I may not believe in God, but I believe in chaplains

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Eric Petosky
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
I've never really had much in the way of faith. My dog tags say "agnostic" on them. I don't attend a church, synagogue, or mosque. I live my life the best way I know how. 

I'm not anti-religion, far from it; I have just never felt the need to express my spirituality through worship. There's no shame in my choice. In fact, I hardly ever think about it. 

I do get a touch uncomfortable in religious discussions with the devout though, not because I don't believe, but because I do not want to alienate anyone by asking a question or making a statement that could be construed as offensive. 

With that in mind, most of my conversations are "Do you prefer 'Star Wars' or 'Lord of the Rings'?" and not, "Are you Baptist or Catholic?" This philosophy of avoiding religious topics has worked well for me in my circle of friends. Live and let live. 

In March I deployed to Romania for three weeks. It was a short deployment, but we were still sleeping in a tent city and eating out of a field kitchen. The night I arrived, I got a tent assignment and proceeded to drag my bags through the mud so I could get some sleep. In the stark darkness of the tent, I was amazed to only see three other cots taken. I got lucky. 

Other tents had 10 or more. 

The next morning, I met my new roommates. All three were captains; a bioenvironmental engineer, a physician's assistant, and a protestant chaplain. So here is where my careful choice of conversation topics becomes important. I tactfully avoid the topic of religion in my circle of friends, but here I am living with a full-fledged chaplain! I was instantly on my guard even though he was very down-to-earth and friendly. 

What if I accidentally curse? What if I tell him I don't believe in God? Am I going to make him mad? Or worse yet, am I going to make a juicy target for conversion? All these questions and many more ran through my head. That's all I needed was three weeks of living in a tent filled with tension. 

A day went by, then two. Then four. Then a week. The wall I had built was slowly crumbling the more and more I spoke with the chaplain. I felt a little foolish for entertaining my previous reservations. Here is a man, eager to help others through what he called "ministry of presence" - nothing more than making others feel comfortable going to him with problems by mingling with the masses. He wasn't preaching. He wasn't trying to add me to the flock. 

By the second week, we talked almost every day. Not only did I drop my guard, but I thought, "If he wasn't a captain, I could be friends with this guy". I went with him to take photos of a field trip to a city called Kluj. We met the Romanian Orthodox Archbishop of Transylvania. Overall it was a great experience, and never once did that feeling of being uncomfortable around the devout come into play. 

Near the end of the second week, I was starting to feel the stress levels build. It didn't take much to raise my blood pressure. I was on a hair trigger, and it was just getting worse. I hadn't talked to my wife for 10 days. The cot was making my back hurt. There was constant drizzle. The tent stunk like the farm field it rested upon. I was just generally in a foul mood. 

One particularly bad afternoon, I stalked angrily into to the tent wringing my hands in frustration. The chaplain was there and simply asked, "What's wrong?" That was the catalyst for a deluge of my ranting. This isn't fair. That's messed up. What were they thinking?! And through it all, the Chaplain just let me vent. 

About an hour later, I apologized for "being a baby" and drowning him in my woes. He said it wasn't a problem, and I felt better having gotten some of my gripes off my chest.
It didn't dawn on me that I had just had my first Chaplain counseling session until I stepped off the C-130 at RAF Lakenheath a week later. 

I was shocked. I had always heard that anyone could visit a chaplain, religious or not, but I always harbored a secret suspicion that deep down, they would write me off the moment I said I didn't believe. The thought of discussing my problems with a chaplain never crossed my mind. 

Doing so opened my eyes a little wider. I had fallen victim to lumping almost everyone of faith into a self-created paradigm of religious zealotry. That little bit of risk I took paid big dividends to my well-being. 

Thank you for listening Captain Boyer. I still may not believe in God, but I believe in chaplains.