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Chaplains help during times of deployment, reunion

2/18/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A photograph is available. For related coverage, see UMNS story #082.

By United Methodist News Service

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
JoAnn Mann
As military forces deploy to the Middle East for a possible war with Iraq, United Methodist chaplains are preparing soldiers and their families for the emotional separation.

"For the soldiers who go, we all have a mission, we know why we are there (and) what we are doing," says Chaplain Maj. Jo Ann Mann, an instructor at the Fort Jackson (S.C.) U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School. "Family members are in the same home, without their soldier; in the same church, with an empty spot on the pew; buying groceries as usual, but for one less person; doing all the household things alone that they used to share.

"When we deploy for training exercises, families have projected return dates, and they know that … we expect to bring everyone home on that projected return date," she says. "When we deploy for war, there is no return date to mark on a calendar, and there is the fear that your loved one(s) may not return. Military families are good at handling separations, but going to war is more than just a separation."

Chaplains hold meetings with the soldiers before they leave, provide pastoral care for the family members left behind, and hold sessions for the soldiers and family members before the troops return home. In between, they prepare themselves and their own families for the same uncertainty and fear of what it means to leave for war.

Rear-detachment chaplains stay behind for the families and shoulder the load left by the ministers who are deploying.

"It is an equally intense ministry, but you don't get any recognition, you don't get any ribbons or anything like that," Mann says.

When soldiers are being deployed, everyone wants to see the chaplain, she says.

Chaplains hold deployment and reunion briefings. In both, they try to get the soldiers to anticipate issues that may arise when they leave and while they are gone.

"We stress communication," Mann says. "If you have a sense of what might be coming up and how you might want to handle it, then nobody is blindsided."

She uses stories to illustrate potential problems for soldiers.

"I tell the story about a soldier who was deployed for six months and left behind a daughter who was 11 or 12 months old," she says. While he was gone, the child had forgotten who he was.

"He came down the steps, and the family was there waiting for him. He reaches for his little girl and she screams bloody murder," Mann says. "He was devastated.

"In the reunion briefing we talk about how sometimes, as awful as it sounds, children may forget you." In pre-deployment, the chaplains talk about ways to stay in touch with family and loved ones. One suggestion she gives is to record bedtime stories so the children will have the parent's voice on tape.

Staying in touch with loved ones and talking about expectations are important, she says.

Mann tells about a soldier who was returning home and looking forward to nothing more than a hug from his wife, a hot shower and his own bed. His wife, equally excited about his homecoming, had arranged a surprise party for him.

"He walks in the door, she flips on the light, and 30 people jump out and yell, 'Welcome home!' He managed to get through it gracefully," she says, laughing.

If you talk about your expectations beforehand, you can avoid some of those pitfalls, she adds.

Chaplains have families too, and deployment poses an extra challenge for them. "We have to prepare our families too, and that is when everybody else in the world wants you," Mann says.

Her mentor taught her to take time for herself and her family, she says. "What he taught me was you can't do it all yourself. When you are young especially, you want to do it all yourself. You don't always realize you can't be all things to all people."

The important thing to remember, she says, is to work as a team.

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