the hymns. The problems were when he selected hymns I never heard of. If I was lucky and knew the hymn, I might get a back-handed compliment – like “I see you finally practiced before service this week”. Adding insult to injury – once I was out of the Army, I was told that chapel organists got PAID in Viet Nam.
I did one item of defiance that irked him. I grew a mustache. He despised any facial hair. As long as I kept my mustache within Army regulations – there was nothing he could do about it. I still have the mustache!
My Chaplain and I drove the roads of Viet Nam un-escorted. The only think we had was my M-16 rifle. Thanks to my friends with the “Rat Patrol” (gun jeeps). I squirrel some smoke grenades and fragmentation grenades in the back of my jeep. I don't know if the Chaplain knew I had them, but I felt a little better with them.
I asked the Chaplain if we could carry a radio in the back of the jeep. It made sense for me as we are out by ourselves. He said it was not authorized and that it made us stand out (like some high officer). By this, I knew that in Nam – if there was a will, there was a way. I told the Chaplain I was sure someone could scrounge up a radio that I could have in the back of the jeep. It would not show – just used to emergencies. But, he said “NO”.
My bunk space was with Echo Company – Rat Patrol, snipers, and mortars. They were my best friends in Nam. They gave me the nickname of “Preach”. Later, I found out like there were a lot of just chaplain assistants called “Preach” just like medics called “Doc”.
The Rat Patrol offered me to ride with them when they escorted an infantry company out to where they will be patrolling. I figured it would be great – a way to see and understand what some of my hootch-mates did. Besides, I was caught up that day and it would be only a couple hours. But did I ever catch hell from the Chaplain.
One day, the Chaplain decided we should drive out to where there was a little temporary fire base to hold chapel services. Directions to the base included a 7 or 8 mile drive on a dirt road. Topping that off, there had been reports of enemy sniper fire in the area. We were to wait for a gun jeep to escort in to the firebase. Chaplain waited less than 30 minutes past the appointed rendezvous time when he decided we would head in un-escorted. His reasoning “If the Lord watches over me in the freeways of Seattle, He will watch over me here”. I had not option but to drive him into the area. I drove like a NASCAR driver. Thankfully. I grew up driving a jeep on the farm. I knew how the vehicle handled. Was more than a little scared. The Chaplain did not say anything – just held on.
After chapel service, we were to wait, again for escort. There was a fire mission just as we finished service. The base was a flurry of activity. The Chaplain said they were busy to escort us, so we would just drive back to the pavement and Battalion fire base. I drove like a bat-out-of-hell on the way back to the pavement, shaving 1 minute off out driving time on the way back. After all, I knew the road!
I felt bad for the guys out at the fire base. I was able to get into the PX (Post Exchange) every week during our 2 nights at Brigade Main Base. I became almost a satellite PX for them. I kept a list of what the guys wanted from the PX. Picked then up for them and brought them back to the fire base. I did not take any profit – what the PX price is what I charged the guys. There were some things at I just stocked up or tossed into the jeep because I need they would want some. Popular items were film, snacks, and condoms. Never told that Chaplain what all I was hauling back in the jeep.
A big part of the day I spent at BMB was visiting our Battalions troops sick or injured in the 2 Evacuation Hospitals at Long Bimh Post. It was a day a week for me while with the 199th. During my service with IIFFV, one of the two assigned chaplain assistants went every day at the hospitals. I got to detest visiting the hospital. When I was out of the Army – you really had to be a good friend or close family member before I would visit you in the hospital.
Right or wrong – while on the 199th, I was like the “gate-keeper”. The guys in the unit (including NCOs and Officers) did not like my Chaplain. The guys would tell me some of their problem, looking for guidance the questions they had – is this a problem for the Company Commander or the Chaplain.
If one of the battalion's companies were back at BMB for “Stand-Down” and it happened to be that I was at BMB, I was always invited to party with them.
About 8 months in country, the recon platoon invited me out on a patrol with them. I took that a great vote of confidence – that they felt so comfortable with me. I asked the Chaplain. What a mistake that was. He forbid me doing it and said that the only way he would allow me into the field was if I changed my MOS and gave up my Chaplain Assistant job. Well – I was not born yesterday!
During this time, I was called up to my E-5 promotion board. I felt I preformed well in from of the board. Was able to answer their questions. One surprised me. Being assigned to an Infantry brigade, I was surprised when one of the review board officers asked me about a vestment color for a particular part of the church year. Luckily, I nailed it. Did not make it the first month, but the next month. With 11 months and 8 days on active duty, I was promoted to SP5-E5. I make particular note of this because the Chaplain still did not appreciate my work.
Two months later when we were both going to other units – he told me that it was a good thing because otherwise he would have put me in for a disciplinary Article 15. Years later, I learned that he had left a negative oral report for my future Chaplain. He was given the option to take me or change m MOS (without telling me or allowing any rebuttal). Hell of a nice guy!
My final Chaplain – Major with IIFFV-Arty (Second Field Force Viet Nam – Artillery) was a joy to work with. Each week the chaplain went into Saigon to visit a missionary couple. The other assistant and I alternated weeks driving. There were 2 of us assistants in the office. The other was SP4-E4 – so I had rank on him. We shared our work load. The only time I recall pulling rank on him was Christmas 1970. It was my second Christmas in country and advised our chaplain that I would be over at Long Binh Post to watch the Bob Hope Show. As such, the other assistant would cover the office.
Fast Forward 40 years. A section of our government has been taken over by the Evangelical “Christians”. They remind me of a chaplain I served with in Viet Nam. His religion was “his way or the highway”. They think they are always right – how dare anyone challenge them. And, what about separate of church and state. Its OK to mix politics and faith if its an Evangelical Christian – but no other religion allowed.
Like my dad, I try to live by the Golden Rule. I believe that any reward I have coming in any afterlife, I earned by keeping true to my personal values. I detest others trying to inject their religion on to my values.