Military chaplains: providing hope in the time of need


In peace and at war, making the holy present to service men and women

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

Army Brig. Gen. Kenneth “Ed” Brandt with fellow Presbyterian chaplain Maj. Autumn Vernon. Vernon, who serves in the Air National Guard, is instrumental in forming a veterans group at Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Pa. Courtesy of Ed Brandt

It was an honor like no other for Army Brig. Gen. Kenneth “Ed” Brandt. For the past 30 years, Brandt, an ordained PC(USA) pastor, has been serving as a military chaplain, providing enlisted men and women with a sacred space to make sense out of a sometimes-senseless world.

Now here he was, standing at the podium of Arlington Memorial Amphitheater outside of Washington, D.C. Morning’s first rays strengthened, illuminating Arlington National Cemetery’s iconic sea of white crosses, as if to affirm the message of resurrection that Brandt would deliver at the 2019 annual Easter sunrise service.

“The best part of waking up today on this Easter morn is forgiveness in our cup, hope in our heart and new life for our souls,” Brandt said to the more than 2,000 gathered. His words were more than just words — they captured his calling as a military chaplain.

“When someone seeks out a chaplain, it is because they know what they tell us is confidential. They have a space to talk about whatever the issue may be — family, work, substance abuse,” Brandt said.

Brandt currently serves as director of the Office of the Joint Chaplain, National Guard Bureau, and U.S. Army deputy chief of chaplains. He deployed to Iraq in 2008–09 and served at the National Guard Bureau and then as the state chaplain of Delaware before accepting his current position.

Brandt, though, who has served pastorates in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Southern California and is currently with Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania, as a parish associate, never thought that he would one day become a military chaplain.

As a young pastor serving in Perry County, Pennsylvania, Brandt would often field questions about the appropriateness of the American flag in the sanctuary and whether patriotic hymns should be sung. But when an older gentleman in one of the civic groups Brandt belonged to asked him about becoming a chaplain, his interest was piqued and his path toward a ministry he never planned began.

As for his current thoughts on displaying the American flag in the sanctuary and the singing of patriotic hymns, Brandt offers this advice: Look beyond the symbols and see the people who are serving the country.

“It’s not about agreeing with policies; it’s about remembering and supporting the people. If you are a military chaplain, your job is to be there for the people,” Brandt said.

An Army National Guard report for the first quarter of 2018 revealed just how much chaplains are there for servicepeople, with 52,017 counseling sessions, 8,642 worship services, 1,181 military funerals and 1,920 hospital visits.

To say that Brandt has seen and experienced a lot in the past three decades is an understatement. The most noteworthy change Brandt sees in the military is the growing diversity among the men and women who enlist. Diversity among the chaplains, though, “has a long way to go,” Brandt says.

Did you know?

There were 1.3 million active duty military service members and more than 800,000 reserve forces as of September 2017.
Source: Defense Department personnel data

In the same 2018 first quarter report, Army National Guard demographics revealed that 94% of chaplains were male, 82% white, 8% black, 4% Asian and 3% Hispanic.

“[Chaplains] have to look like America, but we don’t right now,” Brandt said. Brandt is part of a joint diversity executive council, “pushing that work” of looking more like the America of today.

All faiths or no faith at all

Capt. Robert Rose, a self-described lifelong Presbyterian who grew up on the West Coast and now serves as a deputy wing chaplain at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, also once described himself as a pacifist.

Capt. Robert Rose, back row, left, who once described himself as a pacifist, now serves as a deputy wing chaplain in Nebraska. Rose sees being a chaplain as being “a visible reminder of the holy.” Courtesy of Robert Rose

Rose was in high school at the time and he did so “mostly because my friends did,” he says. In college, Rose began examining pacifism more closely and came to a realization that would change his life.

“I really believe each of us bears the image of God and that combat damages that in many ways. I think that began the softening of my heart to God’s call to bring hope to military members,” said Rose, who then joined a chaplain candidate program for seminarians. He would serve nine years in the reserves, with four of those years as an Air National Guardsman in Schenectady, New York. While in the Air National Guard, Rose served as an installed pastor and interim pastor in Albany Presbytery.

In 2013, Rose was selected for active duty and sent to Travis Air Force Base in California. He has been deployed twice — once to Antarctica and once to Afghanistan.

The simplest way Rose would describe the job of a military chaplain for someone not familiar with chaplaincy is that he is a pastor for the men and women of the units he works with. But Rose admits that it gets much more complicated.

“One unique aspect of our job is that military chaplains are the subject matter experts for religious freedom questions,” Rose said. “So, while I often provide pastoral care and counseling, occasionally preach and lead worship, I also advise leaders on when they might be giving preference to one religious group or another. Or I might help leadership understand a military member’s request for accommodation of her or his religious practices.”

Brandt agrees, noting that today’s service men and women come with many different faith beliefs — and even no beliefs. As a chaplain, Brandt says that he “has to make sure that people have the freedom to practice or not practice their faith at all.”

As a retired Navy chaplain, the Rev. Lyman Smith, director of Presbyterians Caring for Chaplains and Military Personnel (PCCMP), says that while he was on a ship, everyone was part of his congregation.

“It did not matter what their faith construct was, what they did before or what they would do afterwards. I knew them, and they knew me, and they were willing to come to me,” Smith said during a recent appearance on Coffee with the Clerk, a weekly Facebook Live broadcast with the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In chaplains school, Smith says, he was on an equal basis with chaplains of other denominations.

“We learned to treat each other with the same dignity as those we went to seminary with,” he said. “It is a very challenging experience for those who’ve never lived in that environment.”

Smith was a Navy chaplain for 23 years, ministering to units of the Navy and Marine Corps domestically, abroad and at sea. He also served in the Navy Chief of Chaplains Office as the director of personnel and director of plans and policy and retired after his time as the executive assistant to the chief of chaplains.

Prior to his appointment at PCCMP, Smith was the executive director of the Military Chaplains Association of the United States of America from 2015 to 2017. He also pastored Grace Presbyterian Church in Lanham, Maryland, from 2013 to 2017.

Rose says he often gets questions about issues regarding pluralism.

“We face the same challenge other clergy face in contextualizing the message of God in our increasingly pluralistic society,” he said. “The perception seems to be that I cease being a member of the clergy when I become a chaplain and somehow have to compromise my beliefs. That is not the case.”

Bringing meaning to life

If pushed to name the key role of a chaplain, Rose would say it is “providing a tangible reminder that there is a spiritual aspect to life.”

“The Air Force used to say the chaplain is the ‘visible reminder of the holy.’ While I’m walking around in the units, I can be that reminder that there is meaning and purpose to life,” Rose said.

That reminder is becoming all too important, as the U.S. military finished 2018 with the highest number of suicides among active-duty personnel in at least six years.

Army Brig. Gen. Kenneth “Ed” Brandt meets with National Guard soldiers from Tennessee and Hawaii. As a chaplain, Brandt makes sure “people have the freedom to practice or not practice their faith at all.” Courtesy of Ed Brandt

In 2018, statistics show, 321 active-duty members took their lives. The deaths equal the number of active-duty personnel who died by suicide in 2012, the record since the military began tracking the issue in 2001. Brandt is not surprised by the statistics.

In the first quarter of 2018, a report for the Army National Guard showed that chaplains were called upon for 1,508 suicide interventions. Rose adds that in one report, he read that “not one individual who attempted suicide was connected with a religious provider.”

“As people of faith, we have a huge gift to share with others, and that is hope. Sometimes, all we can do is be present and say, ‘I have hope. You can use some of mine today,’ and then get that person to a higher level of care,” Rose said. “Sometimes we get the chance to remind them or introduce them to our source of hope through faith. That is a huge honor and gift.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is working on raising awareness of mental health and suicide. In May, a group of faith leaders and chaplains gathered at the Rockville Presbyterian Fellowship in Fairfield, California, for a forum on military and veteran suicide. The Air Force, Army, Navy and Civil Air Patrol were among the branches of service represented. The Rev. Cindy Kohlmann, co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), led the discussion.

“My father was career military and I was a naval officer for four years and in the chaplain candidates program while I was in the seminary, so this is something I was very interested in being a part of,” she said. “When veterans go through struggles, the chaplain is usually the first person they reach out to.”

Experts say the causes of suicide among military personnel vary from exposure to violence and war to spending lengthy times away from home and family.

In fact, Rose says the struggles he sees the most in the military are marital- or work-related. And the questions of faith are not as profound as one might think.

 “I always want the answer to what questions of faith does a chaplain get to be something like ‘Is war just?’ or ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ Most of the time, the questions or struggles I see are the same ones I found in my civilian ministry. People seem to ask, ‘Where is God in my everyday challenge?’ ” Rose said.

But despite all of the challenges, Rose, like many called to military chaplaincy, sees the many blessings as well. Among the greatest gift for Rose is “to see someone who has faced serious challenges — be it relationships falling apart, a struggle in the office or post-traumatic stress — and see them achieve some level of healing.

 “I worked for a chaplain who said our role as chaplains is to go to the very gates of hell with people and help them find their way to the very gates of heaven,” Rose said.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is the editor of Presbyterians Today. Rick Jones, director of communications for the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), contributed to this story.

Learn more

Learn more about chaplaincy at Presbyterians Caring for Chaplains and Military Personnel. Go to

Support Presbyterian Today’s publishing ministry. Click to give

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?