When Army Spc. Mark Melcher was shot by a sniper in Anbar province in April 2006, Chaplain Douglas Etter was there to hold his hand and comfort the dying Pittsburgher.
“Mark was a Mellon Bank employee who was felled … just 28 days after he joined us as a replacement. I kissed him and more than one of those boys on the forehead after making the sign of the cross there,” Chaplain Etter told a conference of returning veterans at Soldiers & Sailors Military Museum and Memorial last month.
Chaplains not only fulfill the services’ First Amendment religion obligation; they are “visible reminders of the holy” to troops in situations that can often seem to epitomize the unholy.
The Army Chaplaincy is stretched to the brink trying to ensure that servicemen and women have access to chaplains, typically troops’ most proximal and trusted humanitarian resource. Each service has its own chaplain staff, but the Army supplies the majority of chaplains who go to Iraq.
The Army is currently trying to fill 452 chaplain vacancies, said Lt. Col. Randall Dolinger, spokesman for the Army Office of the Chief of Chaplains. The most pronounced shortages were in the reserves and National Guard, with a particularly acute shortfall of Roman Catholic priests, he said.