FORT JACKSON, SC –
It was holy ground at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School here Nov. 16—19, 2021, as Chaplains, Chaplain Candidates, and Religious Affairs Specialists from across the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) arrived for the Combined Religious Area Assessment and Chaplain Religious Leader Engagement Exercise.
Together with Soldiers from north of the border, the USACAPOC(A) Soldiers and their brethren from the Canadian Army gathered for several intense days of staff work, briefings, and key leader engagements.
Cpt. Michael Preece, a USACAPOC(A) chaplain candidate, was vital to the smooth execution of the chaplain training here.
“There was a lot of planning on the front end,” said Preece. “Producing all the documents, making sure that everything is scrubbed, coordinating with the school house, and making sure we got the rooms and everything like that. I’m also facilitating... I answer any questions, go over all their products, I ensure that their brief goes well, I’m assisting through the entire thing.”
The four-day training is created to build in intensity. The students begin the exercise planning as if they just arrived in country. They go through initial mission planning and move on to integrating different religious aspects that may affect the mission, and ultimately culminate with an actual Soldier-Leader engagement. The engagement is conducted with well-trained role players, the religious support team is then evaluated on their interactions with a local “religious leader” in order to work out an issue that’s come up.
“This week we are learning all about how religion impacts the battlefield,” explained Chaplain (Capt.) Jared Nield, 15th Psychological Operations Battalion, “how we, as chaplains, are to advise the commander on how religion is impacting the battlefield. To that point, we are learning how to produce religious area analysis products, and religious impact assessments.”
Nield understands how there might be misconceptions about the role of the chaplain in a unit, but is adamant that on today’s modern battlefield, religious support is much more than planning church services or providing counseling support to Soldiers.
“In addition to providing, or performing religious services, we’re supposed to be the subject matter experts,” Nield said. “Religion shapes the way that we fight, especially most of the areas of operation we’ve been involved in for most recent conflicts, and we’ve relied heavily on religious leader engagements, and on that kind of cooperation with local forces in the past.”
“By helping the commander and our teams understand the religious landscape, we’re helping them make better decisions on the battlefield,” said U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain (Capt.) Nicholas Kmoch, 407th Civil Affairs Battalion. “They [the USACAPOC(A) ministry team] are doing a really good job of trying to simulate the pace of the battlefield so it’s been constant injects trying to get us to stay on our toes. Chaplain James has really pushed us to really think through the lens not just as staff officers but as chaplains and what unique capabilities are we going to bring to the fight as compared to anyone else.”
Being able to advise the commander on how a particular religion shapes the way our allies, partners, and adversaries fight and live is crucial. It can highlight the effects or limitations our operations have in relation to that religious influence. A comprehensive analysis helps the commander identify the full scope of capabilities and allows a very informed decision on how to best achieve mission objectives.
Lending credibility to the interoperability aspect of the exercise was the involvement of several chaplains from the Canadian Army. The American and Canadian Soldiers were integrated into teams and the joint experience highlighted the differences in training for each.
“The best part of this training is getting to do it with our Canadian brethren,” enthused Kmoch. “The interoperability this brings is unique to any other training I’ve been at through the army. I’ve been learning a ton about their structure, their chaplains… USACAPOC(A) offers some really unique experiences for chaplains. It offers unique trainings to meet those opportunities head on and gives us the tools we need to succeed. The interoperability with the Canadians brings the unique dimension to this training.”
Although the ministry is similar, the forces differ in their approach to execution.
“The one thing Canadian chaplains don’t do that I’ve seen that the Americans do is their staff work,” said Canadian Army Capt. Eric Davis, attached to the 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force. “The level of knowledge of reading maps and understanding the battle field and perspectives is far higher than what Canada would do. We get the operations orders and go to the briefings, we glean what we need from our commanders—but it’s amazing to watch these guys and their staff work capabilities at such a young position, so early in their chaplaincy.”
Encouraged by the skills of his American counterparts, Davis expressed enthusiasm for the knowledge he would take back to Canada with him.
“Being able to provide some religious leader engagement, some religious leader assessment is something that we are dabbling in in Canada,” he said. “We are looking to see how we can incorporate it into our military, and it gives me a different perspective on the battlefield. I’m not just here to take care of my troops, but maybe I have some religious experience that I can share that the S2 [intelligence section] isn’t going to share. I have a different role now … I can take advantage of, or offer something else to the commander about the religious climate.”
“It [this training] gives me a different perspective of the area of responsibility and how we can contribute to it,” said Davis. “Before I would only stick to the ministry of presence and ministering to my troops. Now I’m able to look at the larger picture and am not afraid to get some of the larger operations orders, grabbing the large pieces and gleaning the one or two lines that apply. Our role is bigger than just being there for the troops and we have opportunities to provide in different ways to our command to be a force multiplier.”
Capt. Robert Legair, unit chaplain, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, agreed with Davis.
“I appreciate the importance of this word called ‘interoperability,’” Legair said. “Working with our closest allies, being familiar with their lingo, with the way they handle information, communicate… we can work more effectively while we are out in the theater.”
Legair also appreciated the opportunity to work side by side with his new peers.
“Having an opportunity to work together with my American colleagues on different exercise, just watching to see their thought processes, learn some of the acronyms – many of which are foreign to us. Just the opportunity to work with some of our American counterparts has been very rewarding for me,” he said.
For Nield, it was his first chance working with any sort of international military and he appreciated the collaboration with the Canadian forces.
“Just to know the perspective that they bring to things, it’s mutually enriching and so we can sharpen them with our doctrine and how we do things and they can do the same thing for us. So far it’s been a pretty positive experience,” Nield said.