Are U.S. Army Chaplains Officers? 6 Facts to Know About the Army Chaplain Corps

By Sydney Johnson

Since its establishment in 1775, the Army Chaplain Corps consists of ordained clergy, who serve as chaplains and military officers, and religious affairs specialists (formerly known as “chaplain assistants”) who take care of the logistics needed to make unit religious support run as smoothly as possible.

Based in Charleston, South Carolina, the Army Chaplain Corps are dedicated to offering soldiers religious services, spiritual guidance and support throughout their time in the military, whether in wartime or peacetime.

Here are six need-to-know facts about this group of religious soldiers.

The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Museum

Since 1775, about 25,000 Army chaplains have served in the U.S. military, meaning the unit boasts an over-200 year legacy. The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Museum works to preserve and document the history of the corps. It is located on Fort Jackson, South Carolina, right in the U.S. Chaplain Center and School.

The “Four Chaplains’ Medal”

In 1943 during World War II, the USAT Dorchester, a troop transport vessel, was sailing the Atlantic Ocean to Greenland alongside two other ships. The Dorchester was carrying 902 passengers and wasn’t far from reaching its destination when it was struck by a German torpedo. Amid the chaos and destruction, four chaplains sprang into action to console, aid and care for the wounded. The four chaplains – all of different faith backgrounds– were Lt. George Fox, a Methodist minister; Lt. Alexander Goode, a rabbi; Lt. John Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; and Lt. Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister.

Photo credit U.S. Army

When the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester was struck by a German submarine in 1943, four Army chaplains - Lt. George Fox, a Methodist; Lt. Alexander Goode, a Jewish Rabbi; Lt. John Washington, a Roman Catholic Priest; and Lt. Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister – sacrificed their lives and spread out among the soldiers, calming the frightened, tending the wounded and guiding the disoriented toward safety.

The four men distributed clothing and life jackets – including their own – and didn’t worry about the faith of who they were helping. It didn’t matter to them. There were only 230 survivors of the 902 passengers on board, and sadly the four chaplains died with hundreds of others. Some survivors who were in rafts recall seeing the four chaplains on the deck of the sinking ship, linked at the arms, praying and sing hymns together, even in their last moments.

For sacrificing their own lives, Congress wanted to posthumously present the chaplains with the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, given that the chaplains were not under fire, the motion was blocked. Instead, Congress authorized a special, new posthumous medal, The Four Chaplains’ Medal, which was awarded to all four men’s families by the president in 1961. They are the first and final recipients of the medal.

Women in the Army Chaplain Corps

Although a female service member served as a chaplain during the Civil War, the Secretary of War at the time refused to recognize her as such. It wasn’t until 1973 that the first female chaplain, Rev. Dianna Pohlman Bell, was officially commissioned into the military, as a Navy sailor. The following year, in 1974, Rev. Alice M. Henderson, officially joined the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps as the first official female chaplain. She served for 13 years.

Photo credit U.S. Army

In 2013, the women of Army Chaplain Corps came together to celebrate 40 years of female chaplaincy in the U.S. military. The first officially-commissioned female chaplain served in the Navy starting in 1973.

Women continue to make strides in the corps, and as of 2014, there were 69 active duty female chaplains, 82 Guard and Reserve female chaplains and approximately 50 female chaplain candidates.

The First Hindu Army Chaplain

After serving as Georgetown’s University’s first Hindu chaplain, Pratima Dharm served in the Army from 2006 to 2014. Partway during her service, in May 2011, she became the U.S. military’s first Hindu chaplain. During her service, she received a Bronze Star Medal for humanitarian work she did to aid Kurdish Iraqis.

Medal of Honor Recipients

Since 1775, Army chaplains have offered faith-based support to soldiers wherever they serve, no matter how dangerous a location. Unfortunately, this also means some chaplains have found themselves caught in the crossfires of war and have bravely given their lives in service.

This reality has led to six Army chaplain Medal of Honor recipients throughout history; 1st Lt. James Hill (1893), Chaplain Milton Lorenzo Haney (1896), Chaplain Francis B. Hall (1897), Chaplain John Whitehead (1898), Chaplain Charles Liteky (1968), Chaplain (Maj.) Charles Watters (1969), and Capt. Emil Kapaun (2013).

The Chaplain Corps Regimental Crest

The Army Chaplain Corps Crest | Photo credit U.S. Army

Army chaplains wear an insignia, also called the Chaplain Corps crest on their dress uniforms to distinguish them in a crowd. It is made up of several symbols:

A shepherd’s crook, which was the first symbol to identify Army chaplains

Sun rays, which symbolize universal truth

Palms, which symbolize spiritual victory

A dove, which represents peace

An open book, which represents the sacred texts of a soldier’s respective practiced religion

A sun, which represents holiness

A blue background, which represents an afterlife

Finally, under the crest’s imagery is the motto “Pro deo et patria” which means “For god and country.”

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