A soldier makes his first kill. He may feel guilty, confused, sad, scared, scarred or any range of emotions.
So he turns to Gene Whitmore. After all, he’s an officer, a major. Even more important, for this case, he’s a chaplain.
The moral counseling and coaching then begin. Did the soldier cut down an enemy in a firefight or spill innocent blood? If the latter, did it happen accidentally — combat can be chaotic — or intentionally, with malice?
These are not easy conversations for Whitmore. But he’s talked military men and women through them numerous times and usually is able to help.
He knows them. He has rejoiced with them. He has mourned with them (and their loved ones). He has prayed for them, worshipped with them and ministered to them — whether they belong to his Mormon faith or not.
Such is the job of a chaplain, the military’s answer to protecting servicewomen and -men’s First Amendment rights to freely practice their religion, even when deployed far away from their own churches.
“The expectation is you’re there for everyone,” said Richard Roggia, a retired chaplain who helps endorse chaplain candidates for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “You’re not there to serve the Latter-day Saints, in particular, but certainly because you are there, you do serve Latter-day Saints. But your priority is to everybody.”
While Mormon chaplains — along with those from other “minority” religions such as Seventh-day Adventists and Christian Scientists — endured some prejudice in 19th- and 20th-century wars, LDS-endorsed chaplains are now sought after in the military, said Frank Clawson, the church’s director of military relations and chaplain services.
“We’ve enjoyed a very good reputation, and those we send have been well received,” Clawson said. “So, we feel fortunate. But part of our process ensures that we have pretty good people going in.”
To become a chaplain, one must be endorsed by his or her church. For the LDS Church to sign off on a candidate, the person must undergo stringent screening, including interviews with local lay leaders, and a psychological evaluation, followed by interviews with the church’s military relations workers and, finally, a general authority.
Candidates also must earn a post-bachelor’s degree in theology. Because the Defense Department prefers chaplains to have a strong foundation in their own religions (presumably to prevent one from having a faith crisis while deployed), Clawson said, many Mormons choose LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University for their advanced schooling.
Once they obtain their degrees, the military decides whether would-be chaplains get jobs.
Everyone who’s completed the BYU program and gone on to apply for a military assignment, Clawson said, has gotten one.
There’s so much demand that Blake Boatright, a professor in BYU’s chaplaincy program, said the school is talking about expanding its program, which currently accepts only three to six students a year.
Chaplains are expected to be not only ambassadors of their own faith but also stewards of others’ religious preferences. They are “stealth ministers,” Boatright said, individuals who answer the call of a profession many in their own congregations may not understand.
Boatright said many Mormons don’t know what chaplains do, since they don’t use the religious terminology (like pastor and clergy) that helps define the job. He said the calling is “beyond the experience” of many Latter-day Saints.
That’s why he believes to become a chaplain, Mormons need a push from the Holy Ghost.
“The Lord needs to say, ‘Hey, why don’t you do this,’” he said. “And you say, ‘What’s a chaplain?’”
A retired chaplain himself, Boatright got his start that way.
He was at Georgia’s Fort Benning, with ambitions to become the next Gen. George Patton, when he said the spirit told him, “Blake, be a chaplain.”
Soon afterward, his wife leaned over and asked him if he’d ever thought about the chaplaincy. He hasn’t looked back since.
Whitmore’s journey was a tad different.
He enlisted at age 17 and served a number of years as a reservist in the Utah National Guard before deciding, in 2006, that he’d had enough jumping out of planes and shooting guns (what he calls the “fun stuff”). He was ready for a change.
“I wanted to make sure the shooters were spiritually intact,” he said, “even when they go into a situation that does everything it can to rupture any kind of spiritual thought they have.”
That decision led him to Lubbock Christian University in Texas and a master of divinity degree. From there, he became a full-time chaplain for the Utah National Guard.
The chaplaincy traces its U.S. roots to George Washington and the Revolutionary War. Now chaplains of all faiths serve in the Army, Air Force and Navy, which provides chaplains to the Marines and Coast Guard.
The first commissioned LDS chaplain was Elias S. Kimball, who served in the Spanish-American War and was the brother of the famous “swearing” general authority J. Golden Kimball. Following him came B.H. Roberts, Herbert Maw and Calvin S. Smith, who served in World War I.
World War II swelled the ranks of Mormon military chaplains to 45. After the fighting, however, LDS chaplains were discharged. Unlike chaplains with professional clergy credentials from larger religions, they weren’t allowed to serve during peacetime.
“We don’t fit the mold exactly,” Clawson said. “Yet we had our own men and women dying in battle and certainly are deserving of chaplains.”
That changed in the mid-1960s. President Lyndon B. Johnson cleared the way for Mormon chaplains to keep their jobs during peacetime. Today, Clawson said, 300 to 400 LDS chaplains serve in the armed forces.
Bringing religion to the ranks
Chaplains spend their time helping service members navigate their faith, family relationships and the hardships of war. They hold worship services, and if they can’t provide the religious rites themselves, they find someone who can.
In addition, they act as a commander’s ethics adviser. As U.S. engagements proliferate across the Muslim world, Clawson pointed out, having religious experts around with a strong grasp of Islam is increasingly important.
They provide a grounding influence. They don’t proselytize. They bring God to the troops or the troops to God — if the troops want that.
Boatright remembers serving in a remote Honduran forest when a Catholic soldier came to him desiring to confess his sins. Boatright explained that he was Mormon, not a Catholic priest. That didn’t faze the soldier: He still yearned to unload his burden. Boatright obliged, and the man felt better.
“You do what you can up to a certain point,” Boatright said. “And beyond that, you can’t.”
Among the hardest jobs for any chaplain is telling a spouse or parent or sibling that a loved one has died.
Whitmore has performed that heart-rending task more than 50 times — and it never gets easier with experience.
One time he and another officer showed up at the door of a policeman whose son had died. The man saw them coming but wouldn’t open the door.
“He knew what we were there for,” Whitmore said, “but it wasn’t real until we told him.”
The men stood on opposite sides of the door for 15 minutes before the police officer finally gave in to the inevitable.
All those visits hurt, Whitmore said. “Every single one of them, as I’ve driven up … my stomach is churning. I’ve got butterflies. My heart’s racing.”
It’s wonderful when you help lives change for the better, Roggia said. It’s horrible seeing lives change for the worse.
Despite those hardships, Whitmore sees something special about helping people during their most vulnerable times — even if he feels inadequate for the task.
At those moments, he turns to his colleagues and, being a chaplain, to prayer for answers.