Written: By Matthew J. Seelinger
As long as armies have existed, military chaplains have served along side soldiers, providing for their spiritual needs, working to improve morale, and comforting the wounded. The Bible tells of the early Israelites bringing their priests into battle with them. Pagan priests accompanied the Roman legions during their conquests; as Christianity became the predominant religion of the Roman Empire, Christian chaplains administered to Roman soldiers. In fact, the word chaplain is derived from cappa, the Latin word for cloak. The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps is one of the oldest and smallest branches of the Army. The Chaplain Corps dates back to 29 July 1775, when the Continental Congress authorized one chaplain for each regiment of the Continental Army, with pay equaling that of a captain. In addition to chaplains serving in Continental regiments, many militia regiments counted chaplains among their ranks.
Since the War for Independence, chaplains have served in every American conflict. Over that period, the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps has evolved, with the addition of Roman Catholic chaplains in the Mexican War, and Jewish and African American chaplains during the Civil War. The position of chaplain assistant was created to support the work of chaplains. In July 1974, the Army commissioned its first female chaplain. Today, some 1,300 active duty Army chaplains and 1,200 in the reserve components, representing five major faiths groups (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist) and over 120 denominations, administer to soldiers and their families.
While their duties are primarily focused on spiritual and morale issues, many chaplains have also demonstrated tremendous bravery. Stories abound of chaplains administering the last rites to fallen soldiers, oblivious to the fire around them, or dashing out into the open to rescue the wounded with little regard for their own lives.
Five chaplains earned the Medal of Honor for their bravery, the most recent award made posthumously to Chaplain (MAJ) Charles J. Watters in November 1969. Dozens of others have made the ultimate sacrifice, living up the Chaplain Corps motto, Pro Deo Et Patria (For God and Country).