July 10, 1012
Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff
Response to USA question:
If gays serve openly, will chaplains suffer? No, the mission is to serve all troops.
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In 1943, four Army chaplains gave away their life vests to save others when the troopship Dorchester, which
had been torpedoed, sank. Those chaplains (two Protestants, one Catholic and one Jew) comforted the
wounded — of all faiths — with their dying breaths.
Today, despite two centuries of such heroic, selfless service by military chaplains, some religious groups
threaten to withdraw their chaplains from America's armed forces if "don't ask, don't tell" — the policy
allowing lesbians and gay men to serve only if they hide the fact that they are gay — is changed.
The current policy dishonors gays. The threat dishonors chaplains.
A chaplain's mission
Despite some outlandish claims (including one charge that the Bible will be banned), chaplains should not
be affected by a new policy. "Don't tell" never did apply to conversations with a chaplain, which are
"privileged communication." And good chaplains can preach and teach, true to their beliefs — respecting
rights while challenging what they believe is wrong. They also teach commandments — loving neighbors,
judging not, not casting stones, the golden rule — that help the troops serve together.
Free exercise of religion is the basic reason chaplains serve. But their mission is threefold: ministry to those
of their own faith; helping those of other faiths fulfill their religious needs; and providing care for all. Christian
chaplains ensure that Muslims have prayer rugs and Jews have matza, and military rabbis and imams find
rosaries and New Testaments for personnel they serve. For those in pain — religious, atheist, straight or
gay — chaplains offer comfort and a helping hand.
For many military personnel, including many chaplains, being gay (or straight) is neutral, neither crime nor
sin. Others hold that regardless of their own religious views, neutrality and respect for equal rights should
determine military policy and law. In more than 20 NATO nations, gay men and women serve without
restriction and with distinction.
Of course, some chaplains believe that homosexuality is sinful, but most religions teach that all of us are
sinners, although in every soul there is good, too. Civilian pastors visit hospitals and prisons with no
demands that gays "don't tell." And those who ask "What would Jesus do?" know from Gospel teachings that
he drew near to many sinners when others walked away.
We Americans should never underestimate our heritage and vision of united service, despite differing
beliefs. Some religions teach all alcohol is sin, divorce is sinful, or certain faith beliefs (surely, mine
included!) lead straight to hell.
For some faiths, abortion is premeditated murder, yet no religious group makes threats to withdraw
chaplains unless rules bar women who had abortions, or "tolerate" them only if they "never tell."
Americans agree to disagree, serving side-by-side, fighting for the way of life that allows us to disagree.
My life is proof that chaplains bring with them their faith, then show how to reach across faith lines. In
Vietnam, a minister helped me use my faith to become a better leader, person and even a better Jew. I
wouldn't be a rabbi now without his help back then.
Reaching beyond faith
In Beirut in 1983, a priest tore pieces from his uniform to make me a new kippa, or skullcap. Mine was
bloodied as I wiped off a Marine's face when a bomb destroyed the barracks, killing hundreds in the blast.
Chaplains helped all. Some wounded whispered names of loved ones, even secret names, and messages to
be delivered in case of death.
In the Middle East, where religious groups so often fight, U.S. foxholes are interfaith. Among Christian,
Muslim or Jewish foxholes, ours give refuge to people of every faith or no faith. I've often said that if the
world had more foxholes that were interfaith, we'd have less need for foxholes and have more room for faith.
Contrary to the old canard, there are atheists in our foxholes, too — alongside chaplains whom they trust.
Until now, gay military personnel had faith that chaplains would help them, too. I pray their faith was not
misguided, and chaplains do not desert their posts, or give up the ship.
Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff began his Navy career as a line officer in the rivers of Vietnam's Mekong Delta
and retired after serving as Command Chaplain for the U.S. European Command. In 2005-06, he served as
Special Assistant for Values and Vision to the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force.