NATICK, Mass. – In 17 years as a military chaplain, Lt. Col. Ben Richardson has turned truck hoods into altars and Iraqi hotel balconies into pulpits. Loose cartons have served as makeshift office furniture.
Now he has all a chaplain could need in one plastic box.
Looking something like a footlocker, the 30-by-28-inch case is meant to be an all-in-one portable kit for chaplains. Those who've tested it say it makes work easier for chaplains and worship services a better experience for soldiers of all faiths during deployment.
The box, developed at the U.S. Army labs in Natick and expected to go into service next year, can transform into an office or altar and is good for storing linens, books and other tools of the chaplains' trade.
Chaplains say it's important to the military to make spiritual comfort more accessible to troops, and the new kit is part of that effort.
Worship matters to troops who now face uncertainty in the tumultuous times after the Sept. 11 attacks and rely on faith to get past their fear, said Maj. James Caraway, a Protestant chaplain in Ft. Hood, Texas, who has tested the box.
"When you're fearing your mortality and bullets are flying, people get real religious," he said.
The durable plastic kit has handles on each side and weighs 80 pounds when empty -- loaded it weighs up to 150 pounds and takes two people to carry. With a couple of turns and twists, parts detach to make a chair and workstation table, complete with padded drawers that can hold files, laptop computers and small printers.
A few more turns and the telescoping legs turn the table into a 40 inch-high altar.
The box can also hold Muslim head coverings, communion wine and wafers, and sacred books of all religions. A pouch stored under the table carries altar linens colored red, green, purple and white for the seasons of the Christian year.
The Army plans to add woodland camouflage and desert camouflage to the package of religious linens and items to make sure the brightly colored altars don't serve as enemy targets, said Richardson, now the chaplain at the Natick facility, about 15 miles west of Boston.
The package enables chaplains in remote locations to perform the liturgy and rituals important to different faiths in ways that simply aren't possible when the items can't be easily carried.
"It's all about the quality of services you provide," Richardson said. It also makes the chaplain's administrative tasks a lot easier, he added.
The package was developed over two years and built to withstand harsh field conditions, according to project engineer Bob Granny.
Rain was poured on the box a rate of 4 inches per hour in winds of 40 miles per hour to ensure it was waterproof. It was also blasted with a fine silt to make sure it was sealed from the dust whipped in desert winds, he said.
Caraway was one of two dozen chaplains worldwide who tested the kit, using it when he was stationed in the desert at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., this spring
"Wind and sand kind of go together with Army training," he said. "It kept stuff out."
Caraway said the handles were a bit low and made carrying awkward. He also needed to find a cord to secure some of his items in the box. But overall, Caraway said, the package was an asset because it made life and worship more convenient.
A couple years ago, the Army introduced a "containerized chapel," with a tent, folding chairs for 100 worshippers and generator-powered heat, air conditioning and lights. The 8-by-20-foot container even contains Bibles, Muslim prayer mats and Jewish prayer shawls — in camouflage, no less.
Now, combined with the portable chapels already in use, the chaplain kits move worship services in the field a step closer to services back in the States, Richardson said.
"When are soldiers are deployed, we have something that sustains them and feels like a church at home," he said.