DES MOINES, Iowa – Some Army National Guard units may have to deploy overseas without a chaplain if recruitment incentives, including $10,000 signing bonuses, do not work to fill hundreds of vacant positions.
Some chaplains have served repeated overseas tours to help take up the slack.
"We're all concerned that we don't wear the guys out — there is a limit," said Chaplain Lt. Col. Randall Dolinger, a spokesman for the Army Chief of Chaplains Office in Arlington, Virginia.
The Army National Guard has 310 chaplain vacancies. That is 40 percent of its authorized level, but so far the Guard has not been forced to deploy units without a chaplain, Dolinger said.
Vacancies soared after 2001, when many chaplains moved to active duty in the Army. Filling the openings has been difficult because faith leaders have been deterred by the likelihood of long and repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Dolinger said.
Complicating matters, chaplains are not covered by a federal law protecting soldiers' jobs while they are deployed.
"A chaplain can't sue their church" if they lose their job while away on a deployment, Dolinger said.
And even those who want to serve as chaplains may not qualify.
Candidates must pass a physical fitness test, have a seminary or master's degree and be endorsed by a recognized denominational group. They also must complete counselor training and become certified in suicide prevention. An age range of 21 to 42 is occasionally lifted to fill large voids, such as the need for Roman Catholic priests.
The shortage is largely an Army National Guard problem, with the Air National Guard at 85 percent of its quota. Army National Guard officials said they have a tougher challenge because, unlike the Air National Guard, their units are scattered and demand more chaplains. Active duty services also have managed to fill most of their chaplain slots, Dolinger said.
The Guard has created a recruitment Web site, sent out promotional DVDs and hired 14 chaplain recruiters in the last year. They tout what the Guard can offer: a $10,000 signing bonus, $20,000 student loan repayment plan and $4,500 college scholarship.
The effort is seeing some success, with more than 90 new chaplains in the last year, said Chaplain Maj. Timothy Baer, the National Guard's chief of specialty branch recruiting.
Filling the openings remains a challenge in some areas, however. In Iowa, 10 of 17 chaplain positions are empty. General recruiter Jeff Lee, a chief warrant officer, said he said about five contacts a month with potential chaplains and stressed the grants and sign-on incentives.
"Anytime you get a chaplain lead, you get right on it," said Lee, who is stationed in Johnston, Iowa.
Chaplains who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan describe a rewarding but exhausting experience. In addition to conducting services, they provide personal counseling, lead suicide prevention and post-traumatic stress group seminars and take the lead as cultural educator.
Chaplain Capt. Paul Douglas, 43, returned from Iraq in May after an 18-month tour with his Macon, Georgia-based Guard unit. He said even nonreligious soldiers sought him out for counseling and to serve as their advocate in dealing with superiors.
"I didn't spend much time in the chapel," Douglas said. "Most of the time you're just out and about."
Dolinger said that if President Bush followed through with his plan to send an additional 21,500 U.S. forces to Iraq, the Guard would likely need to add more chaplains, and worries what would happen if the Guard cannot close the chaplain gap.
"It's a tough mission and it only gets tougher when you have fewer people," he said.