In the fall of 1998, I met a group of Army religious educators at a conference, and was immediately taken by their vivacity, curiosity, humility, and what seemed even on cursory glance like a pretty interesting spiritual indifference to a military culture that I thought would have all but fenced them in theologically. This chance meeting led to my serving as a "trainer" and consultant for the military from 1999-2003, mostly for the Army, but a couple of times for the Air Force, too.
My first military invitation came through the Army Chief of Chaplains Office, and I was not sure that I could accept. True, I had served very briefly as a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Force (that’s another story) in 1990, but had never done any other military duty, and at the time was being pulled personally more and more toward the spiritualities of Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker, and the Catholic Peace Fellowship. I have written about the importance of making ROTC into a theological question for Catholic campuses. On the other hand, I liked the religious educators a lot that I’d met, the challenge of learning military culture seemed intriguing (I’ve always been an eager participant in, and pretty aggressive at, sports; I see physical and spiritual exercises as deeply co-implicated; I wish that I had time to really get going on Parkour; and I have continually fantasized about trying to survive basic training), and did I mention that the pay was fair?
I ended up proposing that I could work for the Army if the Army would also write a check to Fr. Roy Bourgeois and School of the Americas Watch. To my surprise, the military guys actually took some time to see if that would somehow be possible. To my nonsurprise, it was not possible. But when I asked if I could make a brief statement at my first "training" event (and perhaps others--I can’t remember), to the effect that a portion of my fee would go to SOA Watch, I was permitted to do so. (And when I did so that first time, after giving a training workshop for Army religious educators, several thanked me for even raising the issue at an official event.)
Later I asked for another kind of "payment" for my work with the Army, which was that I be allowed to tour the School of the Americas, and to meet with chaplains who work there. That request was also granted, and I spent an uncomfortable (because of its intense notoriety and notoriousness) but unforgettable day walking around the School and talking to some chaplains there about how they think about their work.
Over several years, I worked with many different kinds of military personnel, but mostly with chaplains and religious educators, consulting and "training" (their term for seemingly any kind of pedagogical event) around their theological interests concerning faith engaging contemporary culture, especially in regard to young adults, Catholicism, vocations, the priesthood, and mentoring.
I have no "lessons" from these experiences that I can summarize in a short blog post. Yes, I did often see a disproportionate influence of evangelical Christianity on military culture. Yes, I did see a phenomenally understaffed Catholic ministerial presence (including a very serious Catholic priest/chaplain shortage). Yes, I did meet personnel who seemed to believe in something like political and personal salvation through American militarism. On the other hand, in these chaplains, religious educators, and others in ministry, I met perhaps the largest contingent of complex, raw, and tested pastoral leaders I’ve ever seen in one institution, many of whom hold worlds of contradiction together in their hands each day that most of the rest of us cannot fathom. I met pastoral leaders who talked openly about the ambiguities of their own propensities to feel needed in "action" and in violence. And I heard pastoral leaders speak compassionately and knowledgeably about homoeroticism in military life.
If I now look back on those times with the military with any "lesson learned" (to borrow again from them), it is the highly "civilian" character of my own theology, and the "civilian" character of much of what we do in theology and ministry in Catholic higher education in the United States, so typically separated are we from ministry professionals in the military. I am challenged at Fordham to keep the memories of this military work somehow present in my teaching.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York