PINELLAS PARK, Fla. –
As a youngster, chaplain (Lt. Col.) Scott Hagen didn’t have aspirations of becoming a man of the cloth—in fact he was certain his life was going to take a much different path.
“This wasn’t where I was planning on going. If you’d asked me in the 1990s if I was going to seminary I would’ve said ‘no way,’” the Roseville, Minnesota, native explained.
Although the chaplain, who received the prestigious Four Chaplains Medal in August 2021 for his work in Army Reserve's Chief of Chaplains office from 2017-2020, grew up in a family who attended a Lutheran church, he didn’t believe the pastoral route was his calling.
Hagen, now an Army chaplain for over 20 years, graduated with a degree in chemistry from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1984, and originally had his vision set on a career in science and technology.
“Spiritual life always meant something to me,” he said of his faith, adding that he was always involved in special programs in the churches he attended over the years like leading youth and music. He said he was approached a few times throughout his early career by church leadership imploring him to accept the challenge of becoming a pastor.
He always disregarded these suggestions: he had a bright future in science. And, after marrying his college sweetheart, Laurie in 1985 and having a few children, his growing family needed the financial stability of a full-time worker, not a seminary student.
So, Hagen took a promising tech job at a large firm in Minnesota for three years, when yet another pastor implored him to give full-time ministry a try.
“God’s ‘yes,’ became a lot louder than my ‘no,’” Hagen explained, adding that although it would be a financial burden, his wife was on board with the career change.
Hagen and his family made a lot of sacrifices to afford his changed path, but it’s something they undertook together, he said. While in seminary at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, he joined the Army Chaplain Candidate program, but initially decided the military wasn’t for him.
But then 9/11 happened: Hagen had a change of heart.
Within two weeks of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Hagen’s interest in the Army’s Chaplain Program was re-invigorated; he fully commissioned in 2002.
Ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Hagen embarked on a journey that many civilian religious leaders do not have the opportunity to—ministering to a population regardless of their faith or belief system.
Hagen said it was made very clear to him in his training that Army chaplains are there to provide support to every Soldier whether they are religious or not.
“It’s always been a joy to me, to hear someone else’s story,” Hagen said of ministering to Soldiers of an array of backgrounds. He said he often starts with the question, “What informs your spiritual life?” and starts a conversation from there.
“Even a five-minute conversation can mean the world to somebody,” Hagen said of his ministry, which sometimes just involves walking around and being available to talk to Soldiers. “And it can mean the world to me too.”
Hagen recalled that one of the most rewarding times in his career was during his deployment to Afghanistan from 2004-2005. He said at the time he felt his presence there was not making a much of difference, but noted, “You often don’t know the kind of impact you’re making.”
Hagen recounted that during the deployment, there was an allied unit of Polish engineers attached to his battalion, and when Polish-born Pope John Paul II died in April 2005, many of the Polish soldiers went into mourning. He said the Polish troops’ chaplain, a Catholic priest, came to him for solace.
“When a colleague comes to chat and respects you enough to say, ‘Hey, I need somebody to talk to,’ those are some memories that will stick with me. The opportunities I get to honor people and be honored by people—those are the biggest joys of doing this ministry,” he said.
“My job is to stand for and stand in front of people sometimes,” Hagen continued. “To assist in Soldiers’ spiritual, emotional, and mental health. That’s been the greatest joy for me.”
And while Hagen said he was greatly humbled to receive the Four Chaplains Medal, he said he accepts it graciously because of the history of the award and what it means to the Army Chaplain Corps. The award, bestowed on chaplains who portray collegial selfless behavior, is named for four U.S. chaplains aboard the SS Dorchester, who gave up their life vests and subsequently their lives, to assist other Soldiers to safety after their vessel was torpedoed by a German U-boat on February 3, 1943.
“Receiving that award was a great honor,” Hagen said. “I was very surprised and thankful for the nomination.”
Now nearing retirement, Hagen said he’ll greatly miss the career that he never thought he’d have.
“I do what I do because it’s a labor of love,” Hagen said. “It’s been very fulfilling. It was made very clear to me that this was the direction I was supposed to go, and I have been blessed for it.”