Why do military personnel have chaplains

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The Swiss army was also affected by the corona pandemic. In order to support the morale of the troops, the army chaplaincy has stepped up its operations. The task of the pastor is now more a question of personal accompaniment than of spiritual guidance.

This content was published on February 10, 2021 - 16:00

Last spring, the army mobilized troops to assist civil authorities in the first wave of the coronavirusexternal link. It was the first time since the Second World War that Swiss soldiers had to perform such a mission. And a new support mission - this time mainly with volunteers - is on its way until the end of March to tackle the second wave.

Face death in the eye

For example, medical teams were sent to hospitals to assist civilian personnel on the verge of collapse. A mission that is not easy on the psychological level.

"Imagine a young person who leaves civilian life overnight and finds himself in a hospital where he has to take care of people who are dying," says Captain Stefan Junge, Head of Army Pastoral Care External Link ( AA). "For example, I recently came into contact with a 21-year-old soldier who was trying to prevent a patient from pulling out his tubes. It's mentally stressful."

The accompaniment of the dying is certainly an extreme case. But the mere fact of being mobilized and having to put one's civilian life on hold for the time being can trigger fears.

In addition, there is also a feeling of confinement for both mobilized troops and those who are in normal service - such as in a recruiting school -. In order to reduce the risk of infection as much as possible, trips and vacations have been severely restricted or even canceled entirely in recent months. But being locked in barracks for weeks or months can also have a negative effect on morale.

Just listen

In this context, the army pastoral care was increased in some cases by 35 people who were hired in the first wave. And currently five pastors are active in the care service. Their job: to be available and attentive to all who need them.

The task is not specific to this support mission. The role of pastors has always been the same: "Army pastoral care is available to all those who want to be heard and are looking for advice, who have questions about the meaning of life and who want a personal conversation." It is officially considered "a place of listening that is available to all military personnel, regardless of their religious affiliation."

"The experience is pretty good," says Junge. "The soldiers involved in the operation were happy that a reliable and easy-to-reach contact person was available. Sometimes it was just a matter of playing cards with them."

However, the army has two other troop care services: a psycho-educational service and a social service. So why turn to chaplains when you're in trouble or just feeling bad? "The specialty of pastoral care compared to the two services is that it works directly on site," says the pastor.

The Swiss Army Pastoral Care

Even in the old Confederation, chaplains accompanied the cantonal troops. A famous example of a military chaplain was Huldrych Zwingli, who later became a reformer, at the Battle of Marignano (1515).

In the modern state, the position of chaplain was first created in 1874. Originally intended for wartime use, the post was expanded to include peacetime training in 1883.

The AA currently needs around 170 pastoral workers. Every two years between 30 and 40 new pastors are added.

The pastors are volunteers. They are proposed by churches or religious communities that have partnered with the AA.

Candidates should have theological competence in their own faith as well as personal, social and communication skills.

The AA has also been open to women for about twenty years.

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First and foremost pastors

This concept of personal assistance is far from a union of sword and cross. "Pastoral care has changed," admits Junge. "In the past it was the church in the army. Today it is about being close to the service providers, sharing their everyday life."

In such a context there is no place for proselytizing or sectarianism. The AA's principles are clear: "As a public body, the military makes no distinction between military personnel in terms of religious, ecclesiastical or denominational beliefs. The military therefore requires that pastoral care target all members of the military without any distinction. "

"That means you are first and foremost a pastor and only then a preacher," explains Junge. "But of course we don't hide our religious affiliation. If a person needs spiritual support, we do, but that's not the primary task."

Open to all religions

Most armies have a pastoral ministry. As a rule, they are assigned specifically to the troops of their own denomination. In this way, the military chaplains strive to meet the needs of the soldiers of different faiths in their ranks.

In 2006, for example, the French army set up a Muslim pastoral care unit. And since the same year, an Orthodox priest from the Moscow Patriarchate has been seconded to the Foreign Legion for one month every year. This year the German Bundeswehr has again introduced rabbis to look after its 50 to 300 soldiers of the Jewish faith.

In Switzerland, the army pastoral care traditionally works with the Reformed, Catholic and Christian Catholic churches. Since last November this cooperation has been extended to the evangelical churches. In the published CommuniquéExterner Link, the army stated that "opening up today's army pastoral care is in line with the needs of an increasingly diversified society".

The Swiss Army does not (yet) have any non-Christian pastors. But things could change. "We are in the middle of a discussion with other religions," says Junge. "In principle, we are ready to work with all religious communities that accept the basic functioning of the AA. But it is difficult to say when this will lead to concrete results. First of all, we have to make them understand that we are not primarily imams or Looking for rabbis, but pastors with a Muslim or Jewish background. "

The "CORONA Missions" in numbers

In Switzerland, military service is compulsory for men and voluntary for women. After about four months of basic training (recruit school), the soldiers complete refresher courses every year until they have reached a total of 245 days of service (280 for elite troops). The period of service is longer for cadres, for example 680 days for junior officers.

A minority of conscripts (15% of the total number of conscripts and only certain categories and functions) are able to complete their entire service in one go. The number of days of service for a soldier is then 300. The army also has a small number of specialists (approx. 3600) for supervision, training or special tasks.

This system ensures that Switzerland always has a certain number of soldiers available who are ready for action. The last External Link census, carried out in 2019, reported 140,304 soldiers.

The government can engage the army for a support service if civilian resources are no longer sufficient. During the first wave of the pandemic in spring 2020, just over 2,000 military personnel were mobilized to support the civil authorities.

During the second mission, which started in November and will end at the end of March, there was no mobilization. In addition to the 700 soldiers in normal service, the army could count on 350 volunteersExternal Link. There are still 83 soldiers in the assistance service (as of the beginning of February). So far, around 33,000 days of service have been completed as part of the 2nd "CORONA Mission".

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