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Chaplain Chief: 'We don't impose religion'

Key to handling diversity is human dignity and respect

Jun. 13, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Howard Stendahl, Air Force chief of chaplains
Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Howard Stendahl, Air Force chief of chaplains (Air Force)
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Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Howard Stendahl, Air Force chief of chaplains, speaks with airmen from the 353rd Special Operations Maintenance Squadron during his Kadena Air Base, Japan, visit in January. (Tech. Sgt. Kristine Dreyer / Air Force)

Some boys pretend to be sports heroes. Some even pretend to be soldiers.

Some boys pretend to be sports heroes. Some even pretend to be soldiers.

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Some boys pretend to be sports heroes. Some even pretend to be soldiers.

But growing up as the youngest brother in a Navy family, Maj. Gen. Howard D. Stendahl routinely took on the role of ship chaplain.

ďWhen youíre the youngest of all the brothers you ainít the skipper of the ship,Ē said Stendahl, who became chief of chaplains in August. ďWe were always active in parish life growing up, so the two seemed very congenial to me. Fidelity of the church first, to the faith first. But the idea of military life has always been a compelling and inviting image for me. I wanted to do this all my life.Ē

Stendahl was ordained through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1977, and aside from his required stint as a parish pastor, for the last 28 years he has served as a chaplain in some capacity ó at basic military training, numerous wings and the major command level.

Just three months shy of closing out his first year as the chief of chaplains, Stendahl talked with Air Force Times about how he views the chaplaincy mission and the challenges and opportunities he sees as the Air Force shifts out of war mode.

Q. What do you see as the role of the Air Force chaplain corps?

A. The chaplain corps exists to provide spiritual care, primarily, and to guarantee the free exercise of religion for every airman and their family ó active, guard or reserve. As chief of chaplains, thatís on my mind all the time. Are we faithfully caring for every airman ó airmen of faith or airmen who perhaps donít have a specific religious tradition? I mentioned that Iím a Lutheran minister from Minnesota, but itís not my job to grab everyone by the uniform and shake them into being Lutheran ó quite the contrary. It is to be sensitive to the airmanís spiritual needs.

Q. In what ways do Air Force chaplains work specifically to meet the needs of those with no religious beliefs?

A.I realized, very early on, that I couldnít meet everyoneís religious needs. I can provide religious freedom for some, but I need to provide for many, and respect all of them, and that includes those without specific religious tradition or faith. I need a Muslim colleague to provide religious freedoms for Muslim airmen and joint warriors. I need a Roman Catholic priest colleague, I need a Jewish colleague and every variety of faith. I need civilian help where our military resources may not be adequate either in terms of a capability we donít have, a denomination, or a capacity we donít have. Weíll need assistance in the civilian areas to provide for the free exercise of persons, especially in smaller staffs, and thatís an increasing issue because the chaplains corps is only about half the size I think it was when I came on active duty.

Q. As the Air Force gets smaller and the war draws to a close, how might the chaplaincy change?

A. I see a continuing deployment responsibility. The chaplain corps, like any other Air Force specialty, exists to support combatant commanders, to supply forces to them. I see that continuing, and we will follow requests for forces and the needs of those forward commanders as that does change and perhaps as we begin to face a changing defense environment. We will see continuing needs of persons who return from long periods of time away. Our strategic plan for the coming years can maybe be summed up in a single term we call warrior care.

Q. The Air Force has experienced controversy around religion. How do you approach it?

A. Itís not a surprise that people have religious views, sometimes very strongly held, and are not hesitant to express them. Thatís the way this nation has always been. We have free exercise of religion. We donít impose religion. The government is neutral in such things, and thatís a great virtue. I think there is a great prescience in that First Amendment. I think itís an absolutely brilliant balance between the governmentís promise to us that they do not establish religion, that Congress shall make no law with regard to the establishment of religion, nor inhibit the free exercise. Thatís a wonderful balance, and it provides a basis for that neutrality that keeps people free from having religion imposed on them. Weíll never do that. How do we treat persons who are like us and those who are very different from us? The key for me will always be human dignity and respect, especially for those who are different. I need people around me who are very different. It would be very dull if everyone were a Lutheran minister from Minnesota.

Q. What areas of the chaplain corps need more diversity?

A. I would like to have more Roman Catholic priests. I think what we face as a challenge in recruiting in the Roman Catholic area is not unique by any means to the Air Force. I think itís an issue that the Roman Catholic church faces in the development of vocations. I think itís better than it was a number of years ago, but for us to realize the clear empirical gains in this area, we are maybe a half generation away from really seeing the kinds of gains Iíd like to see. Iíd like to have more Muslim chaplains for a couple of reasons. One, itís a growing community of faith. Second, I would like to have more to establish a viable career path for them. We need more than two. We only have two. Iíd like to have more. As they develop and mature as officers and hold higher positions of responsibilities, they will supervise others of various faiths. We have other areas not as critical, but obviously the Roman Catholic area is a low-density, high-demand area, so they deploy more often. They have more responsibilities.

Q. How do chaplains care for themselves?

A. Of our five priorities in our strategic plan one is certainly what we call care for the caregiver. What I desire that every chaplain have is time every year with her or his endorsing authority. Chaplains are not free agents by any means. We belong to endorsing communities of faith. What I would desire in care for the caregiver is that every one of those chaplains be able to participate in a retreat, in an experience of faith, of enrichment and care provided by their endorsing denomination faith community. I would desire that every NCO, every senior NCO in our chaplain assistant career field participate in the resiliency courses that we have provided, but we exhaust our resources and we canít do everything. So what we do also is we look toward every religious support team to care for each other, to be a good wingmen. [These are] things that donít cost anything. We do it on this staff. Every morning at 7 oíclock, chaplains stop and we do intercessory prayer right here in the E-ring. This is not boastful or some kind of statement of ďHere, look at what we do,Ē but we pray for others, again, with regard to care to the caregiver, respect and human dignity, you begin with oneself, so we begin with ourselves. Care for the caregiver is absolutely essential because one canít give what one doesnít have.

Q. Are there any other things that people should know about the future of the chaplaincy corps?

A. I would want to emphasize first of all our strategic plan for the generation to come. Itís focused on warrior care. Itís our desire and our obedience to the chief of staff and others who give us guidance that we provide religious support teams as intimately in the units as we can in the years to come. That we integrate the chaplain corps in the mission of every wing where we live, down to every squadron we can possibly reach. To live where airmen live. To be involved in their workplaces, to know their names, with a view toward respecting them and their spiritual resilience. Not to make everyone a Lutheran from Minnesota; quite the contrary, but to begin with their needs. That warrior care model is our hope for a smaller but superb force that responds to the needs of airmen, enhances their spiritual resilience, provides spiritual care and [is] their advocate for free exercise of religion.

Answers by RallyPoint

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